Compostable straws are great, but they’re no zero waste unicorn  |  San Francisco Examiner

By Robyn Purchia, San Francisco Examiner

Eva Holman, an anti-plastic crusader for the San Francisco Surfrider Foundation, recently spent an hour gathering trash at Ocean Beach. She was giving a talk at a local middle school and wanted to show kids how plastic damages the environment. After only one hour, she had picked up 72 straws. She was frustrated, but not only because she had proved her point. “I lined up all the straws and could not tell which were compostable and which weren’t,” Holman told me.

Compostable products are gaining popularity as San Franciscans look for ways to reduce waste without reducing consumption. Restaurants are replacing straws derived from oil and gas with straws derived from cornstarch. Leftover food and take-out is piled into wheat fiber containers instead of Styrofoam. By going compostable, businesses are diverting money away from fossil fuel companies and waste away from landfills.

Make no mistake, these goods are a better environmental choice. But they’re not a silver bullet. There is no magical product we can use once and toss without hurting the planet and ourselves. Litter on the beach, whether it’s made from petroleum or plants, is still bad. To-go containers also contain chemicals that may make us sick, according to a recent study.

“We’re trying to get less toxic and benign materials out there, but they’re still having an impact,” Samantha Sommer from the nonprofit Clean Water Action told me. “And they’re more expensive.”

Compostable straws and forks aren’t like banana peels and coffee grounds. They only break down if San Franciscans put them in the green bin. Recology, The City’s trash provider, has the capability to turn these products into compost farmers can use instead of harmful fertilizers. Many other trash providers in California and around the country don’t have the same technology. But it’s hard to tell a compostable straw from a non-compostable one. If San Franciscans make a mistake and put compostable products in the blue bin, Recology doesn’t recycle them. If compostable packaging is sent to landfills or left on beaches, it does not fully degrade.

A study released last week by the Center for Environmental Health also raises concerns about additives in compostable products. To keep to-go containers dry and firm, manufacturers use chemicals to repel water and grease. Not much is known about these chemicals, but similar ones may increase our risk of cancer, thyroid disruption and reproductive disorders. “We are concerned about these products both from a human health and environmental perspective,” Sue Chiang, one of the study’s authors, told me. “New research shows the additives can disrupt our hormones.”

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