Monday, August 4, 2008

The Fate of the Fork

Three or four years ago, a public garden near our (then) home concluded a major renovation and unveiled, among other expansions, a truly delightful cafe.  Because the gardens sat betwixt a pair of major universities and just blocks from the city's main library, it was often a convenient spot to meet a colleague.

The garden cafe featured many innovations - a vegetarian-friendly menu, inventive cuisine, interesting beverages - but one of the first to capture my notice was the use of biodegradable disposables.  Being a garden center, they were willing and able to compost like mad.  Even though I'd barely had a green thought back then, it seemed logical - and noble.

Lately I've noticed those same items popping up elsewhere, often in civic-minded public venues.  Only trouble?  They're going into the regular garbage.

I scratched my head and did a little bit of digging.  Apparently, most cornstarch-based cutlery will biodegrade in a matter of months in normal composting conditions.  But regular old garbage does not break down - be they egg shells or engine parts, the landfills that hold most waste prevent most items from breaking down - possibly ever.  We're tossing out 195 million tons of garbage every year, and it's just sitting there.

So why, I wondered, switch to cornstarch-based forks only to never let them meet their destinies?

The good news:  most disposable plastics are made out of petroleum-based materials, so cornstarch is automatically a notch or two better.  As oil prices rise, that means that cornstarch based products appear more affordable.  Making the switch to a greener product is always easier when it requires less financial sacrifice - and some people with no green agenda will do so if they can save a few nickels.  It's perfectly possible that my compostable fork was just plain  cheaper than whatever it replaced.

I've also seen potato starch and sugarcane-based substitutes, so there's no shortage to innovation in the category.  If someone is unhappy with the performance of their greener cutlery, it's easy enough to swap it out for something that will serve.  

What is in short supply is a handy place to compost these puppies, and that's the bad news.

Twenty years ago, the idea of having household recycling pick-up seemed like a long shot.  My mother was openly annoyed by the idea of having to sort our garbage; Franklin remembers his parents telling him not to bother, especially because he was running the water (and upping their utility bill) to wash out those cans.  Today, it's second-nature to most of us, and is a big part of the reason why we're not landfilling more than 200 million tons of garbage every year. 

The next step, I think, is to figure out composting at a municipal level.  While many people can - and do - have compost bins in their homes, it's not functional for everyone.  In the Greene household, it remains a subject of ongoing debate, especially given our relatively small outdoor space and lack of a garden in which to use the results of our efforts.

But would we happily segregate our compostables and leave them out for collection?  With gusto.  It's something I'm going to push our Homeowner's Association to investigate when our trash collection contract is up for renewal.

In the meantime, I'm not sure what to do.  We've been trying to avoid fast food and quick service venues that don't use regular flatware.  But it's not practical in every case, and I'm not ready to carry a set of my own utensils.


No comments: