Lessons on Compostable Plastics from San Francisco

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Intertech Pira

Jack Macy, the Commercial Zero Waste Coordinator for the City and County of San Francisco in their Department of the Environment, will bring 25 years experience in developing and implementing composting, recycling and waste management policy and programs at the state and local level on the east and west coasts to the 2011 Biopolymers Symposium.

Jack will presenting on the morning Wednesday, September 28th in the End-of-Life Recovery Options for Biopolymers session, but provided us with a preview of his presentation.

When and what motivated the decision to switch to compostable plastics in the City of San Francisco?

We found that use of certified compostable bags and food ware can help residents and businesses better participate in our composting collection program by making the separation of food scraps from non-compostable materials easier and less messy and thereby help divert more of their food discards from landfill to composting. We have allowed the use of compostable plastics since early in our program starting around 2000 and it was incorporated into our 2007 Food Service Waste Reduction Ordinance that requires disposable food ware served by food vendors to be compostable or recyclable and banned expanded polystyrene food ware.

What were the key messages you communicated to consumers and government employees about compostable plastics and their benefits?

We say non-compostable plastics are not allowed in the composting collection and plastics are only considered compostable when they are shown to meet the ASTM D6400 Standard Specification of Compostable Plastics and are properly labeled compostable, such as with green printing, to allow the user, collector and processor distinguish them from non-compostable plastics. That these products can help one participate more easily in separating and collecting food scraps for composting.

What have been the challenges of implementation and what would you recommend to other cities thinking about doing the same?

The challenges include determining whether a product is truly compostable and will work in a particular composting process, identifying and labeling compostable plastics to be able to distinguish between compostable and non-compostable, confusion between biobased and compostability and recyclability, cost and performance of compostable vs non-compostable and most recently interpretation of Organic certification standards not allowing compostable plastics as input into composting.

Please share with us a few success stories of this process:

We have been successful in getting a 98% compliance rate for our Food Service Ware Ordinance (e.g., banning Styrofoam) through outreach and visits to over 4000 restaurants and food vendors and working with manufacturers and distributors to ensure compostable food ware product were available and properly labeled in San Francisco.

We helped get a California laws passed that require that bags and food ware labeled compostable must meet the ASTM D6400 Standard Specification for Compostable Plastics and that these products cannot be labeled biodegradable or degradable since there is no standard specification for those terms. This law is important to prevent green washing since a product labeled biodegradable is meaningless without describing a specific time frame and environment for complete biodegradation. We are assisting the State Attorney general to investigate products that violate this state requirement.

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