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You Say Potato

Glenn Matsumura

By Kathy Zonana

Eat a meal at Bon Appétit's Arbuckle Café, in the basement of the Graduate School of Business, and you won't send much to the landfill. The polylactic acid container that holds the remains of your Asian chicken salad, the sugarcane clamshell containing your burrito leftovers, and the knife and fork made from potato starch go in the compost bin. Bottles and cans go in the recycling bin. In fact, not much goes in the trash, except for sushi trays, cup lids and toothpick wrappers.

Arbuckle and the Cool Café are among the first campus eateries to offer compost bins. Stanford Dining Services, which runs dorm eateries, will join them this quarter at two of its campus cafés, Olives @ Building 160 and the Alumni Café.

Key to this effort are utensils and dishes certified by the Biodegradable Products Institute. Stanford Dining considers using compostables “after first considering reusable serviceware and then recyclable products,” says sustainable foods coordinator Erin Gaines. “If we can reduce waste and receive compost for our gardens by switching to compostable serviceware, then we believe it is a good idea.”

Although last year's composting program at Tresidder's Union Square was suspended when diners had trouble separating their trash, Gaines, '07, is confident the kinks can be worked out even at the large eateries. “We think we can make this successful with proper education and labeling for customers and by switching as many of our items to compostables as possible.”

Certainly some are clamoring for it. “I have received many complaints from students and staff about the noncompostable serviceware currently offered at Tresidder Union and the Axe and Palm,” in Old Union, Gaines says. “I have also heard people complain about the lack of compost bins in the locations where we offer compostable serviceware.”

Which raises a question: if compostable serviceware is tossed in the trash, does it still provide an environmental benefit? After all, not everyone has access to a high-heat compost facility—and polylactic acid containers won't break down in your backyard bin anytime soon.

The answer: a qualified yes. Studies show a slight reduction in carbon emissions from manufacturing the items as compared to regular disposables, Gaines says, “but nothing significant.” Nonetheless, purchasing compostable serviceware increases the market demand for the products, says Stanford Recycling Center's Julie Muir. That will lower the price and send a signal to foam-cup manufacturers that sugarcane is “here to stay.”

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