Bioplastics and the University of Minnesota

Talking about bioplastics today jogged something in my memory from a few years back when someone shared a “fun fact” about the University of Minnesota Dining Services products being made of corn. I was amazed at the time that my plastic soft drink cup and spoon actually began as plant material. Now that I understand a little more about bioplastics I decided to look a little deeper into this “fun fact”.

According to the University Dining Services (UDS) website UDS has converted 35% of packaging in its 14 on campus dining locations (including residence halls, Coffman Marketplace and others) to biodegradable products which can be completely composted within 45 days. Several dining locations now include an additional trash bin for compost next to the bins for regular trash and recycling.

Biodegradable plastic utensils.

UDS Restauraunt in Coffman Union

UMN “Green Team” helps students sort waste into trash, compost and recycling in Coffman Union dining hall.

Tangential to this research I discovered that the University of Minnesota is actually home to the Center for Sustainable Polymers whose mission is to “transform how plastics are made and unmade through innovative research…” (Center for Sustainable Polymers website).  The CSP website describes a sustainable polymer as being made from renewable feedstocks, use less water and non-renewable energy in its production and have a smaller carbon footprint than petroleum-based plastics.  The biodegradable plastics used by UDS fall into this category.  However, my research took a surprising turn when I realized that, according to CSPs website, sustainable polymers while compostable will NOT degrade in landfills. Furthermore, while sustainable polymers are recyclable they require different processes than are currently in place for other types of plastic so no programs currently exist to recycle these plastics. When I think of all the students who take their food to go and end up throwing their compostable utensils and food packaging in regular trash receptacles I can’t help but wonder if converting to biodegradable packaging was helpful at all.

CSP Diagram for production of Traditional Polymers.

CSP Diagram for production of Sustainable Polymers

I think these discoveries are an important lesson in how certain sustainable initiatives can seem like a great idea up front but there are many aspects of the system beyond implementation that need to be considered if they are going to be successful. Regardless I was glad to learn that the University of Minnesota is taking steps in the right direction and that the Center for Sustainable Polymers is working to better integrate bioplastics into current waste and reuse cycles.

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