Friday, February 22, 2013


We're green here in Portland, Oregon. We're green here in the Fish House. I'm green. So why is it sometimes so confusing to be green?

Let's look at the containers we get for take-out food or restaurant left overs. We have been to a few restaurants lately, and have come home with a variety of containers holding the left-overs. We emptied three of them the other day, and I was left puzzling over what to do with the boxes. This is what we had, and what I did:

BioPlus Earth#1 - this is a brown paperboard box with a shiny (plastic?) lining. Printed on the bottom is the name of the product, the chasing-arrows recycling symbol, and the following text:

  • Made from 100% recycled paper (average 35% post-consumer content)
  • Made in the U.S.A.
  • For recycling information visit www........[web address]
Sustainable Packaging Done Right - Reduce, Re-use, Recycle

So, do I throw it in the recycling bin, the compost bucket, or the garbage? How would I know? It looks like plastic-lined paper. I certainly wasn't going to go get my computer and get online. I threw it in the garbage.

Plain brown paperboard clamshell box. This one had no printed labeling on it; however, upon very close inspection, there seemed to be some words embossed on the inside of the bottom (where the food goes). I rinsed off the food residue and then held it under a strong light, but couldn't read it. So I got a pencil and ran the lead back and forth over the embossing until I could make out the word "compostable." OK, easy! The funny thing is that the restaurant lined the box with a square of aluminum foil - I guess these containers leak through. So I put the foil in the recycling and the box in the compost bucket. This left me wondering what the true environmental footprint of this choice is, if you consider the cradle-to-grave of the paper box and the aluminum foil.

BioPak #1. Black paper box with plastic lining. This box, made by the same company as the first one, has the same messaging printed on the bottom, telling me that it is made from 100% recycled paper, made in the USA, and to go to their web site for recycling information.  Again, I have no frickin' idea what to do with this box, so again, into the trash it goes.

So, what is the correct, GREEN thing to do with these boxes? Did I make the correct choices? To find out, I went to the web site listed on the BioPak boxes; the company is FoldPak (a RockTenn company). They have a page about recycling, pasted here:

which basically tells me that, yes, their products can be recycled if my local recycler will accept it. Um, OK, that isn't very helpful. 

Next stop, my local recycler. I went to the Metro (Metropolitan Service District) website for recycling information. Aha! After clicking around a bit, I found the following info for Portland curbside recycling:


freezer boxes
Freezer boxes, butter boxes, ice cream containers, take-out containers (These are impregnated or lined with a plastic moisture barrier to keep them from disintegrating. They are also contaminated with food.)

So, I made the correct decisions after all. Two out of three takeout boxes were trash. So much for recycling. 

(A quick note: while having a beer with an environmental consultant friend last night, he told us about his recent tour of the composting facility contracted by the City of Portland for our curbside compost service. He was told that a very small percentage of the stuff delivered to the facility was actually compostable. One factor is that people toss a lot of inappropriate stuff into the compost bin. Another factor is that some items labeled "compostable" take too long to break down and don't compost in this facilities' process. Hmmm...)

Many years ago I decided that there are certain myths about recycling. One of these is that just because something is labeled "recyclable" doesn't mean that it is. Many items that are labeled as recyclable are only that IF you can find someplace to take them that will actually recycle them. 

Recycling is an important component of getting to sustainability; but we need to be smart about it, and not just go with what feels good or seems to be correct. Is paper better than plastic for food containers? I think most people would say that paper is better; however, the data tell us otherwise. If you are interested, here is a case study by folks at University of Michigan, published in 1995, about paper vs. plastic clamshell boxes used by McDonalds. After studying the aspects of plastic-lined paper vs. polystyrene containers, McDonald's chose plastic. The public didn't like the decision because they felt that plastic = bad, paper = good. However, independent research, detailed in the paper cited above, tell a different story. The facts will very likely surprise you; plastic has a lower environmental footprint than coated paper sandwich boxes. 

Years ago, the City of Portland banned styrofoam food containers used by restaurants. So restaurant owners scrambled to find alternatives. The most common container following the ban was the clear plastic clamshell. These containers were not easily recycled (I found a place about a 1 hour drive from our house), and to this day cannot be put into the curbside recycling bins. So what was gained by the ban? I'm not sure if anything was gained. It was not, in my opinion, a smart decision, it was a "feel good" decision (we are sooo green). 

I'm not trying to be cantankerous in this post; I'm trying to present information that can help us all think more clearly about recycling and sustainability. As Kermit sings, it isn't easy being green!  

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