We Don’t Just Have a Plastics Problem; We Have a Single-Use Problem

In today’s fast-paced world, we are often eating on the go or rushing from one place to the next and it is no surprise to see how we’ve become dependent upon disposable products. It has been well-documented that single-use plastic food packaging–derived from petroleum and further worsening the ongoing climate crisis–can harm human health as well as the environment. 

More people are increasingly aware and concerned about plastic’s connection to petrochemicals, the lack of plastic recycling, the false narrative about “so-called chemical recycling”, as well as increased research about the toxicity and prevalence of microplastics. And finally, more people are starting to recognize the undisclosed and unknown number of chemicals that are used to make these everyday plastic products that we’re serving, storing and sometimes heating our food in.

It’s encouraging to see the growing movement to phase out and cut production of single-use plastic. Early policy efforts focused on banning single-use plastic straws or plastic bags and have now evolved with efforts by the University of California system or U.S. Department of the Interior that encompass a phase-out of a much broader range of single-use plastic items such as dining accessories, food service ware items, and beverage bottles.

This is all great progress but if we really want to tackle the larger systemic issue of our throwaway culture, we need to be cautious around jumping from single-use plastic over to other single-use options such as aluminum and especially paper or plant-based products. As we successfully decrease our use of harmful plastics, it is important for us to carefully think about the best long-term solution and where we should be heading–to avoid jumping from one problem to another (the age-old plastic vs paper issue).

Most people don’t think about it, but we expect a lot from a supposedly compostable disposable coffee cup, a paper plate, or take-out container. These simple looking products need to remain shelf stable indefinitely–i.e., be able to withstand potentially long transport overseas or across the country in a hot truck, sitting in a warehouse, a retail store or your kitchen cabinet until we actually need it; then it needs be able to hold our wet, greasy, or hot food for however long we are going to keep our leftovers–sometimes in the back of the fridge for a few days–and then finally, miraculously break down when we want it to. In order to maintain the product’s integrity under any number of unknown conditions, chemical treatment or combining it with layers of other materials allow paper and board food packaging to be used with liquid and/or fatty foods (Food Packaging Forum factsheet). However, this type of treatment or mixing of materials makes it difficult to compost or properly recycle the foodware at the end of its life, moreover, it is often contaminated with food.

Most of the paper and fiber-based products that are considered “compostable”  are only truly compostable in certain controlled conditions (i.e., in a commercial or industrial composting facility). There are currently only a limited number of commercial composting facilities around the country and not all of them will take disposable foodware (Examples from CO or OR). Even if you do have an industrial composter in your area and they take certain compostable foodware, it is difficult to know which ones are actually compostable. Compostable foodware that ends up in the landfill ends up generating harmful greenhouse gas emissions.

There are a number of ways that CEH aims to tackle both the plastic and paper/fiber-based single-use problem. Our Ditching Disposables toolkit helps K-12 schools transition from harmful single-use foodware to healthier options, with a long-term goal of switching to safer reusables. We know that this type of change can be a heavy lift, so we have provided all the tools your school or school system needs, including: a 12-step planning guide, lessons, cost calculators, how-to guides on collecting and reporting data, engagement strategies, and tips for each step of the process. CEH is helping schools around the country  ditch disposables and normalize reuse while cultivating sustainable practices from an early age.

In partnership with Clean Production Action, we also developed a new certification program that eliminates toxic chemicals and waste created by single-use foodware materials. The GreenScreen Certified® Standard for Reusable Food Packaging, Food Service Ware, & Cookware fulfills the growing consumer demand for products with preferred chemistry and less waste.

Just switching away from plastic over to paper-based food packaging isn’t going to be the long-term solution that we need. It is time for us to seriously look at shifting to reusables wherever possible. From the schools your children attend to the restaurants you get takeout from, we urge you to support policies and business practices that advance the transition from single-use materials to reusables–for the sake of our health, and our planet.