Breaking It Down IV: Our Experiment Breaks Down

BID_before&afterA couple of weekends ago, on one of the last truly hot days of summer, I bought some delicious organic strawberry ice cream from a street vendor in Brooklyn, New York. Since putting our “green” bottle in John’s compost in mid-summer, I’ve been thinking a lot about the disposable containers that come with the food I purchase. I noticed that my ice cream cup was made from recycled paper, and that my spoon, which felt a bit grainy and rough, was made from another “green” material: potato plastic.

Tossing my potato plastic spoon and recycled cup in a city garbage bin, the contents of which were surely destined for a landfill, it struck me that focusing on the sheer volume of waste we produce is likely the most sustainable solution. If we all carried reusable water bottles and utensils, for example, we wouldn’t need corn plastic or potato plastic or any other kind of degradable container for our food. Suddenly, the search for the “green” disposable container to reduce waste felt like, well, a waste.

Backyard compost ready to hit the garden

Backyard compost ready to hit the garden

Thinking about my cup and spoon sitting unchanged in a garbage heap in New York, my thoughts turned to John’s backyard compost pile in Virginia, where our “green” water bottle has spent the last nine weeks. Although the corn plastic is covered in dirt and a bit warped, it has, for the most part, remained stubbornly unchanged. Failing to break down, the plastic looks out of place with the rest of the material in the pile, which will soon benefit John’s garden as winter approaches.

John is preparing his compost for the cold months by separating it into two piles. The first is the finished compost, with all food scraps broken down into a state once-again usable by plants for nutrients. This will be spread back onto the now-barren garden to enrich the soil for the next growing season. The second pile is newer material, and here John will continue to dispose of his food scraps through the winter even though composting conditions will be less ideal: many of the microorganisms that break down the scraps are “thermophilic,” meaning they like the warm temperatures provided by summer weather.

Absent from both of these piles are the pieces of the “green” bottle. John removed them and took pictures to compare them to their original state. We ended up tossing the scraps in the trash. They will join my ice cream container and spoon, along with the countless other disposable containers that people use every day—such as Ziploc bags, takeout boxes, soda cups, and straws—in landfills, remaining relatively unchanged and taking years to finally break down.

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