Sunday, May 23, 2010

Damned If You Do...

(This post was republished on the Atlantic Monthly's website here on June 10, 2010.)

Back a few months ago, when we were getting ready for the season, we did a bunch of research on packaging. We knew that unlike last year, when we packaged the pops in bulk in waxed paper (we were just doing markets then), this year we would need to switch on the professionalism, which meant individually packaging our pops for both retail and wholesale.

We really wanted to use some kind of “green” packaging—because god knows the world does not need more plastic—but the problem with the compostable stuff on the market right now is that it’s high in what’s called “water vapor transmission,” which it needs to be in order to decompose. Unfortunately, pops left to their own devices love nothing more than to shed moisture content as fast as inanimate objects possibly can (it’s called “freezer burn,” and if you’re not using gums and preservatives, it happens fast).This means we need a packaging solution that’s ultra low in water vapor transmission—which, as far as I know, knocks the compostable stuff out of the running. That’s the trade-off for not using preservatives in our pops: it seems like we have to resort to plastic to package them.

Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

Beyond just its chemical properties, the other problem with corn-based compostable packaging, which to my understanding is most of what’s available in this country, is that, while it doesn’t depend as heavily on petroleum as plastics do, the genetically modified (what else is there?) corn used to make it is heavily fertilized with chemicals that are derived from petroleum. So the deception is just one layer removed.

Not to make plastic per se any less evil, BUT as Tom Outerbridge reminded me, most plastics are a byproduct of petroleum refining, so it’s not as though more or less oil will be drilled depending on demand for packaging. Furthermore, there are conflicting reports about the impact of producing plastic vs. biodegradable packaging. “To produce a film plastic material from trees is incredibly energy intensive, and Eucalyptus trees have their own mixed reputation as water-sucking poor-habitat-producing species, ” said Outerbridge, who established New York City’s composting program during his tenure at the Department of Sanitation and now works for a recycling company. A biodegradable bag in landfill may even produce more methane than a plastic landfill. Plastic does also produce methane as it biodegrades, but more slowly, over 450 years. (Again, damned if you do, damned if you don’t.) Still, Outerbridge concludes: “If you knew the pulp was coming from a sustainable forest and you could direct the package at the end of its life to a composting system, I expect that would be preferable.”

So….in the end, we bought plastic. Incidentally, it costs about half as much. We would've shelled out for better, but better didn't seem to exist. And in my defense, I thought we’d be able to recycle the plastic, and for weeks saved our spent wrappers for the recycling bin. Then I found out that once at the recycling facility, they were promptly separated out and carted off to the landfill. Foiled again!

It’s hard to recycle plastic in this town. The Whole Foods in Chelsea has a “Gimme 5” bin which is for #5 plastic; bottles, yogurt cups, etc.—but thin bags like ours don’t qualify. Outerbridge notes that in principle, polypropylene is a recyclable plastic, but polypro bags are not recyclable in terms of recycling programs available to New Yorkers, or most curbside recycling programs. Plastic cups may eventually be allowed in the NYC curbside recycling program if the City passes the new recycling law under consideration (up for review this summer/fall), but for our wrappers, there is no answer, for the foreseeable future anyway.

I can’t think of a way to tie this post up neatly. Seriously, people of the world—scientists, lawmakers, consumers, farmers, —what are we supposed to do?


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