by Mike Brewer, Shambhala Site Manager
It’s hard to look anywhere these days without hearing about sustainability and a lot of consumers are starting to avoid single use plastic and Styrofoam containers. We sometimes get asked by people at the festival “Why don’t you guys use biodegradable stuff in the food court?” The short answer is: We do. For the last three years, we have required that all of our vendors use biodegradable products for serving food and this year we’re looking at taking it one step further.
Most people don’t realize that there is a difference between “biodegradable” and “compostable” but there is, and it’s an important one.
- “Biodegradable” means something will degrade from the action of naturally occurring microorganisms, such as bacteria, fungi etc. over a period of time.
- “Compostable” means something is capable of undergoing biological decomposition such that the plastic is not visually distinguishable and breaks down to carbon dioxide, water, inorganic compounds, and biomass, at a rate consistent with known compostable materials and leaves no toxic residue.
The key difference lies in the fact that something that is only biodegradable can still take a couple of years to break down and may leach toxic by-products.
There is a surprising range of compostable products available and our goal this year is to have all dishes and cutlery at the festival be fully compostable.
Compostable plastics are generally made from something called PLA, which is derived from renewable raw materials like starch. On their own, PLA products are not suitable for holding hot foods or drinks but by adding talc and making TPLA it is possible to have utensils that are almost identical to regular disposable plastic ones and can be used for any hot food items.
Traditionally, compostable plates, bowls and cups are made from paper, corn and potato. These materials have the downside that they compete for agricultural land. One thing that is emerging as an alternative is bagasse, a product made from sugarcane fibre leftover after juice extraction. Normally, this residue is burned after pulping, which creates air pollution; using it for dishes is a great, sustainable alternative. Another alternative is wheatstraw, the remaining plant material after the wheat grain and chaff have been extracted from the plant. Like bagasse this is another waste product that would normally just be disposed of. Any of these materials will generally compost in a commercial facility in under three months.
Even though PLA cutlery can be fully composted, the product takes as much as six months in a commercial facility or two years in a backyard composter. An alternative to this that is produced right here in BC is wooden cutlery. These lightweight but strong utensils (which we’ve tested ourselves recently in the office) are made from salvaged fallen trees with no GMO’s or pesticides and break down fully in under two months.