Milky coffee pools in a ring at the bottom of the plastic cup I pull out of the campus trash bin. Other than the drink remnants, it looks pristine—no cracks, the lid intact, straw free of any bite marks. I plucked it from the top of the heap of clear plastic in the container, where it sat, unscathed.
At Kalamazoo College, we use a lot of disposable products. We slosh our soda in them at the deli, use them to transport our coffee to class, and eat free food off of them at most campus events. Though they’re disposable—intended for one-time use—most of the plates, cutlery, and cups we purchase are compostable. On the plastic cups, you might have noticed “EarthChoice” in tan and green block letters across the middle, the African Umbrella Thorn tree graphic, or the words ‘sustainable’ ‘renewable’ ‘compostable’ encircling a folded green ribbon, or the banner at the base of the cup reading “Made in U.S.A * Industrially Compostable.” These cups are made from plant materials that can be broken down under the right conditions to be reused as compost. The right conditions require infrastructure that we don’t have in place at K, and aren’t accessing elsewhere. Our compostable cups go right in the garbage.
‘Industrially’ is the key word on these cold drink cups. Look a bit closer and you’ll notice a disclaimer: “Industrially Compostable only. This cup is not suited for home composting. Appropriate composting facilities may not exist in your area.” Throw these cups in a backyard compost pile, or even a campus Earth Tub, and they’ll stick
around for years. Long after microorganisms have eaten through the banana peels and grass clippings, the cups could still be plucked out, washed, and reused.
They’re made of Polylactic Acid (abbreviated on the bottom as PLA), which is a type of plant-derived plastic. Elizabeth Royte published an article about this “corn plastic” for Smithsonian Magazine in 2006 after she took a tour of NatureWorks just outside of Omaha, Nebraska, the largest lactic acid plant in the world at the time. She described the process by which corn becomes plastic: “Corn kernels are delivered and milled, dextrose is extracted from starch. Huge fermenters convert the dextrose into lactic acid, a simple organic chemical that is a by-product of fermentation (or respiration, in the case of the lactic acid that builds up in muscle tissue after intense activity).” Industrially, lactic acid is derived from starchy substances (usually corn), and converted to lactide. At this stage, the PLA is in the form of translucent balls that will be melted and reformed into the plastic cups we see stacked up in the library’s coffee shop.
The line of students outside the Book Club starts around 11:35 a.m. on a Friday. A steady stream flows through for the fifteen minutes between classes, the line reaching just a few feet short of the library doors. A guy with a neon backpack and extra-wide smile tips his cup toward his girlfriend. She sucks on the straw and nods. Pretty good. “Yeah, I mean, it’s a four-dollar frozen latte.” The cooler’s rubber seal thuds after a U of M capped guy reaches in to grab a fruit cup and wrap to go. “Chai Freeze, whipped cream!” Kelly, the Book Club manager, yells.
During the fifteen-minute rush, twenty-three disposable cups leave the coffee shop. It’s a warm but overcast morning – half the beverages are sodas, smoothies, or blended coffee drinks in 16 oz. clear PLA plastic cups. Estelle Bean, Catering Retail
Manager of K’s Dining Services, says we typically go through four cases of these cups per week. There are 696 cups in each case. So between the Book Club, the Richardson Room, and a handful of campus events, we use and then throw away about 2,784 cups per week.
Dining Services purchases our disposables from Pactiv Corporation, one of the world’s largest producers and distributors of food packaging products. Pactiv introduced their ‘EarthChoice’ line in 2010 to offer “a variety of features including sustainable and renewable resources, reduced amounts of plastics, less fossil fuel to manufacture, post consumer recycled content, certified compostable and chlorine-free processing,” according to their website.
This ‘Bio-ware’, as it is called in the commercial food packaging industry, has a high melting point – otherwise our compostable spoons would melt when we dipped them into a bowl of soup and our coffee cups would collapse, or slowly start to leak as the scalding beverage broke down the holding vessel. Because of the high melting point, the cups need high temperatures to break down, temperatures only achievable in an industrial composting facility.
The closest industrial composting facility is Spurt Industries, 50 miles north of campus in Zeeland. Spurt contracts with local waste haulers to transport compostable materials from businesses and institutions in the area. In order to make it worth it to trek our waste to Spurt, Creative Dining Director of Corporate Sustainability Janine Oberstadt says we would need greater volume. If we collaborated with Western Michigan University or some of the hospitals in the area, we could collectively have enough waste to justify a truckload to and from Zeeland.
For now, the disposables sit in a landfill. FacMan employees empty campus dumpsters into the 20-yard garbage truck twice a week. “It’s about 6 hours [of work] a week for groundskeepers,” says Paul Manstrom, Facilities Management Associate Vice President. They drive the college-owned truck to a transfer station on the east side of town twice a month. The waste is picked up by Republic Services and deposited in a landfill just north of Marshall. Though they’re plant based, “Bio-plastic ‘greenware’ will not bio-degrade in a landfill. For bio-ware to biodegrade, it requires water and oxygen,” Oberstadt said. She compares landfills to giant underground Tupperware containers; nothing can get at the material to break it down.
As part of their efforts to achieve campus-wide zero-waste, (meaning 90% of waste is diverted from landfills), Aquinas College in Grand Rapids – also a Creative Dining Services account – composts all of their disposables. Closer to Zeeland, they partner with Spurt Industries. The decision was “downward driven – from the administration all the way down,” Oberstadt said, who worked with them on their sustainability initiatives. “This is something that the admin said, ‘We will do this.’” Known for their leading programs in sustainable business operations, they wanted to be leaders in sustainable business operations.
Aquinas has composting receptacles in every building on campus. They compost food scraps, coffee grounds and filters, and pizza boxes, as well as the same EarthChoice products we use here. Regarding the complicated sorting process, Oberstadt says the students aren’t even thinking about it anymore.
Oberstadt sees reusable cups and mugs as a possibility for the future of sustainable waste management. Eliminating use in the first place makes the complications of the best disposal methods irrelevant. “The best waste of all is the waste you never had.”
In the meantime though, Oberstadt said it’s very possible to take our composting program to the next level if there’s widespread campus commitment. “There’s so much education and training and cheerleaders that go into making it work,” she said. She’s seen it function best at schools like Aquinas where it’s a top-down initiative, understood as a new method of waste management that isn’t optional.