The old polystyrene coffee cup has a life expectancy of 500 years, but the new corn coffee cup lasts less time on this Earth than a Yukon summer.
It looks like restaurants have no more excuses.
There are quite a few take-out container options that are a lot less hideous for the environment these days—and there’s no time to waste jumping on this bandwagon.
Environmentalists and marketing departments have been pondering the polystyrene-packaging dilemma for decades. But the best most restaurants had come up with on their own was to increase use of paper and aluminum.
Now, takeout containers are finally being made out of a variety of compostable and biodegradable materials, including corn, bamboo, potato and sugar cane.
Polystyrene, on the other hand, better known as Styrofoam (the Dow Chemical brand name), is made from non-renewable petrochemicals.
And styrene, a key ingredient of polystyrene, is a suspected carcinogen and a known hazardous substance.
If you are in the restaurant or coffee shop business, it’s time you considered alternatives.
I discovered my first corn-made eating implement last week at Baked on Main Street … a very plastic-like spoon.
The trendy coffee shop also uses a variety of very plastic-looking take-out containers which are all biodegradable — just throw them in the compost and they’re back to earth in a short time.
Known as PLA (plastic polylactide), this substance begins as corn before it is broken down into corn sugar (also known as dextrose). The dextrose is then fermented and distilled into a substance called lactic acid, which is transformed into PLA pellets.
The pellets are sent to manufacturers to be turned into clear food packaging, as well as other products, including water bottles, CD players, auto parts, and even coffins.
Bagasse is another biodegradable option.
It is the dry, fibrous by-product of the sugar-cane harvesting process. It can be processed and moulded into heat-resistant cups, plates, trays, bowls, and clamshells.
EarthShell is compostable and heat resistant and is made of natural limestone and starch from potatoes or corn.
Spudware is biodegradable cutlery made from 80 per cent starch (potato or corn) and 20 per cent soy or other vegetable oil. It is extremely durable and heat resistant, but costs roughly 60 per cent more than traditional plastic cutlery.
Colorado-based BIOTA Spring Water is the first bottled water packaged in a PLA bottle.
Introduced in 2003, the bottle is designed to biodegrade in a commercial compost situation in as few as 80 days.
The company says it’s still working on the cap, which is plastic (check out biotaspringwater.com).
But it has sure gotten support from the mainstream environmental movement; the Oscars made BIOTA its official water for the 2007 ceremonies and it was the official sponsor for the premier of Al Gore’s documentary, An Inconvenient Truth.
Switching from traditional clear plastic petrochemical cups to PLA costs only a few pennies more per cup — and with oil prices rising, this might not be the case for much longer.
However, bagasse plates and containers can cost 50 to 70 per cent more.
There are still environmental costs to the biodegradable products too.
PLA and bagasse consume fossil energy during the planting and harvesting of corn and sugar.
Ultimately, it would be better if we didn’t rely on disposable take-out containers at all. But, as a culture, we seem to be hooked on them.
I’m not sure why carrying your own Tupperware to pick up your Chinese takeout hasn’t caught on … But perhaps it will.
What these biodegradable containers do allow is for a zero-waste system, as least here in Whitehorse, where we have commercial compost.
Imagine how many tonnes of plastic would be diverted from the landfill if every restaurant in Whitehorse switched from plastic to corn.
Which also means a reduction in the amount of persistent, bio-accumulative and toxic chemicals released into the environment from the manufacturing and disposal of plastics.
One concern, still, is the GMO factor.
At least half of the US corn supply used for PLA is genetically modified.
And, as I wrote in this space several months ago, corn is one of the most over-exploited crops on the planet; the US alone produces nearly half the world’s overall corn crop (270-million metric tonnes) worth $9.3 billion in 2008.
Corn alone is carrying the hope for a new biofuel, not to mention much of the sugar now found in packaged foods, and this type of concentrated monocrop is taking its toll on local environments everywhere.
Should we really be supporting yet another corn product?
Like many new things lately that are designed to improve the health of the world, it’s a place to start.
It’ll get people hooked on the idea of a biodegradable culture, rather than a purely disposable one.
And we could always start bringing our own containers when we buy takeout.
Juliann Fraser is a writer living in Whitehorse.