I Love These Biodegradable Ketchup Packets! But Who's Going to Pay the Premium for Them?
Condiment packets and conventional plastic souffle cups are the scourge of event waste diversion companies everywhere. Even vendors totally committed to using compostable disposable foodware often have ranch dressing or barbeque sauce tucked into their compostable clamshells along with their salads, sandwiches, or chicken. Most event attendees do not stop in front of waste stations, carefully read the signage on the bins, and dutifully separate out the trash from the compostable materials in their meal waste. What they do is stuff everything inside t
he clamshell and toss it in the compost bin. The compost bin ends up full of not only food scraps and compostable clamshells but also ketchup packets, plastic souffle cups, aluminum foil, and whatever else the food vendor uses in serving their wares.
Studies have shown that the number one factor that drives decisions to recycle is convenience, not education and information. Surprised? Signage is only helpful for those who are already motivated to do the desired behavior. It's not that bin signage doesn't matter at all. It just doesn't matter as much as we think it does. We need to make it as easy as possible for attendees to dispose of their waste properly while maximizing landfill diversion. That's a very lofty goal.
To control the event outputs, we must control the inputs. If the output goal is circularity and minimal to no landfilled waste, it is better to focus on what we can control, which is the disposables being brought into the event. Attendee behavior is a much tougher nut to crack.
Initially, when an event host first attempts to tackle event waste, public-facing bins are set out to collect recyclables, maybe organics, and they hope for the best. It's quickly discovered that the result is massive contamination - so much contamination that most of what's collected has to be landfilled. Want to know a secret? The large haulers hate picking up event recycling, because it's usually so contaminated that they have to landfill it all anyway.
The next stage in getting to more landfill diversion is to staff the bins or waste stations to assist attendees in deciding what goes where. However, this can be highly labor-intensive. This work is not for the squeamish, as a busy, crowded event will inevitably require picking out contaminants from the bins on a regular basis. This is especially the case if only some of the vendors are using compostables. If half are using Styrofoam clamshells and half are using compostables, that's what you can expect to see in your compost bins unless your staff picks out the Styrofoam from the compost bins.
The most effective way to get to maximum landfill diversion is to control the inputs, which means eliminating the Styrofoam and the ketchup packets altogether. When all disposables are 100% compostable, guests can freely toss their entire clamshell into the compost bins, no sorting is necessary, and extensive labor is not needed to weed out contamination. Thankfully. most people understand that aluminum cans and water bottles don't go in the compost bins - it can help to have properly lidded containers to collect these waste streams, making it next to impossible to stuff a clamshell in them. You'll still need people to pull out the occasional contaminant from the bins, but it'll be drastically reduced - which reduces your costs.
Aluminum cans and clean PET water bottles are the most valuable type of waste collected at any event. Both have a domestic market and will actually be recycled. Collection containers like the one pictured keep these streams free of contamination - no one can stuff a Styrofoam clamshell through that circular opening without a lot of effort!
So, how do we eliminate Styrofoam, condiment packets, and' souffle cups? See my previous writing on clamshells and centralized condiment stations. However, there's another answer for ketchup packets. Without scale, like so many other innovative sustainability solutions that solve seemingly intractable waste issues, it's unfortunately prohibitively expensive at this point.
This is a fully edible, biodegradable ketchup packet made from seaweed and plants. It can be tossed in the compost bin at home and at events. The cost? 50 pounds for 200 packets, which amounts to $63.15 in U.S. dollars. You can get 1,000 conventional ketchup packets for under $30 on a popular foodservice e-commerce site. We can't expect Detroit food trucks to absorb that kind of cost. We can't really call this a 'solution' yet if no one can afford it here.
Until 'solutions' like the biodegradable ketchup packet are adopted at scale, we're going to have to rely on things like centralized condiment stations and staffed waste stations to get greater landfill diversion at events. Conventional plastic souffle cups can also be replaced with compostable ones. Or, we could just continue with the status quo in Michigan - one of the lowest recycling rates in the country, cheap landfilling, and dumpster after dumpster rolling down the road to bury more event waste in the ground.