Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Plastic Alternatives

With a hopeful start date for filming beginning to loom on the horizon, it's time to consider the alternatives now available for plastic cups, cutlery and trash bags. It's easy to get caught up in the swing of this product or that, so we wanted to take time to educate ourselves on some of the more popular alternatives and their lifecycles.

One of those options is (what else?) corn-based. Polyactic acid (PLA), a derivative of fermented corn starch, has become a very popular alternative in green circles because it biodegrades...eventually. At my current job, we've slowly replaced our plastic cutlery with PLA cutlery. In clear form, it's also used for disposable cups, bottles, clamshells, etc. In an ideal warm compost facility, these corn products easily breakdown in about 90 days. Unfortunately, there are only 113 of these facilities in the country, so a lot of it will probably end up in dumps where experts say it could take anywhere from 100 to 1,000 years to decompose. Not to mention the fact that it requires divesting more land to corn, which, as we've seen, is causing enough problems in the food market as the current plant of choice for biofuels.

Another biodegradable plastic alternative is something called Mater-Bi. Used for trash bags, it's made from corn, potato or wheat starch and seems to be primarily manufactured by a company in Italy called Novamont. According to Biobag, a producer of Mater-Bi bags, it also decomposes most quickly in a controlled composting environment. It will decompose in a "natural" setting, it'll just take longer than other naturally biodegradable materials. But again, the red flag: "If BioBags are placed in an anaerobic (air-locked) landfill and deprived of oxygen and the existence of the micro-organisms that 'eat' naturally biodegradable materials, their ability to decompose will be severely restricted."

Sugarcane biomass, aka Bagasse, has also thrown its hat into the ring as a substitute for styrofoam. Produced in America mainly by Metabolix, a company based out of Boston, biodegradable sugarcane products take about 60+ days to decompose. They also maintain heat better than corn-based plastic, hence their primary use for disposable plates, bowls and take-out containers. Many sites state that bagasse products can be disposed of in regular home compost bins.

So all of these products leave us with another waste management dilemma. None of these materials should be unconsciously tossed in the trash, unless we are fully aware of the conditions of the landfill they might end up in. If we use any of these products on set, what will our system of disposal be?

Looks like a job for Earth911! To be continued...

Meanwhile, for a complete rundown of compostable products, check out this list approved by the Biodegradable Products Institute.

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