The future of biodegradable plastics and waste in UM’s food court

Hundreds of restaurants in major cities have started using biodegradable plastics for utensils over the past few years. As many restaurants as I’ve seen offering these utensils and advertising that they do, I haven’t seen any with bins specifically for biodegradable materials.

These utensils are instead thrown into trash or recycling bins, where they will not biodegrade. Even recyclables in the recycling bin often aren’t recycled because they aren’t cleaned and dried before being tossed, contaminating the entire stream.

“Wishcycling” is the phenomenon of dropping items in the recycling bin, hoping or believing they can be recycled, when, they cannot.

Recycling, even when done correctly, isn’t a real solution to the problem of plastic waste. The quality of plastic deteriorates every time it is recycled, meaning it can be recycled a limited number of times. Also, many plastics are produced using fossil fuels.

This means recycling as much as we can as a society shouldn’t be the end goal. Instead, reducing our waste and utilizing biodegradable plastic when plastic is needed and wherever possible should be, but even plastics marketed as biodegradable aren’t truly biodegradable, and items that are can only degrade if disposed of properly.

Many biodegradable plastics are simply traditional plastics with added chemicals that speed up fragmentation, meaning they break into microplastics, which are almost impossible to remove from the environment.

These plastics are better referred to as oxo-degradable plastics. Their presence in recycling streams can lower the quality of the recycled materials, so recycling them doesn’t solve the issue we run into when we don’t have access to the proper environment to biodegrade them in.

Bioplastics, plastics made from renewable biological resources such as corn starch, can also contaminate recycling streams and are not truly biodegradable.

Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, placed enzymes that break down plastic inside of some plastics as they were made.

Ivan Jayapura, one of the researchers on the team, said, “They (the plastics) are much more easily degradable either in home compost or industrial compost solutions or even in water. That’s heated up, and when they break down, they don’t result in any microplastics.”

The long-term goal for the University of Miami should be the use of only these biodegradable plastics wherever possible as they hit the market. That would mean providing compost bins for these items to be properly disposed of as well.

Changes that can be made now include ensuring only paper straws are used at places like Smoothie King, Starbucks, The Archivist, Subway, etc. Takeaway containers can also be replaced with cardboard containers wherever possible.

Rathskeller, as a sit-down restaurant, is fantastic about providing real utensils for guests. It would be great to see them shift to real reusable cups for draft beer as well. This can be done with reusable plastic cups rather than glass if there’s concern over serving alcohol in glass on campus.

The Market wraps fruits like apples in saran wrap to sell them to students. This practice is unnecessarily wasteful and needs to end.

Asking the campus to provide real silverware in the food court might be impractical if there’s not an area staff could easily access to wash it, but this might be an area where habit forming comes in on the individual level. Reducing plastic waste takes a combination of demanding change and forming small habits that require more effort than current habits.

Remembering to bring our own utensils can have a significant impact on the amount of waste created. A single student who eats one meal in the food court each day they have classes could easily save 50 or more plastic forks from going into a landfill each semester by doing so.

When we do use them, remembering to clean off and dry plastic utensils before we drop them in the recycling bins on campus is also important.

The university should also encourage the use of reusable coffee cups at campus coffee shops again.

It’s easy to look at what this person or that person is doing wrong in terms of plastic waste. The truth is that no one is perfect, and no one should feel like the weight of the world is on their shoulders because they forgot to bring a fork to school, but some slightly increased personal responsibility from many could make a great difference.

Some changes will be easier for one person to make, and other changes easier for another. Activists have pointed out in years past that terms like “zero waste” can overwhelm people and lead them to give up. These activists are now striving for “low impact” instead.

Individual members of the campus community should continue to make small changes in their lives, showing themselves and others grace as they work to do so.