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FT-Mar17-eMag 15 MYTHS AND REALITIES OF COMPOSTABLE SERVICEWARE Waste prevention and event recycling expert Dr Sharon McIver takes an up-close-and-personal look at a ‘compostable’ food packaging trial at Christchurch events this summer. Does the trial offer food for thought for New Zealand food and beverage manufacturers? Standing in front of a pair of 8.5m3 waste skips is not an obvious place to have a vision of the future, but at 1am on February 20 this year, I took a moment to envisage a complete revolution of event waste in Canterbury, before I flipped the lids of the skips down and left the waste yard. The skips were filled with cardboard plateware, pizza boxes, bamboo cutlery, skewers, chopsticks and food scraps, all collected at the Christchurch Lantern Festival. The event was part of Christchurch City Council’s compostable serviceware trial, where all food vendors were restricted to using the carefully selected items, branded with an ECO (Event Compostable Only) mark. Later that morning the skips were picked up and delivered to Living Earth, the Christchurch facility that is composting it as part of the council’s initiative to divert waste from landfill. The trial is one of the first initiatives of the council’s Event Sustainability Framework, and it took place at the Night Noodle Markets, Sparks and the Christchurch Lantern Festival…involving between 150,000 to 200,000 attendees. So, are your ‘eco’ products actually getting composted? As the owner/operator of Our Daily Waste (a social enterprise that specialises in waste prevention and event recycling), the vision I had that night is one I have had many times. The earlier versions were vague wishes for a solution to event waste where it got trucked across town to be composted, rather than shipped to Asia and turned into more plastic or sent straight to landfill. How often had I turned green with envy about ‘zero waste’ events in the North Island where the vendors were required to use the new ‘saviour’ of disposables - one of the products gathered under what I term ‘bioware’…potato starch, bamboo, polylactic acid (PLA) and corn- have proudly showed me their pricey bioware, convinced they are doing the right thing. It was never pleasant to inform them that the supplier had not carried out due product stewardship - at least not in Canterbury - and that because the items could not go to either the organics or recycling streams, they had to go to landfill. I hated the situation but had no facilities to compost or transport them. I know that in Auckland or Wellington the bold eco claims hold true, but in many other parts of New Zealand there is nowhere to send these items. If you use them without finding this out, you can potentially be a victim of greenwash. Are recyclables a better option? With compostables not an option, at first I was able to direct vendors to recyclable plastic alternatives, but as the international buyers cracked down on contamination, Eco Central (who run our recycling plant in Christchurch) had to get fussy. In early 2015 I had two skips of recycling rejected from an event; because we had no way of washing sauces off plastic trays, they were turned away from the plant. Hence, by the time the Council approached me in 2015 to provide services at the following year’s Sparks and the Christchurch Lantern Festival, the list of what ODW was diverting at events had shrunk to bottles, cardboard, cans and paper. All food serviceware, unless it was spotless, had to go to landfill. At Sparks, where picnics are the norm, we were still able to achieve 50% diversion, but at the Christchurch Lantern Festival where people go to buy food, the figure was only 20%. Christchurch City Council event serviceware trial When Kathryn Ralph-Triebels from the council’s Events Production Team thought about compostable solutions, she looked to household waste. “I knew that in Canterbury we could starch. These products are heavily promoted as being commercially compostable (and they are in some places), but unfortunately not in Christchurch. At outdoor dance parties I attended (and picked up rubbish at) as part of my doctoral research into electronic dance music culture (2002- 2008), bioware was often hailed as the solution to plastic and polystyrene. At one event, pits were dug to collect the items and covered over at the end, hence returning them ‘to the earth’. A crew member, who told me at the time that it was not the right conditions for them to break down, has recently confirmed that when he dug them up eight years later they were still basically intact. Post-doctorate, I became the waste reduction educator at the University of Canterbury where I found out that some commercial composters were having similar problems. The items require longer processing times, and may take several passes through the system before they break down fully. There is also risk that the chunks left in the compost can jam up farmers’ machinery and cause livestock to choke. What happens to compostables when they cannot be composted? I learned that compostables were also creating havoc in the recycling streams as people assumed that because they were ‘compostable’, they should go in with the plastic, glass, tin and cans. For recyclers, the new bioware stream was anathema; not only was it increasing contamination rates, but the items looked similar to plastic-based items and confused co-mingled recycling systems. If PLA does end up being sent overseas with legitimate recyclable products, it melts down differently and can render whole batches useless, and the seller (in this case the local recycling plants) can be fined. Since starting ODW in 2012, many vendors COVER STORY

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