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All food wrappers should be biodegradable

Updated: Aug 31, 2019

What do I mean by food wrappers? I mean plastics, papers, waxes, and combinations thereof. Burger papers, muffin liners, french fry containers, pizza boxes, the plastic film around deli sandwiches, and so on. Basically, all the inedible stuff in which food might come packaged is what I am referring to as "food wrappers".


What about metal and glass?


I am not talking about metal and glass. This is because both metal and glass are easily cleaned and recycled using common existing technologies. This is true regardless of what your local recycling facility might tell you. But, we'll get to recycling facilities later. For now, I'll define "food wrappers" as food packagings and containers that are not metal or glass. This is how I will use the term for the rest of this article. By this definition, food wrappers all share a simple truth in common.


No food wrappers are recyclable


This is because any food stuck to the surfaces of these materials turns chemical recycling processes that are already finicky into ones that are practically impossible. Moreover, contaminating other items in a recycling bin with these food-covered items will transfer the food to the other materials, making them unrecyclable too. This is why recycling campaigns around the world routinely tell people not to recycle food-contaminated items, but to throw them out instead. Again, this is excepting metal and glass, which are generally recognized to be cleanable and, subsequently, recyclable.


"All food wrappers" is a big category of things to just throw in the dump


Yep! That is why all food wrappers should be explicitly designed to be biodegradable. There are no fundamental scientific or political reasons that would prevent us from requiring this of all manufacturers of food wrappers. The only real obstacles we might encounter are either historical, or economic.


The historical obstacles don't matter to the thesis here, so we'll ignore them. We live in the present, not the past, so we don't care what people have done historically. And "tradition" is never a good reason for deciding on public policy in the present.


The economic obstacles we'll address in a bit, but rest assured they are surmountable.


That said, let's reiterate the fundamental thesis of this article one more time.


All food wrappers should be explicitly designed as biodegradable


No existing recycling technology can recycle food wrappers that are contaminated by food. This is true for plastic, paper, wax, and any combination of those components. Food-contaminated paper wrappers (including cardboard) can be composted, however, unless they are hybridized with plastic or wax, which is an extremely common occurrence. Meanwhile, food-contaminated plastics and waxes, or paper wrappers containing either one, must simply be thrown away.


Because they cannot be reused, recycled, or biodegraded, plastics and waxes are both what we might call terminal garbage. What I mean by that is that the only possible fates for these items are to end up being burned, or filling a dump that has limited dumping space, or polluting a natural environment.


The reason for the terminality of these items is that the plastics and waxes that we tend to use are not designed to be biodegradable, so the microscopic bugs we rely on to digest more natural materials like paper cannot digest them. Speaking of which....


What does it mean to be biodegradable?


There are some discrepancies and disagreements over what, exactly, should constitute the term "biodegradable". However, the functional definition I will use here is that any item which is biodegradable can be completely eaten and digested by microbes. This applies regardless of whether those microbes are bacteria or archaea. This definition is slightly simplified from more rigorous phrasings in the scientific literature, but the essence is good enough for our purposes. In any case, this definition is so common precisely because it is practically useful in an obvious way, and this simultaneously makes it the most conceptually interesting definition that I know of for the concept of biodegradability.


There is a really important sidenote to make here: Biodegradable is NOT the same thing as bio-based! A material can be both. It can be neither. It can be either one, without being the other. Do NOT confuse them! They are totally distinct concepts. And that's the last time I'll mentioned bio-based materials in this article.


Is biodegradable the same as compostable?


Sort of! Compostability can be thought of as a subset of biodegradability, where the biodegradation is taking place under controlled and relatively stable conditions, in an environment that is more or less physically, chemically, and biochemically stable.


Think of a garden compost pile with a food wrapper in it. Can that food wrapper be completely eaten and digested by the microbes in that compost pile? If so, then it is compostable.


Now throw that same food wrapper into the ocean, which constitutes a much more dynamic environment physically, chemically, and biochemically. Would we say that the wrapper is composting as it bobs in the waves and sinks to the ocean floor? Well, probably not. The term "composting" doesn't quite sound right to our ears here. But, we can ask if the wrapper can be completely eaten and digested by ocean-going microbes in its new environment. It is often this latter case of environmental pollution that we think of when we discuss whether an item is biodegradable without discussing whether it is compostable.


Meanwhile, we take it for granted that a compostable item is biodegradable, in the specific context of "within a compost pile".


In that sense, the environmental context is a little more narrow for compostability than it is for biodegradability, but the fundamental concept involved in each definition is identical. Again, this fundamental concept can simply be thought of as "microbes eating and digesting stuff, until that stuff is completely gone".


The remainder of this article will not be concerned with compostability per se, but it will be good to keep in mind that any universal standard for biodegradability can easily include a universal standard for compostability, but the reverse is not necessarily true.


Don't we already have biodegradable food wrappers?


Yes. Well, some. Kind of. There are definitely examples of biodegradable food wrappers already out there, and I do not just mean the paper ones. However, these examples have disparate and sometimes incompatible composting requirements. Depending on what kind of microbe is supposed to be munching on the wrapper, it might need completely different conditions to do so effectively. Then we can ask: How likely is it that both sets of conditions will coexist in the same place at the same time?


For instance, a plastic film composed of polymer A may be compostable under very specific heat, acid, and other biochemical conditions inside a supervised vat. However, if this film, once used, is not sent to those specific conditions via controlled compost routes (for instance, curbside compost bins), it is likely instead to end up in very different environments (such as oceans, or landfills) where chemical and biochemical conditions are drastically different from those of the intended composting endpoint. Under such circumstances, the films will degrade much more slowly, or not at all. In practice, this would be the same as if the film had never been designed to be biodegradable in the first place.


On the other hand, even if a film made of some other polymer B were designed to be maximally biodegradable in an aquatic or marine environment, there remains the fact that biodegradation takes time. After all, biodegradation (whether in the guts of earthworms, or in an industrial vat of microbes) is nothing more than the biochemical breakdown of a substance into its fundamental chemical components. The way this happens is that bacteria (or possibly archaea) need to eat the product and digest it. No metabolic process like this, anywhere on the planet, happens instantaneously. They all take time. And as the film or bag waits for that time to pass, it remains a macro-sized product that can choke turtles, trap and starve fish, clog the intestinal tracts of whales, and drown birds and seals, just to name a few outcomes. The shorter we can make that wait time, the safer wildlife will be.


Moreover, in the context of macro-sized films, the common physical (as in, non-biochemical) degradation of these films in natural environments, as well as the chemical and physical repercussions of common waste management approaches used by humans for films and other plastics, lead to a number of severe systemic problems that I have discussed previously.


We want to minimize or avoid all of this, and that leads inevitably to a single conclusion.


We need universal standards for biodegradability


The world is nowhere near having universal biodegradation standards. Not for the easy case of controlled compost conditions, and certainly not for the hard case of open environmental conditions, such as rivers, lakes, deserts, oceans, and other natural arenas. In fact, the modern state of research into biodegradability, as well as consensus on how to implement the findings of that research, is a giant mess. But we have to figure out how to standardize and systematize all of it. Here are some specific suggestions.


1) Boost federal funding for scientific research into biodegradable materials, especially food wrappers. This includes not only the development of these materials, but the development of methods by which to measure biodegradability and standardize its assessment. This should be an easy sell. Given how sensitively food safety standards drive public health, and how directly food packaging impacts food safety, the federal government (including agencies such as the CDC and FDA) has a vested interest in driving and maintaining strict food packaging standards for biodegradable materials. The necessary research funds could flow primarily through standard academic channels via research grants and fellowships, as well as in the form of innovation grants to private entrepreneurs. Moreover, established companies that devote significant internal R&D funding (above some normalized threshold of R&D-to-profits ratio) to this same effort should receive tax breaks in proportion to research dollars spent on these biodegradable materials and biodegradability standards. All of this should be accompanied by an immediate phasing out of all federal research funding benchmarked for the development of food wrappers that are not explicitly intended to be biodegradable.


2) Tax industries for the purchase of non-biodegradable food wrappers. This would echo the per-product consumer taxes that have been established for other items that generate public crises, such as cigarettes, and encourage the never-free hand of the market to shove downstream manufacturers away from the jealous embrace of existing supply giants and into the eager arms of smaller, newer companies ready to gorge themselves on new contracts for ecologically less-destructive product lines.


3) Require all composting facilities to accept and process all biodegradable food wrappers. Currently, there are few requirements along these lines. Thus, composters are legally allowed to refuse materials explicitly labelled as "compostable". The problem here is that, as with so many regulations regarding recycling, biodegradability or composting regulations that do exist tend to be local, vague, unbinding, and unenforced. We need specific, legally binding language, at the federal level, with funded enforcement, to tie these new composting requirements to the kinds of universal standards discussed in suggestion #1. Composting facilities found to refuse food wrappers that satisfy standard biodegradability ratings should be fined for every offense. This goal could be achieved even more straightforwardly by turning mass composting into a publicly run utility.


4) Ban the sale of non-biodegradable food wrappers after a certain date. The sale of non-biodegradable food wrappers should be made illegal at a defined future date. This would echo other recent bans on ecologically destructive and highly visible items, such as plastic straws, plastic bags, and the key chemical components of certain insecticides, herbicides, and flame retardants. A chorus of industries, industry lobbyists, and senators owned by industry lobbyists will chant their loud nonsense about how this change is unreasonably drastic, it's too heavy-handed, it interferes with markets, it's un-American, it has no precedent, and so on. We've heard it all before, hundreds of times, and unfortunately we will have to suffer through it again on this point, like a parent patiently but firmly telling a child to eat their vegetables as the child screams "LA LA LA LOBBYISTS ARE MY REAL PARENTS!"


Taken together, these four suggestions alone would quickly drive universal standards for biodegradability in general, and an escape from non-biodegradable food wrappers specifically. Unfortunately, the ubiquity of food wrappers, and thus their economic inertia, is significant. Moreover, the slapdash heterogeneity of the materials they contain makes any attempt at regulatory control complex and difficult to achieve by non-professionals.


The necessary changes cannot actually be made by us


The economics of food wrappers are too convoluted and entrenched to be driven by the economic actions of the end consumers of food wrappers. This is true for the group of friends peeling cupcake liners off their birthday cupcakes, and for the sad college student eating french fries for dinner next to a pile of old french fry boxes. We all use food wrappers, but we have limited or no choice over which ones, unless we simply decide not to eat certain kinds of food at all. We are not the ones who control the companies that sell these materials from factory to store, or from store to shopper. We do not mediate the choices of material that go into these products, or the systemic frameworks of what is available for sale.


Worse, because biodegradable alternatives often do not yet exist, or are not yet used to wrap the particular kinds of food we seek to buy, the old ineffectual standby of a boycott campaign seems weaker than ever. Boycotts become much less straightforward when the material being boycotted is not the product itself, but the product's packaging. A boycott against packaging runs the very real risk of confusing the message of what, exactly, is being boycotted. This doesn't help anyone. We're not boycotting muffins to save the world, we're boycotting the clothes those muffins are wearing.


But if we don't have the systemic authority or professional expertise to make companies do what we want, who does? What other options do we have?


We need to make government intervene for us


As we've seen, a purely market-driven approach to solving this problem is not going to work. Thus, we are left with a systemic problem, which must be addressed through systemic means other than the market. That leaves us with a governmental approach, wherein elected officials are made to implement the changes outlined above on our behalf, backed by the full power of the law and a politically active citizenry no longer willing to tolerate lobbyist control over literally everything.


Contact your representatives to talk about the four points listed above, or similarly broad-reaching suggestions. Or use the list as brainstorming fodder and then discard it, if you want. The important thing is that we start making the people who represent us take stands on conceptually mundane yet ecologically critical and economically protected issues like these.


This article is nominally about food wrappers. However, as big and complicated of an issue as food wrappers are, this issue is actually just a tiny start to a much larger change that is required, which is to move completely away from the idea and practice of terminal garbage. And that change will have to consume thousands of industries that permeate every level of our world, its people, and their cultures. But that is a broader challenge to talk about in a later article. For now....


We need to stop making non-biodegradable food wrappers


This change should be as immediate and permanent as possible. It will have several obvious benefits and a few more subtle ones.


1) We will reduce the amounts and kinds of organisms we are killing through pollution, especially plastic pollution. By reducing the persistence time of macro-sized garbage such as food wrappers in the environment, we minimize the amount of acutely harmful anthropogenic garbage present at any one time in a given place. This in turn minimizes the number of animals that are choked, tangled, suffocated, maimed, or otherwise killed by our badly managed waste.


2) We will improve recycling efforts. There is often confusion between biodegradable and non-biodegradable food wrappers, as labels and standards both tend to be unclear. This means that much recyclable yet non-biodegradable material ends up in compost bins, while much biodegradable yet non-recyclable material ends up in recycle bins. Both cases ultimately lead to more garbage in the ground, intentionally or not. If only we just had to remember "Wrappers go in compost" instead of "Wrappers go in compost? Or is it recycling? It's clean and I don't see any food contamination. Can I use either bin? Should I alternate? Fuck it, I'm throwing this away".


3) We will have a chance to lower our dependence on the fossil fuel industry. That is because the majority of current non-biodegradable food wrappers require the use of a petroleum product at some stage of production, usually as a feedstock. The more we can do to weaken this dependency, the better off our species will be. Plastics production is not a very large part of the total fossil fuel industry, but even a few percent reduction in the economic power of that cartoonishly destructive industry would be a massive boon to environmental and human health alike.


We are finding terminal garbage literally everywhere we look for it, from pristine mountaintops to the brains of fish. It is transported by wind and water, by bacteria and blood, up and down the entirety of every food chain on the planet. Much of it is plastic, but there are also foils, alloys, and a thousand kinds of persistent monomeric chemical. This endlessly anthropogenic waste is a vector for cancer, it makes organisms more vulnerable to infectious disease, much of it functions as an infinite fleet of life rafts for bacteria, it is debilitating our bodies and minds and collapsing food webs. It is killing us and the ecologies we are embedded within. The human economic market has failed to address any of this. It's time for government to take this seriously, as seriously as any war or plague we have ever fought. That still may not be serious enough, but it will be better than the deadly joke we are enacting now.


The context and suggestions in this article are intended as a minimal start, to get us used to the idea of thinking up specific actions that we can demand our government take on our behalf.


None of us should need to be experts on how to save our planet or our own lives. Our government should be doing that for us, via expert policy makers, via legislative and executive officials who care about people and environments more than they care about corporations and lobbyists who give them money. This is a test of that. Please call or text your officials about one of the ideas in this article.


Because if we can't even get our countries to agree on biodegradable cupcake liners, we are fucked.


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