Let’s talk about Bioplastics
I wrote this blog post as a result of seeing the increase of single-use plastic products being used while I was traveling and visiting camps this summer with my work as a challenge course inspector and trainer. I’m always looking for solutions to share with camps to help them model sustainability and recently started learning about bioplastics. Bioplastics will not solve the plastic crisis, but I do believe they can provide a valuable educational opportunity to help camps and other businesses demonstrate the impact of our actions and behaviors on our one and only planet.
Interested in more information about bringing bioplastics along with educational resources to your organization? Complete the following form to get started!
There are a lot of lessons to be learned from the steps that camps are taking to create safe and engaging environments for both youth and adults. Some camps closed completely, but many reduced their capacity and implemented policies set out by the CDC such as the ones listed below.
-Signed waivers with information about travel, COVID-19 symptoms, and potential exposure
–Increased cleaning practices with more frequency
-Outdoor seating for meals
–Operating in smaller groups (pods)
–Wearing buffs/masks in situations where social distancing isn’t possible
–Hand washing/Hand Sanitizing stations
–Regular equipment washing (Contact me for resources on best practices for washing ropes equipment)
–Daily temperature scans
-Plastic Dividers on dining room tables
-Markers on the ground to encourage social distancing
-Single-Use Plates, Cups and Cutlery
–Employees/Staff wearing PPE
None of this probably comes as a surprise as these actions are being taken around the world in an effort to reduce the spread of COVID-19. We hear a lot about the economic and social impact of this pandemic, but have you heard much about the environmental impact? There have been some wins for the environment through the pandemic such as fewer carbon emissions from traveling, reduced business activities, more people getting outside and exploring the natural world, and a surge in backyard gardening. However, I’m afraid that the negative impacts far outweigh the positives especially as the economy continues to open back up.
I’m an advocate for anything we can do to reduce the spread of COVID-19, but I don’t believe we have to do it at the expense of the health and well-being of our planet. The challenge of modeling sustainability was overwhelming on its own without the added challenges of a global pandemic, but one of my mentors would often say that as camp professionals, “we do hard things”.
It takes teamwork, collaboration, and good problem-solving skills to accomplish the “hard things” related to sustainability. Being intentional can help you make decisions that reflect the economic bottom line, the environmental impact of programs, and the health and wellness of the youth and adults impacted by those decisions. Consider how the pandemic has influenced those decisions and the associated outcomes.
One of the biggest and most challenging decisions we have to make due to COVID-19 is how to reduce the spread of the virus. These decisions add a clear economic cost to business operations but are vital to moving back to some sense of normalcy.
A common approach to reduce the spread are through the increased use of single-use disposable plastic items since they are said to prevent the risk of cross-contamination and infection. These items are piling up and the amount of waste being produced is staggering.
The good news for the planet is that there are alternatives, but from an economic standpoint they have a tough time competing with their plastic counterparts. With this in mind, I want to help camps explore alternative options. One option that seems to have good potential as you’ll learn more about below, are bioplastics.
What are Bioplastics?
“Bioplastic” is defined as plastic made from plants or other biological material instead of petroleum. It is also often called bio-based plastic.
Not all biodegradable plastics are made from bio-based materials
Some biodegradable materials are made from plants. Others are made from petrochemical resources.
Biodegradable plastics do not all break down the same way.
There is a range of different biodegradable plastics that break down at different rates depending on the environment they end up in. Factors such as moisture, temperature, and the presence of oxygen have a big impact on the rate at which microbes are able to consume the material. Many of these materials are designed to be processed in industrial composting facilities and will not necessarily degrade in soil or marine environments.
Not all compostable materials will break down in a home compost.
Commercial composting systems are able to consistently operate at higher temperatures than home composting. This is due to its scale and better airflow. Some compostable plastics need to be held at a higher temperature in order to start the biodegradation process. If a plastic item is certified commercially compostable you will need to check if there is a commercial composting facility in your area that will accept it. If plastic is certified home compostable it can be composted at home.
Biodegradable plastics cannot be recycled.
If you don’t have a composting facility in your area, the only other real option is to throw it in the trash. Because compostable plastics aren’t the same as traditional plastics, they shouldn’t be thrown in with your general recycling.
Reusable plastics are more environmentally friendly than biodegradable plastics
Having an item like a reusable water bottle or keep a cup that can be used over and over again is generally a much better choice for nature than using an item once (single-use) even if it’s certified compostable.
Are bioplastics more expensive than conventional plastics?
The cost of research and development still makes up for a share of investment in bioplastics and has an impact on material and product prices. Additionally, the currently low oil prices are making it difficult for bioplastics to achieve competitive pricing levels compared to conventional plastics at present. However, prices have continuously been decreasing over the past decade. As more companies and brands are switching to bio-based plastics, and as production capacities are rising, supply chains and processes are becoming more efficient, and prices have come down significantly. With rising demand and more efficient production processes, increasing volumes of bioplastics on the market, and oil prices expected to rise again, the costs for bioplastics will soon be comparable with those for conventional plastic prices. Moreover, specific material properties of bioplastic materials can allow for a reduction of the overall volumes of materials needed for a product or application as well as for cost reduction in the use or end-of-life phase. Already today, there are several examples of cost-competitive bioplastic materials and products. – European-Bioplastics.org
One of the biggest challenges I see with bioplastics is the ability to compost them. There are facilities that will accept and even come to you to collect your compostables. Do a search in your community to see if there are commercial composting facilities nearby. The best resource I’ve found so far is from the US Composting Council. These facilities have received the STA Certification which demonstrates that their compost has gone through a series of tests to ensure it’s quality. https://www.compostingcouncil.org/page/participants
Another option is to bring a commercial composting unit to your camp or community. While this may seem like a costly solution upfront, there are some cases to be made for the opportunity to save and even generate income by operating a composter at your facility. Especially during these hard times when camps are looking for innovative ways to generate revenue to keep afloat.
If you aren’t able to find a solution to compost your bioplastic products they will probably end up in the landfill. This is where many arguments come up questioning the environmental value of bioplastics. In an ideal world, everyone would have access to the resources to help better manage their waste stream. My hope is that as a result of moving to more sustainable solutions you can help influence systemic change that will make living a “green” lifestyle that much more accessible.
Leveraging the educational and economic benefits of bioplastics.
Green Camps has always focused on the educational opportunities of modeling sustainability to inspire green behavior change in their campers and staff. Bringing in bioplastics to replace single-use items is just one of many ways to model sustainability.
I was recently connected with someone who distributes bioplastics and loves the work of Green Camps. So much so that he will be making a donation for orders referred by Green Camps.
There are some cost-competitive bioplastic materials and products and as this industry becomes more competitive prices will continue to drop. To further reduce cost, I’d like to help facilitate collaboration between regional camps to reduce the shipping costs of the products.
As I mentioned at the get-go, bioplastics alone will not solve the environmental crisis! My hope is that by replacing even just one of your single-use plastic items with bioplastics you can engage your campers and staff with an example of a sustainable solution. Consider the importance of 21st Century Learning Skills in helping our youth address the huge environmental challenges faced by our planet.
To support you in this effort, Green Camps will be designing an educational resource to give to camps who want to teach their campers and staff about bioplastics. It could be as simple as a poster in your dining hall or a write up of a lesson or engaging activity. Please let us know what kind of resources would make the most sense to help you inspire green behavior change in your campers and staff.
If you’re interested in learning more about the procurement of bioplastics please fill out the form below and we’ll send you the catalog and generate a quote based on your interest.