Making plastic Earth-friendly

Restaurant owner sees environmental sensibility in plastic that can be composted.
Wednesday, September 15, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 7:43 a.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008

Order a beverage to go or a sandwich in a take-out box and you might have just increased the local property tax used for maintaining the city landfills where most of those containers end up.

It leads the consumer to ponder: Just how disposable is that disposable fork?

Nearly 181 billion disposable cups, eating utensils and plates are used each year, according to a 1999 study by the Green Culture, an environmental retailer.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, almost 1.8 million tons of quick-serve food packaging were thrown away in the United States in 1996.

Leigh Lockhart, owner of Main Squeeze at 28 S. Ninth St., has begun to use take-out plastic containers and utensils that can be composted. The plastic Lockhart uses differs from traditional plastic because it breaks down faster because it is produced with plant sugars instead of fossil fuels. Polystyrene, the most common type of plastic used in food packaging, is made from the chemical processing of benzene and ethylene — both byproducts of petroleum, a nonrenewable resource. According to Green Seal, a nonprofit organization that promotes environmentally safe products and services, 57 percent of the 28 billion food-packaging plates, platters and bowls produced in the United States are made of foam polystyrene.

Lockhart uses a plastic called NatureWorks PLA, a polylactide polymer made by processing natural plant sugars found in crops such as corn. The technology uses carbon dioxide and sunlight. Through fermentation and distillation, the carbon is extracted and used as the building block for commercial-grade plastics and fibers. Because PLA is made with renewable resources, its production uses 20 to 50 percent fewer fossil fuels than the production of other petroleum-based products, according to its manufacturer, Cargill Dow.

Although Lockhart said she was interested in ordering PLA products when they were introduced in 1997, she waited to see if the price would decrease over time as more restaurants and stores used them. She said she recently decided to reconsider making the switch and found that using PLA would be only marginally more expensive than traditional plastic. The product’s benefits to the environment, she said, carry greater weight than the financial considerations. Still, Lockhart knows the importance of raising people’s awareness if those benefits are to be maximized.

“It’s great for the environment,” she said. “But you also have to take into consideration how many people actually compost or have access to compost in order for the full benefits to be realized.”

Lockhart said she and other staff members at Main Squeeze encourage patrons to seek public composting sites such as community gardens.

One drawback to PLA technology is that it has not yet been developed to withstand high temperatures, which can make serving hot foods a challenge. According to the manufacturer’s Web site, heat initiates the decomposition of the polymer, which is why it deconstructs so well in compost.

Lockhart recalls one instance of a patron’s plastic fork melting in a hot bowl of food — the utensil became deformed within minutes of being placed in the bowl. “It’s still in its developmental stages,” Lockhart said.

“But we’ve got to start somewhere, and we’re just doing our part.”

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