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Sunday, January 19, 2020

Beyond recycling plastics: elimination of single-use plastics

With the intention of reducing litter, waste, and the use of environmentally harmful products, the City of Berkeley, California enacted the phased-in Berkeley Single-Use Foodware and Litter-Reduction Ordinance. Emphasizing a shift from single-use foodservice products to reusable cups, plates, bowls, and flatware, the ordinance impacts the gamut of foodservice operators.

Ordinance provisions
The ordinance is enforced one year after the effective date with potential exemptions for proven hardships.

Phase I (effective March 27, 2019) is a first-step in waste-reduction and contamination prevention. Accessory disposable foodware items must be provided upon request only, rather than openly available at stations. Examples of accessory disposable foodware items include straws, stirrers, napkins, utensils, condiment cups/packets, cup sleeves, tops, lids, spill plugs, and other ancillary products.

Compost sign available
for download
Additionally, prepared food vendors that allow self-bussing must provide color-coded receptacles for customers to separate their recyclables, compostables, and landfill waste. The ordinance is specific on color-coding to create consistent bussing stations; recommended signage is available for download.

In Phase 2 (effective January 1, 2020) all single-use, disposable food and beverage (f&b) products must be certified compostable and be free of intentionally added fluorinated chemicals. In addition, prepared food vendors must charge customers $.25 for disposable cups; the charge must be clearly identified on menus and listed separately on receipts.

Within food-safety standards, the operator may refuse to fill unsuitable or unsanitary cups provided by customers

With Phase 3 (effective July 1, 2020), all in-house dining f&b must be served on reusable (durable/washable) foodware. Exceptions include certified compostable paper tray/plate liners, paper wrappers, napkins, and straws and recyclable aluminum foil for wrapping items such as burritos. The ordinance requires operators to maintain on-site cleaning and sanitation facilities or contract with off-site cleaning services.

Consumer support for the ordinance is showcased in the January 5, 2020 The Guardian article, The California city that wants to eliminate disposable coffee cups.

The Berkeley ordinance is a solid, strong step in addressing the prolific single-use plastic pollution wreaking havoc on the planet.

A plastic-trashed planet
1955 Life Magazine cover
The October 2019 RiA Magazine article, Plastics: a double-edged sword, articulates plastics history | development and how in a mere 70 years humans infiltrated every nook & cranny of the Earth with micro and nanoplastics. The article opens with how the August 1955 Life magazine article Throwaway Living essentially announced the inauguration of single-use plastic for common household use.

While early plastic usage related to the manufacturing of durable goods, in the 1950's single-use plastic packaging and products were introduced; thus, the onset of plastic pollution.

Humans essentially trashed the planet with prolific plastic pollution that now inhabits every nook and cranny of the Earth. As discovered in prominent research, macro and nanoplastic pollution is prevalent from the arctic snow caps to the depths of the oceans and everywhere in between. Scientists are merely beginning to study the health ramifications of humans, animals, plants and microbial life literally breathing, eating and drinking plastics in its macro, micro and nano forms.

In empowering leadership roles, global non-profit organizations are working to bring the Earth back to a healthy, balanced state. The non-profits are educating on the current scenario, working to stop plastic pollution, creating new manufacturing paradigms, and much more. Below are several examples:
Plastic pollution on a remote beach
  • 5 Gyres continues to educate on the magnitude of plastic pollution in our oceans and beyond. 
  • The Plastic Pollution Coalition works diligently to stop the deluge of plastic pollution with campaigns to eradicate single-use-plastic consumption.
  • The Ellen MacArthur Foundation's New Plastic Economy intends to transform manufacturing design and protocol via two new industry standards: 1> products are made of 100% post-consumer recycled materials and 2> products are designed for reuse with company-sponsored programs making reuse simple, easy, and convenient for the consumer.
A shift in the current disposable culture is necessary to prevent the continual deluge of plastic pollution within our soils, atmosphere, oceans, waterways, and the human-food chain.

Elimination of single-use plastic
GreenBuild purified
water station
While documenting the zero-waste practices at the 2019 GreenBuild International Conference and Expo (GreenBuild) hosted at the Gold LEED-Certified Georgia World Congress Center Authority (GWCCA), the largest LEED-Certified conference center in the world. it was inspiring to witness solid zero-waste practices executed at the event. Beyond the Three R's - reduce, reuse, recycle, GreenBuild focused on reuse, reduction, and elimination of waste.

Via clear communication in contracts and registration documents, exhibitors and attendees were expected to bring reusable beverage containers; no single-use beverage containers were permitted on the showroom floor. Bartenders were instructed to not give attendees empty, compostable wine cups for use at the water stations. At the USGBC booth, complimentary steel cups were handed out with the slogan "Better buildings are our legacy."

Throughout the the exhibit hall, the GWCCA provided purified water stations with five-gallon water bottles on easy-to-use dispensers.

There was nary a single-use plastic water or beverage bottle in sight within the show.

The RiA Magazine article, GreenBuild walks the zero-waste talk, showcases the stellar reduce, reuse, and elimination practices at the event.

KSU Dining Services
reusable to-go containers
While touring their operations, it was inspiring to learn of Kennesaw State University (KSU) Dining Services' reusable plastic-container system for take-out orders. With incentives to return the reusable containers, there are minimal "lost" containers in the successful program that eliminates single-use to-go containers.

In the previously mentioned The Guardian article, The California city that wants to eliminate disposable coffee cups, author Erin McCormick features several for-profit programs designed to assist foodservice operators to adhere to the new ordinance provisions.

With the Vessel reusable cup program, customers "borrow" chic stainless steel cups for up to five days free-of-charge. Vessel signage includes the copy: GET IN ON: THE REUSABLE REVOLUTION.

While working on Sustainable Food Court Initiative pilots during the Era of Recycling Refinement, Elemental Impact (Ei), along with Ei Strategic Ally Institute for Local-Self Reliance, always recommended the use of reusable f&b packaging where practical.

Compostable packaging concerns
With their ground-breaking ordinance, Berkeley opened the door for main-stream media coverage on the evolution from recycling to elimination of single-use products.

Originally published on Civil Eats, the Eater January 15, 2020 article, The Dark Side of ‘Compostable’ Take-Out Containers, Plastic to-go containers are bad, but are the alternatives any better?, announces the Berkeley ordinance and addresses concerns related to the shift to compostable f&b packaging.

The below concerns are summarized from the article:

1> compostable f&b are single-use and often create unnecessary waste.

2> there are limited food-waste composting sites that accept compostable packaging. More facilities are refusing to accept compostable packaging due to rampant contaminants in many post-consumer food-waste streams. Contaminants include simple trash as well as petroleum-based plastics.

An unlabeled exhibitor-provided cup
rash at a zero-waste event
3> unless clearly labeled, compostable plastic cups & other products resemble petroleum-based plastic items. It is difficult to impossible for compost-facility workers to sort out petroleum-based plastic from the food-waste stream. Cedar Grove, a major Seattle composting company, spends over $5 million a year removing plastic bags, forks, and spoons from its compost.

4> compostable products on their own do not make compost; often, the post-consumer food-waste stream is composed almost entirely of single-use compostable products with minimal nitrogen-based food. Thus, the necessary carbon | nitrogen-ratio for compost is unbalanced.

5> compost made with compostable products in the feedstock cannot be sold to organic farms. The National Organic Board classifies compostable packaging as synthetic material, which are not permitted on certified organic farms.

6> according to the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), “the fact that something is compostable is a useless predictor of environmental impact.” A DEQ life-cycle study found the production and use of compostable materials (and composting them) was found to result in higher environmental impacts than that of either non-compostable materials, or compostable materials treated via recycling, landfilling, or incineration.

It is important to evaluate the use of compostable f&b packaging from a holistic perspective, including its end-of-life and complete life-cycle impact.

Though the new Berkeley ordinance is groundbreaking in the public realm, environmental non-profits and crusaders are long-time reusable f&b packaging proponents. Back in November 2010, environmental crusader Aaron Williams produced The New Green Order video. The short video educates corporations on how reusable coffee-cup programs in the office are environmentally and economically sound.

Counterpoint: compostable packaging | reusables
Though the above concerns regarding compostable packaging are overall valid, there are other important perspectives to consider before making purchasing decisions or creating city ordinances.

The DEQ life-cycle on compostables did not seem to address the impact of plastic pollution when disposable packaging is improperly disposed of and/or simply trashed as litter. As well documented in the previously mentioned Plastics: a double-edged sword article, plastics fragment and disintegrate into micro and nanoplastics. It is well proven that microplastics often kill wildlife when consumed and nanoplastics may segue through cell walls into animal flesh or plant fiber.

Reusable glass cup with a
hay straw at a botanical garden
Compostable packaging will eventually decompose, versus fragment, into harmless chemical compounds without the potentially toxic compounds inherent within some plastics.

Though large establishments may benefit economically by shifting from single-use to reusable serviceware, smaller operations may experience a financial and space drain. Additional financial burdens include the reusable serviceware investment, storage area required for the inventory, and the labor, supplies, and equipment necessary for cleaning and sanitizing the items.

Within the cleaning and sanitizing systems, there are also environmental costs related to the incremental water and energy used to maintain food-safety standards.

Bottom line: the time is NOW to eliminate the prolific single-use plastics integrated within our daily lives. In addition to f&b packaging, single-use plastics are common place in household items (laundry detergent, shampoo etc.), vehicle maintenance (motor oil, antifreeze etc.) and beyond.

As an evolving industry, zero-waste best practices are a work-in-progress. National leaders like the City of Berkeley with their bold ordinance are necessary to vet viable solutions for eliminating daily consumption of single-use plastic. Solutions must benefit businesses, the community, and the environment.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

GreenBuild walks the zero-waste talk

In late November 2019, a global entourage of prominent industry professionals converged on Atlanta for the annual GreenBuild International Conference and Expo (GreenBuild) hosted at the Gold LEED-Certified Georgia World Congress Center Authority (GWCCA), the largest LEED-Certified conference center in the world.

GreenBuild is the biggest annual event for green-building professionals worldwide to learn and source cutting-edge solutions to improve resilience, sustainability, and quality of life in our buildings, cities, and communities. A U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) event, GreenBuild aligns with the USGBC mission of market transformation through its LEED green-building program.

Beginning with the first conference in 2002, GreenBuild strives to set the highest sustainability-industry standards for hosting a prominent national conference with a global reach.

On September 7, 2017, the USGBC unveiled TRUE (Total Resource Use and Efficiency), the new brand identity for its zero-waste rating system. TRUE helps businesses and facilities define, pursue and achieve their zero-waste goals through project certification and professional credentialing. The RiA Magazine article, TRUE: setting standards for a zero-waste economy, introduces TRUE and validates the importance of third-party certifications.

The 2017 GreenBuild conference hosted in Boston achieved the TRUE Zero-Waste-Event Certification as well as the 2018 GreenBuild hosted in Chicago. One of the GreenBuild RFP (request for proposal) parameters is the hosting event facility works in tandem with the GreenBuild staff and contractors on achieving TRUE Zero-Waste-Event Certification.

In response to industry requests for zero-waste standardization and third-party validation, the U.S. Zero Waste Business Council (USZWBC) launched the Zero Waste Facility Certification (ZWFC) in March 2013. As the first zero-waste certification program in the nation, the ZWFC established protocol and defined parameters for zero-waste claims.

Tim Trefzer (GWCCA) reunites
with Stephanie Barger (USGBC)
In October 2016 the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) acquired the USZWBC to integrate the ZWFC into the global Green Business Certification Inc. (GBCI) community that drives sustainability across all sectors.

The ZWFC joined a family of prominent certifications administered by the GBCI: the PEER standard for power systems, the WELL building standard, the Sustainable Sites Initiative (SITES), Parksmart, EDGE (Excellence in Design for Greater Efficiency) and the GRESB benchmark, which is used by institutional investors to improve the sustainability performance of the global property sector.

As the home to LEED - Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design - Certification, the USGBC is a recognized global standard for sustainable building design, construction, operations and maintenance.

The ZWA Blog article, USGBC Empowers Zero-Waste Industry: USGBC & USZWBC join forces, details the monumental industry announcement.

From its January 2012 inception through the October 2016 acquisition, the USZWBC was integral to the Elemental Impact (Ei) Era of Recycling Refinement important work, accomplishments, and successes. During the organization's tenure, Ei served as the USZWBC and its annual National Zero Waste Business Conference (NZWBC) media partner.

GWCCA Tim Trefzer reunites with
 CleanRiverRecycling Solutions
CEO Bruce Buchan
Ei was instrumental to Atlanta hosting the 2014 NZWBC and orchestrated the local-flavor portion of the excellent program. The Ei 2014 NZWBC page gives an overview of the conference plenary panels as well as the break-out sessions. Related Zero Waste in ACTION Blog article links are listed.

Thus, the 2019 GreenBuild Conference was a reunion with Ei Partners and good friends from the Ei Era of Refinement. Ei Founder Holly Elmore and USGBC Global Director, Zero Waste Stephanie Barger, who was the USZWBC Founder & Executive Director, were thrilled to reunite and spend a lovely lunch catching up. Long-time Ei Partner CleanRiver Recycling Solutions hosted an expo booth filled with their impressive recycling bins.

Zero-Waste Practices
In 2009, the Zero Wastes Zones launched at the GWCCA in an acclaimed press conference led by the Environmental Protection Agency Region 4 Acting Regional Director. As an industry pioneer, the GWCCA is a pro at implementing zero-waste practices and eager to work on conference-driven practices focused on reuse, reduction, and elimination of waste.

According to Ei Regeneration in ACTION Chair, Tim Trefzer, GWCCA Director Sustainability:
Event managers now look to venues for guidance in sustainability-best practices. GWCCA, with relationships throughout the community, is well-positioned to support whichever causes are important to clients. While this is encouraging, it’s equally important to involve all stakeholders involved in executing events to make it truly work and be successful.
For events focused on achieving zero waste, GWCCA draws on its decade-long expertise as an industry pioneer in the zero-waste arena.
Zero Waste is a Team Sport
For zero-waste success, teamwork is required among the event managers | owners, event-support contractors, the event facility, exhibitors, and attendees. The USGBC was diligent with exhibitor-contract and attendee-registration provisions where zero-waste protocol and expectations were clearly communicated.

Exhibitors and attendees were expected to bring reusable beverage containers; no single-use beverage containers were permitted on the showroom floor. Bartenders were instructed to not give attendees empty, compostable wine cups for use at the water stations. At the USGBC booth, complimentary steel cups were handed out with the slogan "Better buildings are our legacy."

GreenBuild purified
water station
Throughout the the exhibit hall, the GWCCA provided purified water stations with five-gallon water bottles on easy-to-use dispensers.

There was nary a single-use plastic water or beverage bottle in sight within the show.

Greenbuild provided reusable three-bin-recycling centers including recycling, compostables, and landfill bins; the bins were used at consecutive events. Volunteers traveled from across the nation to attend the conference and aid attendees at the centers with proper material separation.

As an estimated 25 - 30% of single-stream recycling is landfill-destined due to overall stream contamination, material-source separation is a tenet of zero-waste best practices. Great care was taken by back-of-the-house-event staff to further separate and clean the material before eventual sales in the commodity markets.

Attention to detail is a necessity for successful zero-waste events. At Greenbuild's request, the event-services company's signage was printed on recyclable corrugated cardboard, instead of other landfill-bound options. In the foodservices area, the GWCCA served condiments via pump stations, loose items, and pitchers, preventing trash and saving dollars.

Learning Experiences
Even with the best intentions, zero-waste events always present learning experiences where trash is accidentally generated for various reasons.

Exhibitor-provided cup generated
trash at a zero-waste event
While photographing a GreenBuild recycling center, Holly along with Tim noted an exhibitor coated paper-beverage cup lacked a BPI Certified Compostable label; thus, the cup contributed to trash at a zero-waste event.

One of the principles for creating clean recycling streams is "when in doubt, throw it out."

UL Environment & Sustainability's cup snafu showcases the importance of recycling and compostable labeling. It is possible the cup was lined with compostable PLA plastic, rather than non-compostable petroleum-based plastic. Yet without a compostable label the cup was landfill-bound.

Another learning experience related to inconsistent and inaccurate labels on the reusable recycling bins. The larger label in front indicated plastic bottles #1 - 6 and yogurt cups were permissible in the bin. Below are the related concerns:
1> Plastic bottles (#1-6) instead of only #1&2:
  • In general MRFs (material recovery facilities) are set-up to only separate #1 & 2 plastics via optical-sorting mechanisms. Thus, the remaining plastic bottles are landfill-bound, with an expensive stop at the MRF
  • #6 plastic = polystyrene (PS.) Bottles are PS vs. EPS (expanded polystyrene i.e. Styrofoam.) Though many grocery stores offer EPS-recycling bins for consumer use, in general, PS is not recycled at this juncture. Thus, #6 bottles are a contaminant in recycling-feed stocks.
2> Yogurt cups – most yogurt cups are #5 plastic (polypropylene - PP)
Inaccurate & inconsistent
recycling-bin labels
  • As stated above, most MRFs only separate for #1 & 2 plastics. Thus, the highly recyclable #5 cups are a contaminant and landfill-bound.
  • Often, yogurt cups contain ample food residuals in them. Thus, there is a high probability of food-residual contamination on the entire stock collected in a bin with yogurt cups.
  • Preserve's Gimme 5 program accepts PP cups yet HIGHLY encourages only clean cups are placed in their bins at Whole Foods and beyond.
In addition to the inaccuracies on the larger label, the bins included two labels with conflicting instructions. The smaller Recycle Across America (RAA) label aligned with the above concerns and indicated only #1 & 2 plastics were permitted in the bin.

TRASH: a gum wrapper brought to
a zero-waste event creates trash
Upon learning about the recycling-bin inconsistencies and inaccuracies, GreenBuild took immediate action to remedy the scenario. For the next conference, the event-services company was instructed to only use RAA labels on the GreenBuild bins and remove or cover-up the inaccurate labels.

On a smaller scale, Holly and Tim found gum wrappers and other attendee-generated trash on the floor as they walked the exhibit hall.

It is important for event participants, whether attendees or exhibitors, to understand their individual impact on events committed to zero waste.

The Ei FB album, 2020 GreenBuild Conference, gives a pictorial recap of Holly's GreenBuild visit hosted Tim.

Since the 2009 Zero Waste Zones launch, the industry made tremendous strides in creating event-zero-waste standards and protocol. Yet zero waste is a maturing industry filled with many opportunities to fine tune event practices. Industry leaders like GreenBuild, who walks the zero-waste talk, are instrumental to creating standards based on integrity and success.