Watching our Wasteline: Special Event Planning for Waste Reduction

Feb. 16, 2013 @ 04:00 PM

Spring “special event” season is approaching and many planners want to do right by their event goers, and the environment. The Orange County Landfill is closing on July 1 of this year, and Orange County has the highest waste reduction rate in the state at 59 percent. It is simply a priority among many of our residents. The marketplace has recognized that trend so store shelves are full of products that claim to be “green” – but sometimes the labeling is misleading, and if the event doesn’t go the full distance with recycling and composting, “green” purchasing is not going to make a bit of difference. Here are some myth busters and basic guidelines to help out:
Buying products labeled “compostable” does not make you green. If you buy “compostables” make sure they are labeled “certified compostable” and are going to a commercial composting facility. Corn-based #7PLA cups usually have a green band around them and claim to be compostable. They are … but only in a commercial composting facility, not in your backyard bin, and certainly not in the landfill. They cannot be recycled either! Unless they are actively separated from the rest of the trash and brought to a collection point for a commercial composter (with permission or by contract), they will go into the landfill. There they break down slowly and produce methane. It’s no better for the environment and more costly for consumers than serving with petroleum-based plastics and tossing them in the landfill.
“Biodegradable” and “compostable” and “recyclable” do not mean the same thing. Two groups of materials have been developed in terms of degradable plastics. The first group includes plant based resins like #7PLA in corn based cups discussed above. The second includes petroleum-based conventional plastics that have chemicals added (known as oxo-degradables) which, when exposed to heat and oxygen, break apart the carbon bonds resulting in micro-fragments of plastic and metals. The fragments will remain in the environment but will not be seen as a visual contaminant.
There are serious concerns among plastics, composting and waste management experts that these products do not meet their environmental claims. European Bioplastics considers terms such as “biodegradable” and “oxo-biodegradable” without reference to existing standards as misleading, and as such not reproducible and verifiable. Testing by the Association of Post-Consumer Plastic Recyclers (APR) shows that these plastics are NOT RECYCLABLE. APR states “they [oxo plastics] are a contaminant in the recycling stream. Claims of recyclability are unfounded, untested, and possibly misleading as outlined in the Federal Trade Commission’s Green Guide.” A new bill is being prepared to go the Legislature this session to require OXO plastics to be labeled as not recyclable and any plastic labeled as degradable or compostable to comply with American Society of Testing and 8 Materials (ASTM) standard D6400-04, "Standard Specification for Compostable Plastics.
What is an organizer to do? Know your waste stream! Identify what is going to be served and therefore what will be thrown out at your event. Replace disposables with durables or recyclables wherever possible. Many local caterers are becoming accustomed to this request. If you have recyclables, make sure you have containers for collection, and a system for proper recycling after the event. For example, instead of fountain drinks and plastic cups, serve beverages in bottles and cans and have recycling containers next to every trash can. At the end of the event bring them to one of Orange County’s 24 hour recycling drop-off sites. Serving hotdogs? Good choice—finger food requires no plates or utensils, but the buns are going to come in recyclable plastic bags. Stuff empty bun bags into another plastic bag, and recycle at a participating grocery store. Serve condiments in bulk containers rather than disposable packets. Want to go the distance and have compost collection? Purchase appropriately and ensure that the compost collection containers are watched so that absolutely no plastic or metal goes in!
Orange County Solid Waste Management can help. We loan recycling containers for special events and consult with planners to reduce the waste stream, identifying systems for diverting waste through reduction, recycling or composting. Larger public events in Orange County have worked with the Solid Waste Department to reduce their waste as much as 95 percent! Each has their own method - Hillsborough Hogg Day works closely with food vendors to make sure they serve only on compostable ware. Organizers of Farm-to-Fork and Terra Vita provide compostables directly to the vendors, but also reduce waste by providing each event goer with only one utensil (it’s not “Farm to Forks!” the organizer will explain). All three of these events rely on Solid Waste staff and trash-savvy volunteers at sorting stations to keep it all separated and moving smoothly.

Guide to Using Durable, Disposable or Compostable Serving Ware for Special Events
Service Type Durable/Reusable Disposable Compostable
Utensils Portable and cheap compared to durable plates or cups. Purchase at thrift stores or borrow sets from family and friends. Have bucket with water for participants to drop dirty utensils in, wash and save to share for next event. Plastic utensils usually made from PS#6. NOT RECYCLABLE! Inexpensive, cost usually < .01 cent each but landfill only. Expensive relative to disposable, and not always the highest quality. (Wood might splinter, starch-based spoons might bend in hot liquids). Look for “Certified Compostable” label. Our local compost contractor finds some starch based utensils (made from wheat, corn or potatoes) whole after 18 months of the compost process and discards them if she does. Wood and bamboo utensils always compost even in your bin at home.
Plates Rigid plastic plates can be bought cheaply and retain their value if reused. Ceramic or glass plates are expensive, heavy and hard to transport but can be rented so washing is someone else’s job.  Paper plates can be recycled unless they have food contamination- MUST be clean. Styrofoam plates and other #6 plastic plates NOT RECYCLABLE. Some sturdy plastics can be reused before they crack. Cheap, thin, uncoated plain white paper plates are compostable at home or through a commercial composter but might need a basket for support during use. Chinet brand is sturdier, compostable and made with recycled paper (A++) but more costly.
Hot Cups Sometimes you can find enough mugs for at least some part of your group to borrow. Hard to transport. Encourage BYO mug.  Paper hot cups are NOT RECYCLABLE because of food contamination (esp coffee ). Styrofoam is inexpensive but NOT RECYCLABLE. Cups with that weird foam- texture are also garbage. Plain unlined paper or sugar cane (bagasse) hot cups are readily compostable. Keep out plastic lids, stir sticks and straws.
Cold Cups Rigid plastic drinking glasses are great if you can wash and reuse. Glassware is hard to transport and handle but is aesthetically pleasing. Consider a refillable glass as a “keepsake” for your event. “SOLO” or other #1 or #6 plastic cups are NOT RECYCLABLE. Stadium cups and other #2 or #5 cups are recyclable but they are also more costly. Paper cups are often plastic lined and can be recycled if they contained only water.  #7 “PLA” cups made from corn are compostable. So are plain paper cups, but they aren’t as sturdy. Sizes greater than 6 oz. are often lined with plastic, and if so, not compostable.