Eco-Cycle Times, 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 landfilled.

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 away.

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.