We do a lot of community service at EcNow Tech. Educating others and in turn learning from them is core to how we run our business. Last week we were teaching an environmental science class at the local high school.
The following picture was shown to the students to start the class. The point I made was that the green industry is not perfect . After comparing it to the current oil based industry the students agreed that we’ve taken a step in the right direction. We compared the carbon footprint of a fossil fuel based plastic to that of a typical bioplastic. I view the path we are on as a series of stepping stones, ultimately arriving at the vision of a truly sustainable industry. Many things are less than perfect, but I think we are moving in the right direction.
The students asked a lot of great questions which are worth sharing.
“If the new plastics are made from corn isn’t that taking food out of people’s mouths?”
Fortunately today the industry has not grown to the point where there is a serious impact from using corn to produce bioplastics. Less than 0.5% of the corn crop is used to create bioplastics.
As bioplastics become more prevalent and the industry grows, this could become an issue. Corn is a excellent source of starch, but is not the only plant that can be used to create PLA (polylactic acid). The future vision must be one that does not include a food source like corn for providing the starch needed to create PLA. Avoiding the issues caused when Ethanol fuel skyrocketed are key lessons to learn.
“What will happen to one of the products if it is left on my windowsill? Will it degrade and fall apart?”
The products can be washed, re-used many times or left on your windowsill and nothing will happen to them. To break down the materials need microbes, water, oxygen and elevated temperatures. Once the materials are placed in compost conditions they begin to breakdown. The rate at which they break down is determined by the temperature and conditions of the compost. Commercial composters will typically break down bioplastic materials in 60-90 days.
“What if I place the materials in my home compost?”
Home compost piles typically don’t rise to the temperatures that commercial composters do (150F). It could take 6 - 12 months or longer for the materials to break down in home compost conditions. Grinding or cutting up the materials helps to speed the rate of breakdown.
“How do I tell the difference between bioplastic and oil based plastic products? They both look the same.”
This is a great example of one of the stepping stones. The industry currently labels the compostable materails as “7″ which means “other”. ”7″ is better than no labeling, but it is confusing to consumers. Products that are clearly labeled ”compostable” make it much easier for consumers to distinguish between products.
“Can these materials go into our recycling bin?”
No. The materials are considered contaminants to the recycling streams which exist today. If a recycling system existed for compostable materials the oil based plastics would be contaminants to the compostable materials as well. In the future it is likely that compostable products will be both recycled and composted. This is an area of development as the industry grows.
It was an outstanding exchange with the students who proved time and time again they are very savy with environmental issues and products. As always we learned as much from the students ad they did from us.