The failures of Williamstown’s plastic ban: On the negative environmental impacts of using Vegware

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It is no surprise that the world has a plastic pollution problem. In the United States alone, 100 billion plastic bags are used each year, often filling up our landfills or ending up in the environment, where they pose a threat to animals. In May 2015, Williamstown banned all single-use plastics and polystyrene (styrofoam) products. As a Williamstown local, I was initially very excited by these changes, proud of my town for taking this step to minimize the footprint we have on this ever-warming planet. Over the past four years, however, I quickly realized how little these bans have actually done to improve our single-use containers problem.

Williamstown’s ban was a great first step in starting the conversation on our town’s waste dilemma. Within six months of the ban’s enactment, all retail establishments had to convert to a zero plastic and styrofoam space. If at any point since then these businesses fail to comply with the law, they can be hit with up to $200 in fines and can have their licenses suspended or revoked. While the ban is quick to lay out the punishments for not complying, it fails to establish a biodegradation plan. In fact, very few businesses provide composting bins to ensure that these new eco-friendly products get composted. I have been working at Lickety Split since I was in high school, and every day I watch our expensive compostable spoons, straws and cups go right into the town’s trash bins with all the other waste that then get emptied at the town landfill. 

To understand why this is bad, let me step back and explain Vegware, the compostable product that most businesses, including Lickety Split and the  College, use as their “green” alternative to plastics and styrofoam.

Vegware, which you all probably have used if you have ever drunk from the green water cups or used the single-use cutlery in any of our dining halls, are catering disposables made from a corn-based material, known as PLA. According to the company, its products are designed to fully biodegrade in under 12 weeks in commercial composting sites. The key words in this claim are “commercial composting,” which in actuality means that these products are designed only for industrial composting facilities. You cannot just take these cups/utensils and bury them in the ground, a point Vegware specifically makes, stating that their “packaging is not expected to break down when discarded in the environment.” So, if we can’t just bury them, can we recycle them? The answer here is also no. Compostable alternatives can’t generally be recycled with other plastics, and can even ruin other batches of recyclable plastic. This means that Vegware waste needs to go into industrial composting facilities with high temperatures and favorable conditions for bacteria to break down these products. Otherwise they will not degrade. Williams College, as well as a few Williamstown businesses, separate their waste and send the compostable products to T.A.M. Organics in Bennington. Everyone else just throws these green products in the trash.

Once these plastic-like compostable materials end up in the landfill, they can act just like any other harmful piece of waste. The composting process requires oxygen, and for the most part, landfills are sealed airtight in oxygen-free containers within the ground. Analysts estimate that a PLA bottle could take anywhere from 100 to 1,000 years to decompose in a landfill. One study found that in landfills, PLA breaks down anaerobically to release methane, a greenhouse gas that is about 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide. But another study found that PLA doesn’t break down at all in a landfill and therefore does not produce significant greenhouse gas emissions. While it is unclear how these compostable products act once in the landfill, they are still taking up space within our already-full landfills and adding to the waste problem that we have.

I also haven’t even addressed the issue with corn-based PLA (what Vegware is made of), which has been receiving skepticism regarding how much better it is environmentally than plastics. Much of the corn-based PLA uses corn from a GMO source. Therefore, the use of PLA promotes genetically modified corn seeds, something that most environmentalists are fighting hard against since they have the possibility of contaminating conventional crops and disrupting local ecosystems. Other critics point to the steep environmental toll of industrially grown corn. The cultivation of corn requires more nitrogen fertilizer, herbicides and insecticides than any other U.S. crop; these practices contribute to soil erosion and water pollution when nitrogen runs off fields into streams and rivers. We also cannot forget that these compostable products are not recycled by our scraps or waste, requiring that we use more land to cultivate more corn to make these products.

All in all, Williamstown does not have the proper infrastructure in place to handle our plastic/Styrofoam ban. The law is a step in the right direction but does not actually do anything to divert the waste going into our landfills. As we reach the five-year anniversary of this law, I hope we take a hard look at what positive effects actually came from this change and modify our laws to better support businesses who are trying their very best at being green. If we do not provide compost bins and teach people how to properly dispose of their waste, our problems will never be solved. Although biodegradables have a place in our transition to a more sustainable society, and may be appropriate at some events, I don’t believe that they are the solution to going plastic-free. These are still single-use products that we are using. We must remember the far bigger consumption and waste problem we have as a society and try to promote a circular economy that utilizes recycling and reduction. 

Niku R. Darafshi 21 is a geosciences major from Williamstown, Mass.