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Compostable disposable forks versus twice-recycled plastics

ForksIt seems obvious that compostable spoons and forks, plates and bowls are environmentally superior to plastic and other non-compostable products–but is it so? I talked today to a Salt Lake City business owner who said he stopped using compostables after assessing their carbon footprint and deciding that, on balance, recyclable plastic may actually be better for the environment.

Screeeeeechhh, Hold up–I’m pretty dang skeptical. After all, sugar cane-based begasse is a waste product from sugar production–meaning that stuff gets generated whether we use it wisely or not (unless everyone gave up sugar). The plant bases take carbon out of the air to grow, then composting the products puts the carbon back into the ground where it’s not only harmless, but useful. Plastic, on the other hand, takes carbon out of fossil fuels like oil and coal and, since plastic degrades really slowly, the plastic just ends up in our landfills and oceans creating a whole new set of nasty problems. Plastic is recyclable. So, in theory, I could buy products made from recycled plastic and then my customers could recycle them again. Would that process save the earth more trouble than firing up a power plant to turn sugar cane waste into forks?

An aside: Reusing table wear and other products is obviously and grandly better for the earth than any disposable product. In short order, I intend to provide reusable utensils to customers who plan to eat in the proximity of City Dogs. But it’s a downtown food cart: it’s a to-go, on-the-go (and maybe delivery) business model, so cheap take-away containers and utensils will be necessary.

So, back to my original quandry: is the carbon footprint of compostable disposables so bad that twice-recycled plastic is better for the earth?

It’s possible that no one really knows–can you believe that? The Stalk Market, a manufacturer of compostable products, is the only manufacturer that I’ve seen that has a third-party assessment of their carbon footprint. That’s admirable, and it makes me want to buy their product over their competitors’ (but what about methane and other green house gases, I wonder). “For every pound of StalkMarket product, 6 pounds of carbon dioxide is emitted,” their third-party assessor told them. OK, but is that good or bad and how does it compare to twice-recycled plastic?

“We won’t know the answer to that question until other tableware products have analyzed and certified their carbon footprint so that we can compare and contrast this footprint with the footprint of other products,” the StalkMarket’s website says. I’ve looked at other vendors and the Stalk Market is correct: there’s is a famine for data on this issue.

Arghh… I want answers! For now, I’ll be giving to customers plastic table wear and compostable paper plates, both of which I inherited from the previous owner, but I don’t know what I will replace those with when I’ve exhausted them. Give me your thoughts if you have them!

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