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Food Service Packaging Legislation

By Genpak Product Managers
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A new bill has recently been introduced in New York State titled “Food Service Waste Reduction Act”.  The author of this bill is state senator Liz Kruger. In a nutshell, this bill would require government agencies and municipalities that use traditional food service wares (single use plates, bowls & containers) made from polystyrene foam, to switch to an “affordable” alternative material that is compostable or recyclable. A definition of affordable was given to be not more than a 15% increase over current costs.

Although a clear cut reason for this bill was not evident within the context, one could reason that it is designed to reduce waste as its title suggests. Or it may be designed to reduce litter. Either way, I just don’t see what a bill like this will do other than increase a food service entities already stretched budget.  Ask any business and I doubt they would agree that a 15% increase in costs would be considered “affordable”. It is unfortunate, but alternative materials that fall into the compostable category are significantly more expensive than traditional materials such as polystyrene foam. Also, just to be clear, it is not a case of manufacturers just charging more for these types of products. The raw material itself is simply more expensive.

As for the waste reduction part, how does replacing a plate made from polystyrene foam, with a plate made from some other more expensive compostable alternative material solve anything?  Well, it’s compostable you say. I’ll just throw it in my backyard compost pile. If we assume for a moment that someone will actually bring the plate they just ate off of home and actually have a backyard compost heap, we might say that will work. The problem with this is that the vast majority of compostable food service items require a professionally managed compost facility that have the equipment to monitor and adjust the heat and moisture needed to break items down into compost. They simply will not compost in your back yard compost pile. Also, at the moment there are just not enough composting companies located around the country that will accept food and food contaminated items to be effective. No, I think it is safe to assume that the plate would be disposed of, hopefully in a trash receptacle at or near where the food was consumed. What this means is that instead of a polystyrene plate being disposed of and sent to a landfill, a more expensive compostable plate will be disposed of and sent to a landfill. Don’t be fooled into thinking that the compostable plate will compost in the landfill. It will not. Nothing composts in landfills.

Even though this bill does not directly address the issue of litter, there have been several municipalities around the country that have passed, or tried to pass similar bills thinking that banning polystyrene foam items will solve their litter problem. The reality is, they have merely traded one type of litter for another, more expensive type. Nothing has been accomplished other than forcing food service institutions to spend up to three times as much for alternative material items.

Keep America Beautiful as its name implies, is the premier organization that tries to educate people about ways to keep the environment clean. On their web site they have an entire section dedicated to litter and litter prevention. Nowhere do they recommend banning any one type of material in favor of another. They focus more on education and proper placement and management of trash receptacles.  Perhaps legislators should focus their attentions here rather than forcing businesses to switch to more expensive alternatives. Or they could work on ways to help create more composting facilities and the proper infrastructure to divert waste there instead of landfills.

As a company, Genpak whole heartily supports the use of alternative materials. In fact, we were one of the first domestic manufacturing companies to offer a full range of food service products that meet ASTM D6400 standards for compostability and that are produced using annually renewable resources. We were also the first company to begin using post consumer recycled content in certain food service products. So it is not that we don’t have anything to offer those who wish to explore alternative materials. Far from it. We have plenty to offer and we continue to explore new materials that are being developed.

What we don’t support is legislation that forces businesses to spend as much as three times their current costs for products that will do nothing to solve litter issues. At the moment, until better waste diversion programs are in place to support compostable materials, it should be up to the individual business to determine the type of food service wares to use. They are the experts in their business. If they have the type of business that can support the extra cost, then absolutely, by all means look into alternative materials. Just don’t force it down their throats.