My Circular Thought Process in a Not So Circular Economy

At least 150 times since Jybe was born I’ve had to flag down my partner, Paul, to have what feels like the exact same conversation over and over again. It honestly amazes me he still answers my calls. It usually goes like this:

Me: I just got off the phone with <person>. They are a respected industry expert who lives in <city>. They said their waste infrastructure can process <container material> so long as it is <specific condition> and always put in the <color> bin. Do we need to change our algorithm!? How can we mark a restaurant down for using products their infrastructure can handle!?

Paul: Oh really? So they have <color> bins throughout their city? And everyone knows what goes where? And no one buys their lunch in one town and tosses out the trash in another town?

Me: Hmm. Good questions. 

Paul: And what happens if it ends up in the wrong bin? Or they get used to using it in their town, so they keep on using it in other places that don’t meet the high standard?

Me: Bad things. 

Paul: We know unlined kraft boxes breakdown no matter where they end up. Does <container material>? 

Me: Nope. In fact I’ve had <material> soaking in water for 3 months now and have seen no change to date. (I can say this about just about all materials).

Paul: Then…

Me: Right.

The day-to-day conversations may vary, but we are constantly challenging ourselves as to the best approach to take in endorsing the use of different food containers. The choices are endless and different communities hear different messages about which ones are acceptable. But a few things are consistently true and they guide our approach:

How much waste do people produce every day? A lot — about 4.4 pounds each per day in the U.S. It is a mountain of daily trash and it gets processed very quickly.

While some cities invest in infrastructure that can process some of our more complicated waste products, the overwhelming majority do not. We can’t assume those facilities are “coming soon,” as they take huge amounts of funding and don’t happen overnight. 

We can’t rely on waste ending up in the right bin, anyways. 

As Jybe expands into new regions, we are mindful of ensuring our algorithm will make the transition from city to city. Waste processing is not a standardized function and varies widely. But the imperative we always come back to is ensuring that materials are either reusable, biodegradable, recyclable or will impose little burden on the Earth if improperly disposed.

Increasing Reusables

The gold standard for sustainability. In a perfect world, every restaurant would participate in a reusables program like GoBox or Dispatch Goods. As these services expand, we will highlight and promote their restaurant partners for all to see. 

Focusing on Biodegradables

The great thing about a material that is truly biodegradable is that it will break down no matter where it ends up. If an unlined (plastic-free) Kraft paper box makes its way into the ocean, for example, it will degrade in a matter of days. If it ends up in the black, green or blue bin, it’ll likely be gone in a few months and leave behind no harmful substances like many  compostables, which often contain PFAS.

Improving Recyclables

Glass: Bottles and jars can be endlessly recycled without any change to their quality and purity. Recycling glass uses about 30% less energy than making it new.

Aluminum: Endlessly recyclable and so sought after that, even if it ends up in the trash, waste companies will usually pick it out for recycling. Aluminum can go from bin to shelf in just 60 days and recycling uses 60% less energy than making new supplies.

Paper: Most paper and cardboard used in to-go can’t be recycled because it comes in contact with the food. However, the paper bag used to carry it can certainly be reused or recycled, as can a greasy pizza box.

Choosing Renewables

A variety of natural materials are ideal for foodservice, like bamboo, birch wood and palm leaf. These organics grow rapidly under cultivation, have knock-on benefits to the environment and are easily absorbed by nature when they become refuse.

We believe there’s a simple clarity in the materials we endorse — but, admittedly, we spend our entire waking hours thinking about this stuff. The average consumer doesn’t share our obsession and is understandably confused by misleading marketing messages. 

How To Catch Deceptive Marketing Tactics

Misleading marketing is an area that sends our eyes rolling back in our heads. Have you heard of “Greenwashing?” It’s the marketing spin that implies a product could be eco-friendly when in fact it has few sustainable qualities. Greenwashing is so common that it’s taken me more than a year to learn the lingo and read between the lines on sites that claim to sell “eco-friendly packaging.”

Here is just a glimpse of the bait-and-switch: If you search “biodegradable clamshells” one of the first non-ad results on Google is a site that takes you here:

It looks great at first glance. It leads off with ‘biodegradable’ and has all the reassuring keywords we assume are accurate and honest. But we’re being misled, because it goes on to say it’s actually ‘compostable’ and, in some fine print not visible here, clarifies the compostability is limited to certain conditions that may not be available in our area.

Let’s take some of the mystery out of all of this and start by defining “Biodegradable.” 

This simply refers to “the ability of things to be decomposed by the action of microorganisms such as bacteria while getting assimilated into the natural environment.” Basically, you can toss something that is truly biodegradable into your garden and it’ll be harmlessly absorbed into the earth. This is only going to work if the microorganisms are familiar with the material — that’s why they have an appetite for it, which rules out things that are artificial.

One of the most popular forms of greenwashing is switching out the word “biodegradable” with “compostable,” like they did above. If I search for “biodegradable,” the results headline will read “biodegradable” but the description leads with “compostable.” If you click on any of these products you’ll see a formal designation called BPI Certified. 

BPI® is short for Biodegradable Products Institute, which was established to “provide testing, education and promotion of compostable products” — an altruistic intent, though its board is mostly chemical companies and old-school package manufacturers. BPI’s mission may sound good, but its pattern seems to be cloaking non-biodegradable products in a veneer of sustainability with ambiguous classifications. If biodegradable is in your name but your mission really is to obscure rates of compostability, you’re not playing fair!

On any popular eco-friendly packaging site, almost 100% of the time a reference to “compostable,” will be qualified by citing ASTM D600, BPI’s technical category for industrial composting. The average consumer has no clue about that and will be inclined to think it’s just jargon that means compostable.

Since the vast majority of us do not have access to industrial composting, these manufacturers are hoping we simply assume the rating refers to ‘backyard composting’ and envision a virtuous cycle where a 20-ounce plastic smoothie cup somehow transforms into garden mulch.

Back to Our Priority List

So it comes down to honesty and a true commitment to the environment. If a company’s sustainability promise relies on misleading jargon or a facility most of us can’t access, then Jybe cannot endorse it. 

There are too many misleading manufacturers, marketers, web sites and interest groups that find clever new ways to confuse us. No one has the bandwidth to find and debunk them all. The best we can do is promote the materials that truly are better for the planet and stick to that list. 

Sustainability is a complex topic. Jybe aims to make it simple by cutting through the fine print. Whatever city we land in next, we guarantee it will be on Earth. Therefore, our algorithm will remain as-is.

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