A few days ago, I found myself armpit-deep in a compost bin on the bottom floor of Martin Luther King Jr. Student Union. I snagged the plastic cup I’d been angling for and flipped it over. Sure enough, there on the bottom was a little number seven surrounded by three circling arrows — another recyclable, in this case a plant-based plastic, polylactic acid, or PLA. I spun it around and found the second thing I was looking for: the green leaf-and-tree logo of a Biodegradable Products Institute, or BPI, certification. Despite the eco-friendly aesthetics, I was grimacing, because these green-washed symbols obscure the fact that this “compostable” cup is destined for a landfill.
The story starts with those two labels: the #7 “other” plastics classification and the BPI certification. The first is ironic in and of itself, because it just means the material doesn’t fall under a normal recycling classification, so there’s no guarantee of recyclability. The BPI certification is a little trickier to understand. Essentially, BPI is a third-party testing agency that determines if a bioplastic is actually compostable. Its test ensures that products adhere to the ASTM D6400 standard, a well-accepted standard of compostability. Products sent to BPI are processed through an industrial-grade processor that reaches temperatures of 122 degrees Fahrenheit to ensure ideal composting conditions. The tests last “a minimum of 90 days” and can be as long as “180 days,” according to Situ Biosciences LLC. It should be noted, however, that different bioplastics from different companies will disintegrate at different rates; the 90-day threshold isn’t a uniform point, and some might take more time while others could take less
But conditions this perfect are almost nonexistent, as we found out in 2017 when UC Berkeley’s environmental news publication, the Leaflet, ran an article about the school’s use of PLA bioplastics. After some investigation, Allie Lalor, a senior at the time, discovered that the composting facility used by UC Berkeley, Republic Services in Richmond, processed compost on 30-day cycles because of high demand. There was simply too much compost coming in, and the operators couldn’t afford to let the bioplastics decompose for the necessary amount of time, so all the bioplastics were diverted to a landfill.
More shockingly, when Aubrey Hills, the author of the Leaflet article, called the Richmond plant to ask if bioplastics were being composted, she was told that yes, in fact, they were. This means there is no clear information about how many of the 28 industrial composting facilities in the U.S. actually compost PLA bioplastics as of 2017. While Hills’ article states that at the time, the city of Berkeley explicitly prohibited bioplastics, the city of Berkeley website now says it accepts BPI-certified compostables in the green bin. But when I tried to follow up on that claim and figure out if the compost is now being processed over longer periods, all I could find was a 2011 Berkeleyside article about a facility in the Central Valley that only required compost to be at high temperatures for 15 days, and while it mentions the compost will stay there for 10 weeks before harvesting, that’s still less than the 90-day trials conducted by BPI. According to the city of Berkeley website, it seems that the city still uses that facility.
But don’t become hopeless just yet. Even if bioplastics don’t hold the promise we thought, there is still one technology that can help us cut down our waste: reusables. Bringing your own utensils, mugs and containers is indisputably the best solution. Reusable mugs are one of your best bets, and some coffee shops — such as Peet’s Coffee — even offer discounts when you bring your own cup. Utensil sets are another easy way to reduce your plastic footprint, but oddly enough, not a lot of people use them. Sets of bamboo utensils, which are durable and washable, go for about $10 online, and it’s not hard to slip a pouch with a fork, spoon and knife into your backpack every day before class.
There’s also systematic changes UC Berkeley can make to reduce single-use containers. One of the most promising is Vessel, a new venture that came to Berkeley in September and is almost like the Gig Car Share for cups — except for free. At any participating coffee shop, you can get a free insulated stainless steel cup and carry it around for up to five days before returning it to any of the participating locations. UC Berkeley can also offer discounted or free reusable products, such as the Chews to Reuse mugs it was giving out last semester (I still use one!).
And yes, carrying a reusable mug or bringing your own silverware can be hard habits to develop. But they’re also small, simple actions that can drastically reduce our environmental impact; the Vessel program alone is intended to save 1.5 million disposable cups from Berkeley businesses over the course of nine months. If we build sustainability into our everyday lifestyles, it will permeate into other aspects of our society and create a new culture where everyone thinks twice about what products they use — even if the label claims a product is “green.”
Aaron Saliman is a sophomore at UC Berkeley, a staff writer at the environmental news site the Leaflet and an editor of Berkeley Fiction Review.