The Zen of packaging 

Keeping the scariest bits out of the landfill

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Confused about the best container for that take-out stir fry or the best packaging for that cereal? Me, too! You almost need a PhD in waste management to get it right.

Then once we choose, how about getting it into the right bin — recyclables or otherwise — when we're done?

In the name of setting these things straight, may I present my personal collection of garbage rescued through my own unique binning efforts — an assortment of containers and packaging I've gathered over time, each item professing to be Earth-friendly, human-friendly, something-friendly or at least not as sinister as carbon-based Styrofoam.

Here's a Greenware compostable cup I dragged home from some music festival or other after I slurped up the smoothie inside. It's made by NatureWorks.

Greenware is made by fermenting dextrose extracted from corn that's been grown within a 480-kilometre radius of NatureWorks' Nebraska factory. Fermenting dextrose turns it into lactic acid. This, in turn, is used to make a kind of biodegradable polymer, sometimes referred to as PLA (for polylactic acid or Polylactide) or the trade name, Ingeo. One hundred per cent of a Greenware cup — or any pure PLA product — will turn into compost in months in a commercial composter, although some composters resist it because it dilutes the nutritional value of the compost.

Now here's a big, flat beige TaterWare clamshell, which came home bearing some equally beige pasta leftovers. The imprint says it's GMO-free and bio-based, which is all very nice, but relatively meaningless. By contrast to the Greenware cup, the TaterWare clamshell is not compostable. And even though it says it's 100 per cent biodegradable, that's pretty much a misuse of the term.

I can't find deep details on the composition of a TaterWare clamshell, at least not in the public domain, but it's made in part from potato starch (ergo the name). At one point, Whole Foods in San Francisco stopped using TaterWare cutlery because it couldn't be composted. To top it off, the Biodegradable Products Institute, a U.S.-based professional association aimed at promoting biodegradable polymers — polymers, or mixtures, like the Greenware cup, that really do biodegrade or break down into organic components once you're done with them — has not given its seal of approval to TaterWare. One research group reports it as being 70+ per cent polypropylene, or plastic.

Over here is a white so-called "biodegradable" plastic bag, or at least the remains of it, for it's slowly disintegrating into weird little chippy bits like filmy pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Don't try to recycle one of these guys — it can wreck an entire batch of genuinely recyclable plastics.

As with TaterWare, this again is a pretty loose and fast use of the term "biodegradable" because this bag is basically plastic with some kind of starch holding it together.

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