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Bryn Mawr's Biodegradable Takeout: A Fakeout?

akaltwasse's picture

Ann Kaltwasser
Paper no. 3
Prompt no. 2

 At Bryn Mawr College, our dining service proclaims it “is committed to providing the most environmentally friendly dining program possible and one that supports the BMC community,” and has, over the years, become more and more environmentally conscious, most notably in Bryn Mawr’s usage of biodegradable cups and boxes for its takeout option (Sustainability).  “Possible” is definitely the keyword of Bryn Mawr College Dining Services’ mission statement, and protects the college from being accused of lying about its eco-friendly efforts.  Yet in the case of its takeout, Bryn Mawr’s claims stand on fairly solid ground.  The cups given to students in take out kits are called “Greenware” cups, produced by the company Fabri-Kal (Greenware Drink Cups).  Inside each Greenware cup is a cutlery kit consisting of a fork, knife, spoon, one salt, and one pepper packet, made by Dispoz-o Products, Incorporated, a company which offers a line of biodegradable products called “enviroware” (Enviroware).  The boxes for taking out food, however, are void of any sort of branding, but the Dining Services website assures that these containers are “100% biodegradable” (Sustainability).  Even if its food is not entirely organic, Bryn Mawr at least makes the effort to make the container it gets put into environmentally friendly.
 Currently, ridding our world of unrecyclable plastic is necessary in order to reduce the amount of non-biodegradable waste in our landfills.  ShopRite Supermarkets and Whole Foods Market sell canvas bags to encourage customers to stop or at least minimize their usage of plastic, and even Australian comedian and parody songwriter Tim Minchin, if not his best work, pitched in and wrote a song called “Canvas Bags” to spread the word (YouTube: Canvas Bags).  The Dining Services website states that Bryn Mawr used to give out foam cups for takeout, cups that were not biodegradable (Sustainability).  The Greenware Drink Cups the dining halls currently supply are made from the NatureWorks PLA biopolymer, a resin derived from plants alone (Greenware).  On the bottom of the Greenware Drink Cups used for takeout is the word “COMPOSTABLE,” along with the recycling number seven.  The recycling bins in the dorms were only for materials numbered one and two, but, since September 14, 2008, numbers one through seven may be recycled (New Recycling Policy!!).  Bryn Mawr has switched its recycling service to Allied Waste, which also allows students to put all plastic recyclables into the same bin (New Recycling Policy!!).  The Greenware Drink Cup lids are even created from the same biopolymer, so the cups can be recycled with the lids on, unlike the caps and tops of some recyclables (Greenware).  Fabri-Kal, started in 1950, has always been about innovation (Our Company), yet the PLA resin used in making its Greenware Drink Cups is derived entirely from corn, only adding to the ever-expanding list of corn-infused consumer goods (Environment).  Although the cost of “going green” can be high, Bryn Mawr must save on shipment costs, because Fabri-Kal satellites are conveniently located in western and eastern Pennsylvania (Our Company).  And, to be even kinder to the environment, first year students are given travel mugs with the Bryn Mawr College Dining Services logo (an owl carrying a covered dish) on move-in day (Sustainability).  In The Lusty Cup, a small campus coffee shop, students receive a twenty-five cent discount for bringing in their own mugs (the Dining Services travel mugs, naturally).
      Fabri-Kal’s Greenware cups prove to be environmentally friendly, but the food containers remain somewhat of a mystery.  As a fan and almost daily user of the takeout option at Haffner and Rhoads dining halls (although more commonly Haffner, since I live across from it and Rhoads only serves lunch and dinner), I regularly handle the takeout boxes.  But I noticed with my most recent meal, from Rhoads, that the takeout boxes are without brand names.  I looked on the bottom, the top, the inside, even scraping aside the remnants of my disappointingly mild five-alarm chili, and found no mark.  The Dining Services website states that the takeout containers, previously foam like the cups, are “made from cornstarch and sugarcane, and are 100% biodegradable” (Sustainability).  Sugar is soluble in water, so it would, presumably, be simple enough for something made partially from sugarcane to break down (Carbohydrates).  From their papery, slightly rough, and somewhat flimsy feel, I do not doubt that these containers really are biodegradable.  Dining Services do, after all, work with and take suggestion from the BMC Greens, the environmental group on campus (Sustainability). 
      While we can only believe somewhat blindly that the takeout containers are, in fact, biodegradable, it is for certain that the cutlery kits are not.  Despoz-o Products, Incorporated, is the supplier of cutlery kits for Bryn Mawr College Dining Services.  Despoz-o offers an extensive catalog with plastic cutlery of different strengths, colors, and customizable features (Catalog).  In their catalog, I found the same utensil kit Haffner and Rhoads give out, but in the Despoz-o catalog I also found enviroware (Envirofoam Bowls).  Enviroware, although Dispoz-o apparently wants to keep its composition a secret, is about as eco-friendly as cutlery can get: enviroware is inflammable, can degrade in as little as nine months, does not require oxygen to degrade (it degrades through anaerobic digestion, anaerobic meaning without oxygen), degrades completely into carbon dioxide, water, and methane, does not produce any by-products harmful to living terrestrial or aquatic organisms, and are made using ozone-friendly carbon dioxide (Envirofoam Bowls).  So why does Bryn Mawr use Dispoz-o’s non-biodegradable plastic cutlery?  Dispoz-o does not offer any of its enviroware in kit form (Dinner Kits).  The cost of purchasing individual orders of spoons, forks, and knives, most likely exceeds that of pre-packaged kits, not to mention leaves out the handy salt and peppers packets also made by Dispoz-o (Dinner Kits).  Also to add to the cost of using Dispoz-o as a provider is shipping, in that its closest location is South Carolina (About Dispoz-o Products).  Yet we do not need all three utensils for every meal.  If we did, then I would not have a collection of spoons and knives in a mug on my desk, nor would I give all of my unused salt and pepper packets to my friend’s roommate down the hall.  These spoons, which I saved for when I make tea, still collect in my mug, not because I make tea too infrequently, but because I know they will sit in a landfill somewhere, along with all of the other non-biodegradable Dispoz-o products from takeout meals past.
      The takeout kits provided by Bryn Mawr’s Dining Services are probably greener than most other colleges, but there is definite room for improvement.  The Greenware Drink Cups are biodegradable, as are (probably) the takeout boxes.  For Bryn Mawr to boast about its biodegradable takeout, though, is hypocritical, because of the eco-unfriendly utensil kits.  To make a greener cutlery choice, Bryn Mawr need not even change providers, since Dispoz-o makes enviroware, too (Envirofoam Bowls).  Of course, enviroware kits are unavailable, but just ordering spoons, knives, and forks individually from the enviroware line would not only be a greener decision, but would reduce the disposal of unused utensils (or, in my case, the nearly compulsive collection of them) (Dinner Kits).  The plastic packaging that gets thrown away every time a student opens his or her kit is also wasteful, a waste which could be minimized through ordering enviroware utensils in bulk.  Bryn Mawr’s Dining Services mission statement did say it provides “the most environmentally friendly dining program possible,” but, in terms of its takeout option, there are greener possibilities. 

Dispoz-o Products, Inc. – Premium Disposable Products.  “About Dispoz-o Products, Inc..”

YouTube.  “Canvas Bags by Tim Minchin.”  2008.

“Carbohydrates.”  December 9, 2004.

Disopoz-o Products, Inc. – Premium Disposable Products.  2008.  “CATALOG.”

Dispoz-o Products, Inc. – Premium Disposable Products.  “Dinner Kits Dispoz-o Products, Inc..”

Dispoz-o Products, Inc. – Premium Disposable Products.  “Envirofoam Bowls from Dispoz-
      Products, Inc..”

Fabri-Kal – A Leading Manufacturer of Thermoformed Plastic Packaging.  “Fabri-Kal
      Environment.”  2007.

Fabri-Kal – A Leading Manufacturer of Thermoformed Plastic Packaging.  “Fabri-Kal –  
Greenware Drink Cups.”  2007.

Fabri-Kal – A Leading Manufacturer of Thermoformed Plastic Packaging.  “Fabri-Kal – Our
      Company.”  2007.

Emily Reuman, (9/14/2008).  “New Recycling Policy!!.”

Bryn Mawr College.  “Sustainability.”  2007.



eric's picture

If our younger generation

If our younger generation doesn't take it upon themselves to point out what the older generation is and has done wrong, we are in trouble. Good work on this...

Anonymous's picture


I have heard of biodegradable cups and boxes at many places, but I kinda just dont understand this concept.
What materials are these made up, does it mean that after disposal these can vanish and disappear. Or does it mean that it will be used for some purpose like recycling.. I want to implement these for my cafe..

Background Check's picture

Good work...

If our younger generation doesn't take it upon themselves to point out what the older generation is and has done wrong, we are in trouble. Good work on this...

Fliesen Deutschland's picture

Same thing on my university

Dear Ann, it was really nice to read your article.
On my university (it was in germany) we had also a problem with biodegradale takeout packing. In the end tey decided not to offer any more take awy food at the university - so maybe that is the best solution!?

Jeff Swiger's picture

Biodegradable Takeout

Ann, your article is very insightful and you and the students at Bryn Mawr are to be commended for your environmental efforts. Just a couple of things that you may find ineresting. First, our Enviroware cutlery is available in kits. Plus we can make these kits with just a fork and knife or any combination of cutlery.
Second, the products made from corn, commonly known as PLA (polylactic acid) are only biodegradable when placed in a commercial composting facility where high heat moisture and constant management are needed for the biodegradation to occur otherwise they may be around for several hundreds of years. In addition, these products are NOT recyclable - if these items get placed in the recycling stream then they act as a contaminate and render all of the recycling unusable.