University of Vermont Cafeteria Adapting To False Biodegradability Claims For Cutlery

UVM Old Mill Building

University of Vermont, Old Mill Building. Image credit:Wikipedia

I always wondered if claims of disposable table cutlery being biodegradable - especially the ones made from vegetable starch - would hold up once the utensils ended up in a commercial composting operation. As University of Vermont has discovered: some do not degrade at all. Apparently some makers of "biodegradable" tableware put in plastic additives required to meet heat resistance, sterility, and appearance standards, such that that the starch simply does not break down. All it takes is a few bad utensils in the heap and you are left with no choice but to go in different direction. The institutional customer does not have the time or budget to test every potential supplier of "compostable" utensils. UVM has responded to the problem of non-composting starch-based utensils in an innovative way.They keep traditional stainless utensils around for those who prefer them and also sell individual plastic, reusable 'sporks' for a buck each. Students either bring a clean plastic spork to each meal or buy a new one for a buck if they forget it.

This prototype approach seems have gained acceptance, according to this story in the Burlington Free Press:

Today, diners have to choose between metal ware and disposable plastic utensils -- not the most popular choice for eco-minded students and staffers who like to eat on the go.

So, UVM has come up with another alternative: reusable plastic sporks. They were selling briskly Wednesday at the weekly farmers' market behind the Davis Center.

No, they're not compostable. But they're not supposed to go into the landfill either, because they're meant to be reused. The idea is that you eat your meal with your spork, lick it clean and stick in your backpack...

Here are the realities few consider when they seek an alternative tableware technology or when they push for a return to all washable tableware.

  • Many modern institutional cafeterias are designed with minimal dish washing capacity and lack storage areas that would support a return to all reusable plates, cups, and utensils.

  • The historic switch to non-washables was as much about saving on labor and utility costs as much as it was for convenience.

  • In newer cafeterias, you can't just go with the old fashioned re-usables without a major capital investment and space modification effort.

  • Compostability claims for tableware, as with so many other dining products, are typically made without third party verification; and, with no one to turn to for corroboration of green product claims, institutional purchasing departments are extremely reluctant to commit.

  • Green product start-ups are small companies; and most new small businesses go out of business within 3 years, adding to the risk for a purchasing commitment.

This UVM story cited (which is worth reading in its entirety) and the bullet points above underscore how important the new FTC green guidelines will be. Small purchasing decisions (what kind of utensils you'll buy for example) drive bigger ones like capital expansion and fund raising plans.

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