Eco-Cycle Times  [Printer-friendly version]
July 1, 2006


[Rachel's introduction: Eco-Cycle, the path-breaking recycling
group on Boulder, Colorado, turned 30 this year and adopted a new
mission: "Working to Build Zero Waste Communities." Here executive
director Eric Lombardi discusses a tough choice Eco-Cycle faced in
its composting operation and how the precautionary principle guided
the group's decision.]

By Eric Lombardi

In business there are, of course, ethical and unethical ways to make
money, clean ways and dirty ways, and a lot of gray area in the
middle. The choices a business makes along those lines define the
company and its principles. We at Eco-Cycle recently found ourselves
contemplating a tough choice about how to do business within our
Composting Program, and, in the decision-making process, we realized
that our deliberations have larger implications for how all businesses
in the 21st century need to discuss financial gains and long-term
environmental sustainability.

The basic elements of this short tale are pretty simple to understand
-- the world is full of disposable paper products and packaging that
are coated with a thin layer of plastic. Items such as milk cartons
have a plastic coating that is so thin as to be imperceptible, but its
presence is very important to the strength and moisture-resistance of
the material. The recycling market value of this material is usually
so low that Eco-Cycle subsidizes the costs to handle it; hence,
Boulder County is one of the few areas in the nation that recycles
this material because keeping it out of the landfill is important for
both conserving resources and for preventing the groundwater pollution
and greenhouse gas emissions that occur when these products are

I was very excited to learn a couple years ago that people were
successfully composting plastic-coated disposable paper products in
with food scraps and yard clippings. This new handling option was less
costly than recycling and much more environmentally-preferable than
throwing away the disposables -- a win-win, I was beginning to think.
Trade magazines and facility operators were claiming the plastic
coating completely broke down and disappeared... it just sort of went

Out of Sight, But Not Out of Mind.

That sounded good, and I was eager to get this program rolling until
our two science professionals on staff at Eco-Cycle reminded me that
just because the plastic coating remnants couldn't be seen after the
composting process, that didn't mean they didn't persist at
microscopic levels. Plastic is well known to be non-biodegradable, but
the grinding mixing, and high temperatures involved in a commercial
compost process can turn the already thin film into very small
particles. Common sense, which often takes a vacation when money
issues are discussed, suggests that those particles, ever so small,
are still there and potentially now better able to disperse throughout
our soil and water.

Over the last year, Cyndra Dietz, our resident scientist and manager
of the Schools Recycling Program, and Dan Mats, our resident organic
farmer and manager of our new Composting Program, spearheaded a small
research project to investigate what happens to that plastic coating
after composting. It turns out that this is such a new issue only a
little science exists on the topic, and the available information
suggests that indeed there may be a problem with microscopic particles
remaining in the soil and harming the creatures that live there (such
as worms), and that these particles may be washing out of the soil to
dam-age the living organisms in nearby aquatic environments.

Last January, the three of us wrote and presented an :'Issue Brief"
for discussion at the national composting conference in Albuquerque.
Our goal was to seek new information and feedback from the leaders in
the industry. Despite grumblings from the largest for-profit
composters in the meeting, the group appreciated our sound research
and expressed similar concerns about the dangers of microscopic
plastic infiltration. The meeting ended with a request for Eco-Cycle
to initiate new research and present again next year.

Our Stance: Precautionary Principle

Despite the attractive financials of composting these materials versus
recycling them, we decided to take a stand: plastic-coated papers
should not be composted until it is proven safe. This approach to
business centers around a new idea taking hold in Europe called the
Precautionary Principle (PP). This important new social innovation
says industry must first prove that its actions or products are safe,
as opposed to the traditional approach where the public is forced to
prove afterward that industry's actions were dangerous. Decades of
Superfund clean-ups, holes in the ozone layer, and increasing levels
of toxic chemicals accumulating in our bodies have governments and
businesses around the globe coming around to the notion that
prevention is simpler, safer and less expensive than treatment. Eco-
Cycle strongly supports the PP as a key to environmental
sustainability, and our recent experience with plastic- coated papers
was an opportunity to "walk our talk." As we continue our research on
this topic, we'll keep you informed. Until then, please join us in
taking the precautionary approach to keeping plastic waste out of our
soils and waterways.