So the battle was lost and Albany County in its infinite wisdom has banned foamed polystyrene food service products. A week or so after the ban, we got a call from the County Executives office asking if we could help them in identifying alternative materials. Here’s how the call went:
Genpak: Yes I understand Albany County banned PS foam. Can you tell me what it was banned in favor of?
Albany: Um, all plastics
Genpak: All plastics were banned? So not even microwave safe material or clear “water bottle” type material?
Albany: Um wait a minute…shuffles papers, no banned in favor of biodegradable or compostable materials.
Genpak: Okay, what is the definition of biodegradable or compostable within the law?
Albany: Um (shuffles more papers) something that biodegrades or degrades within a reasonable time period.
Genpak: Thank you. What is the definition of a reasonable time period? Two months, twelve months, three years?
Albany: Um it does not specify.
Genpak: Okay, maybe we can determine this by the preferred method of disposal. Can you tell me where the municipal composting facility is located where these products will be diverted to?
Albany: Um it does not specify.
Genpak: So let me get the facts straight. The bans’ author has taken the time to target a particular material in favor of one that is compostable, but has not specified a time frame for composting, the preferred method of disposal or a suitable composting facility?
Albany: Um yes it sure looks like that’s what he did.
Genpak: Thank you. So what will happen then is the restaurant will source these products, pay around 3 times more for them, pass on the added cost to the consumer, who will then have a very nice compostable product to dispose of, which will almost certainly be into a garbage pail which will have a polyethylene liner. The resulting trash will be tied up tight, then shipped off to the local landfill where it will be buried with the rest of the waste. From there it will sit for decades before it begins to degrade.
Albany: Why will it sit for decades? I thought it was compostable.
Genpak: Yes, it is compostable, but only within industrial or professionally run compost facilities who are licensed to accept food grade waste. These facilities can control heat and moisture levels which allows the container to break down and completely compost into useful soil enhancement.
Albany: What if the containers end up littered. Will it go away in nature on its own.
Genpak: Perhaps in years it might, but certainly not in what most people would consider a reasonable amount of time. These products are not like leaves that break down within a season. If they were made that way, they’d never be able to be used for holding, transporting and protecting food products.
As I’ve said so many times before. We should let the markets decide which type of materials and containers they want to use. Almost always when this is the case, homework and testing has been done regarding a products entire life cycle. Consumers should be the force driving markets…not politicians. When the latter is the case, you get exactly what has happened in Albany County. They have done nothing more than put undo pressure on local businesses that can eventually drive consumer prices higher or stifle growth.
We manufacture and sell an awful lot of compostable products which is great. There are numerous instances where markets or food operators have made a conscious decision to switch their type of packaging from one material to another, but they have done their homework in terms of end of life scenarios for all their waste…including the packaging. They’ve arranged for recycling, reusing as well as worked out a composting program. When it’s done like this, it is a very good system. When it’s done by legislation being forced down businesses throats, nothing is accomplished except for making your club sandwich and fries go from $6.50 to $7.15.