Bioplastic: Green or Greenwashing?

There's a vast field of opportunity right now for designing every day objects using new materials that make them safer and more sustainable. Food containers—which we throw away in astonishing volumes each day—are a prime target. Though the best solution to the packaging waste problem is to use non-disposable dishware (which also promotes cooking at home and eating healthier food), we all inevitably get food on the run sometimes.

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In San Francisco, many restaurants and coffee shops now serve food in containers made of corn-based bioplastics (known as PLA, and also sometimes made from sugarcane or other agricultural products and by-products). One of the favorite lunch spots near the Dwell office uses clear containers that resemble PET plastic, but are in fact compostable. Signage on the restaurant's blue, green, and grey disposal bins instructs diners on the proper place for their waste.

I appreciate the conscientious behavior this business is embracing and encouraging, but when I head off to enjoy my lunch elsewhere, I find myself grappling with the question of how best to deal with these "environmentally-friendly" containers. If there's no compost bin near by, where should they go? They're not plastic, so they don't go in the recycle bin with the Coke bottles, yet they're so well identified as being "green" alternatives and they look so much like plastic that I suspect most of them do in fact end up in recycling cans. And then what?

Though my research has been only cursory so far, I have concluded that the regular old trash may the best spot for these, since they biodegrade, until our infrastructure is set up to support them. Though I hate to say it, I find myself wondering whether bioplastic food containers are doing more harm than good as they stream at rising levels into our municipal recycling facilities. Are they just gumming up the works? Clearly continuing to use petroleum-based plastics is not sustainable, but we don't seem to have hit on a real design solution to address this challenge in the long term.

There's no shortage of controversy on this topic. I found an interesting blog post followed by a heated commenter debate, focused largely on the importance of supporting intermediate steps as a way of making progress toward better solutions in the future. Smithsonian Magazine has one of the better-informed and most objective reports on the state of PLA that I could find on the Internet. It seems like a ripe subject for the community of product designers out there. Do you have ideas for new approaches that you haven't seen or heard about? Can you imagine a design solution that goes beyond employing alternative materials to actually reducing the amount of material people use overall?

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