Hello my trashy babies!
Being Hassle readers, y’all know some Garbage. You belt out the chorus to “I’m Only Happy When It Rains” every time your meat hooks slither o’er a karaoke mic. OK, ok, your parents divorced in 1995 – we get it!
You know your Garbage, starring Shirley Manson. But how well do you know your garbage, starring pornographic quantities of senseless waste?
If the answer is “IDK, what?” you’re not alone. Most ‘Mericans know squat about the long, winding life of rubbish. Which is strange, since the US plays host to history’s most ultimate trash orgy. This country contains 4% of all humans, who diligently craft 30% of the world’s garbage. We make it, then we throw it “away.” Well, turns out “away” is actually a place! It’s a plot of land. It’s an ocean. It’s a 500-foot tall Garbage Mountain. It’s another country. One third of our recycling is exported to poorer countries, where people of color are paid poverty-level wages to sift through our crap. The ability to send “away” unwanted objects of our collective overconsumption, without thought or reflection, is an unacknowledged privilege.
It’s like planet Earth is the only bathroom at the party and America is some drunk guy who just ate a bean salad at Chipotle. He’s doing nasty things to the one bathroom everyone must share. Those things look, and sound, like a can of Chef Boyardee being blown through a tuba. When it’s all over, one essential and chilling truth remains: that bathroom will never be clean again.
Hey, America: plug your garbage hole with the apple of knowledge. The better we understand our rubbish trends, the better we can kick all this idiotic waste in the dick. Trash is Tragic is here with some trashy yet tasteful intel on human waste. Sit back and hang a minute while I share….
Know Your Garbage: The WTF World of “BIOPLASTICS”
You’ve seen them floating around woke-y food establishments: disposable containers, cutlery, straws, and bags that claim to be environmentally “friendly.” They feel kinda funny. They look like if regular plastic spent summer after freshman year at a permaculture farm in Vermont. Trendy ecological prefixes adorn their glimmering surfaces: eco-this, bio-that. A leaf motif as if to say, “this cup is one with the land.”
These freaky deaky disposables aim to make us feel like responsible adults who show up for planet Earf. But do they live up to their lofty environmental claims? How does one dispose of them? Can I eat it? Most importantly, why are questions about their origin met with drank-the-Kool-Aid answers like, “It’s made from potatoes!” Look man, I’ve been around the potato block once or twice. I’ve defiled many a spud in the name of science and pleasure. Legend of my Allston Potato Bong predates Facebook. Don’t go telling me what is and ain’t potatoes!
What Are They Even Tho
While regular plastic resin is constructed of fossil fuel-based polymers, there exists an alt subculture of plastic resins made from bio-based polymers. That’s dorkspeak for “bioplastic” – plastic derived from the biomass.
Like the word “plastic,” “bioplastic” is an umbrella term. It refers to a broad range of bio-based plastics, made from an assortment of materials. According to the Earf Institute at Columbia University, bioplastics are made from 20% or more of renewable materials, such as beet starch.
Because the multi-billion dollar industry pumping ‘em out is new, classifications of bioplastic products are kinda squishy. They roughly lump into the following categories: biodegradable, compostable, degradable, and non-biodegradable.
Sounds simple . . . until you take a careful look at WTF is considered a bioplastic. This definition by the Polymer Properties Database is typical:
“Bioplastics are plastics derived from renewable feedstocks, such as starch, cellulose, vegetable oils and vegetable fats. They may or may not be biodegradable and some are only partially bio-based, that is they contain both renewable and fossil-fuel-based carbon. Both the amount of bio-based constituents and the conditions under which these polymers biodegrade can vary widely. Depending upon the composition, degree of crystallinity, and environment, degradation times can range from several days to several years.”
So, are they made of renewable sources or not? Are they biodegradable or not? The answer is: Yes.
The International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry discourages use of the term “bioplastic.” They believe it misleadingly suggests that any ol’ polymer derived from the biomass is environmentally friendly. So I’ve coined an acronym for our disposable friends: Single-Use Bio Plastics and Resins, or SUBPARs.
The Subpar Varieties
Use the following categories as a general guide to SUBPARs. Again, the multi-billion dollar industry pumping out bioplastics is new, so classifications of SUBPARs are . . . fluid. Bioplastics are like gender – they exist on a spectrum. And maybe instead of industry regulation, or questioning greenwashing, you could stop being so fucking binary in your thinking, OK?
I’m sorry, researching this article has been a huge fucking headache. I’m not myself right now.
“Biodegradable” broadly means an object can be broken down via naturally occurring microorganisms such as bacteria, fungi, and algae.
Biodegradable plastic products are made with a mix of materials, including resins derived from the biomass (such as PLA, poly lactic acid), chemicals which help the plastic break apart, and/or fossil fuel-based resins.
Their decomposition relies on the right mix of factors: exposure to microbes, water, heat, and/or UV light. There is no set time limit for the product to break down, and they can leave behind toxic residue.
How to dispose of biodegradable bioplastics: Put ‘em in the trash. In a landfill, these bad boys will be permanently entombed, or create methane as a byproduct of their dissolution. If there’s a recycling symbol on the bottom, only attempt to recycle if the local municipality accepts #7 plastics. Spoiler alert: they probably don’t. Number 7 plastics are difficult to recycle. They used to be shipped to China for recycling, but China doesn’t want our plastic crap anymore. If you send biodegradable plastic to the recycling center, it will probably be sorted into the landfill or incinerator.
“Compostable” typically specifies that the biodegrading process results in compost, or humus, through which nutrients are returned to the earth.
What are compostable plastics made of? According to World Centric, a SUBPAR manufacturer whose products are carried at Life Alive and Clover:
“Compostable Plastics . . . are biodegradable through composting. They are derived generally from renewable raw materials like starch, cellulose, soy protein, lactic acid etc. . . . and decompose back into carbon dioxide, water, biomass etc. when composted. Some compostable plastics may not be derived from renewable materials, but instead made from petroleum or made by bacteria through a process of microbial fermentation.”
So, are they made of renewable sources or petroleum? The answer is: Yes.
In a composting environment, a compostable plastic product must disintegrate to the point that it’s indistinguishable in finished humus, and leave no toxic residue.
How to dispose of compostable bioplastics: Ideally, these plastics should be taken to a commercial composting facility and broken down in a controlled environment by microbes. But of roughly 5,000 composting facilities in the U.S., only a handful are equipped with the technology required to successfully compost resins.
I spoke with Save That Stuff, who runs Cambridge’s curbside compost program in collaboration with Waste Management. Currently, their composting facilities can not process SUBPARs; they are diverted to the landfill or incinerator.
In a landfill, these bad boys will be permanently entombed, or create methane as a byproduct of their dissolution.
All plastic is degradable, but “degradable plastic” also exists as a designation. It basically means “plastic breaks into microplastics real fast and ruins lives.”
Degradable plastic products are made using fossil fuel-based resins and chemicals that quicken the plastic’s fragmentation into microplastics.
How to dispose of degradable bioplastics: Rough chop into 1″ cubes. Apply generous coat of teriyaki sauce. Feed to a seal – probably kinder in the long run.
Non-biodegradable bioplastic contains both renewable and fossil fuel-based resins. It can not biodegrade. It is also extremely difficult to recycle.
How to dispose of non-biodegradable bioplastics: Assemble into abstract sculpture titled “Just Put This Planet Out Of Her Misery.” Burn sculpture at Firefly. Earn 3 credits towards BFA at MassArt.
So WTF is the Problem
(Besides a Whole Bunch of Stuff I’ve Already Outlined)
SUBPARs aim to:
- Reduce reliance on fossil fuel-based plastics AND/OR
- Reduce landfill mass AND/OR
- Provide retrievable energy in the form of disposables AND/OR
- Cash in on our concerns over plastic waste, via the domination of a new market, via corporate greenwashing.
Sounds pretty woke-y, right? Now you can Shavasana in peace knowing the chalice for your post-yoga smoothie is one with the circle of life. Not so fast! SUBPARs are not, in and of themselves, good for the environment. A 2010 study from the University of Pittsburgh found that bio-based polymers can be more environmentally taxing to produce than their oil-based counterparts. Additionally, SUBPARs create a host of disposal challenges for America’s waste municipalities.
They are resource-intensive to create.
If you’re gonna make plastic from potatoes, ya gotta grow the damn things first. That requires resources such as:
- Fertilizers and biocides, which contain harmful pollutants
- A butt-ton of water
- Petroleum for farm equipment, transportation, etc.
- Agricultural land, which must be diverted from food production
- Chemicals, energy, and science dorks to process vegetables into polymers
Most solid waste municipalities do not have the facilities to biodegrade, compost, or recycle SUBPARs. So, they garbage.
Ever pop a compostable bioplastic in your backyard compost heap? I have. Three years later, the “compostable” fork is fully intact. I could eat a steak dinner with it. That’s because most “compostable” plastics require specific industrial conditions to break down. This includes high heat – specifically, hottie hot hoterton heat, far above what is created in a backyard composter.
But here’s the twist of M. Night Shyamalan-ian proportions: once sent to an industrial composting facility, most of these freaky deaky disposables are diverted to a landfill or incinerator anyways. Why? Of roughly 5,000 composting facilities in the U.S., only a handful are equipped with the technology required to successfully compost bioplastics.
Biodegradable plastics require similarly specific conditions, which may include water and UV light. They are designed for the landfill, but confusingly, many have a recycling symbol on the bottom. As I already mentioned, #7 plastics are difficult to recycle. If you send biodegradable plastic to the recycling center, it will probably be diverted to a landfill or incinerator.
Want a side of total bullshit with your bioplastic turd burger? OK: entire bales of recycling have been sent to the landfill when a few # 7 bioplastics “contaminated” the lot.
But it says it’s recyclable!
Their dissolution in a landfill creates harmful gases and chemicals.
In a landfill, SUBPARs are either permanently entombed, like regular plastics, or they eventually break down. Decomposition in this anaerobic environment releases methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Toxic residues in the SUBPARs have the ability to contaminate groundwater should they leak out of the landfill.
Like regular plastic, they can degrade into microplastics. And we eat those.
SUBPARs have been known to join the 8 million tons of plastic surging into our oceans each year. SUBPARs at sea lack the specific conditions to biodegrade, and so they behave like plastic. They start to break apart. They choke birds, poison fish, lodge up turtle noses, and constipate whales. Yup – they’re assholes!
SUBPARs in the forest, field, or highway off-ramp also lack the specific conditions needed to biodegrade. Like SUBPARs at sea, they fracture into smaller and smaller pieces but never disappear. Eventually, they become a food group. Humans consume microplastics via contaminated seafood, chicken, honey, even beer. Yum!
Manufacturers of bioplastics aren’t responsible for the pornographic quantities of single-use garbage they create.
While single-use packaging comprises one third of municipal solid waste in the US, packaging manufacturers are in no way responsible for the retrieval of their products. And while SUBPAR manufacturers shit on municipal programs for their inability to process bioplastics, they do not pay to support new infrastructure necessary to do so.
Who foots the bill for municipal programs like trash collection, recycling, and composting? Society, maaaan. That’s you and me.
Ya Can’t Fuck Your Way Out Of Syphilis,
and Ya Can’t Dispose Your Way Out Of A Garbage Disaster
Whether plastic, bioplastic, or bionic fuckable plastic, single-use products are wasteful by design. They are also:
- Using them makes you look like a helpless know-nothing baby, and everyone’s talking about it.
How To Avoid Subpars
and Other Single-use Products
GIVE YOURSELF THE TOOLS TO SUCCEED
I can avoid making pornographic quantities of senseless waste because I’ve set myself up to achieve that goal. Pictured above are some basic tools I use daily. Most of these products were found in local stores, thrift shops, and free piles. The metal food containers (left) were purchased online. No one pays me to write this shit, least of all sponsors, and I’m not endorsing specific products. These are merely what I prefer. Use the reusable options that work for you.
Pictured from left to right:
- Airtight stainless steel containers. Replacement for: plastic containers, plastic bags, plastic wrap. They store leftovers and lunch, replace to-go containers at restaurants, and carry home trash-free deli foods. I use them at home, at work, camping, and traveling.
- Lightweight utensils made of bamboo. I sometimes carry regular utensils instead. Replacement for: single-use cutlery.
- Watertight glass bottle. Replacement for: bottled liquids, plastic cups.
- Insulated stainless steel canteen. Replacement for: to-go coffee cups, bottled liquids, plastic containers.
- French press. Replacement for: coffee pods, filters, tea bags, and all other related waste.
Support Local Businesses That Provide Zero-waste Options
Does a local butcher fill home-brought containers with meat and cheese cuts? Does a grocery store provide bulk bins for trash-free shopping? Support them. Health food stores and farmer’s markets often offer trash-free food options. Bostonzerowaste.com provides a comprehensive list of local grocery stores with bulk sections. If there are no bulk resources in your community, cut back where you can! Start by purchasing produce free of packaging. I’m full of tricks and ideas here – feel free to comment your questions!
Pressure Legislators To Tax Manufacturers Of Single-use Products
The collective action of individuals can reduce the waste stream. But we can’t do it all. The problem must also be addressed at the source. The cost of cleaning up municipal waste falls to society at large, creating little incentive for manufacturers of single-use products to change their trashy ways. They should be held accountable. In the UK, manufacturers of single-use plastic will soon be hit with a plastic tax. Call or email your legislator to see what they’re doing to address the garbage crisis.