October 25, 2010 | General

BioCycle World

BioCycle October 2010, Vol. 51, No. 10, p. 6

Sunchips Pulls Compostable Packaging
Ostensibly due to complaints about its noisy packaging, Frito-Lay is pulling the plug on its “100% Compostable” SunChips bags. The abandoned packaging – and the stated reason – garnered much attention in the popular press, including The New York Times, USA Today and Mother Jones magazine. “… Americans can’t muster the support to pass a climate bill, but a bunch of angry couch potatoes can successfully mobilize to force Frito-Lay to drop their innovative packaging,” wrote Mother Jones energy and environmental politics writer Kate Sheppard. Responding to Sheppard’s diatribe, some bloggers suggested the noisy bag was just a smokescreen for the real reason for pulling the compostable bags – they don’t actually compost. Following an article about the packaging (“Chipmaker’s All-Or-Nothing Claim Sets The Bar In Big And Bold,” August 2010), BioCycle received similar comments from veteran backyard composters about the bags not living up to their claims. Will Brinton of Woods End Laboratories was hired by Frito-Lay to do R & D on the packaging and specifically to make sure it was capable of breaking down in backyard composting conditions as promised. “To generate maximum heat, we found that it’s best to construct a pile as quickly as possible with collected materials rather than layering it over time,” Brinton told BioCycle in August. In other words, build the pile all at once.
According to USA Today, SunChips, which reported an 11 percent decline in sales over the past 52 weeks, is going back to the drawing board to come up with an eco-friendly bag that’s not so noisy (SunChips Original will remain in the new packaging while the other four flavors will revert to multilayer film – unrecyclable – packaging). A Facebook page dubbed “Sorry But I Can’t Here You Over This SunChips Bag” had nearly 50,000 members at press time. “If the sound of a crinkly eco-chip bag is too much to handle, then the human species really is screwed,” suggests Sheppard in Mother Jones.

Editor’s note: BioCycle lauds Frito-Lay for its efforts and encourages the company to keep trying. The fate of the SunChips bag – which does compost under commercial conditions – also underscores the need for more community composting infrastructure.

California Plastic Bag Ban Dies
A landmark bill that would have barred the distribution of single-use shopping bags at grocery stores, pharmacies and convenience stores across California failed to gain state senate approval despite widespread support from a broad coalition of environmental, local governmental, union and business groups, including the California Grocers Association (CGA). “As the [CGA] has learned, California cities, particularly coastal cities, are no longer willing to tolerate the costs and environmental burdens these poorly designed products, most of which are manufactured overseas, place on local communities,” Julie Muir, president of the California Resource Recovery Association (CRRA), stated in a press release sent out in a final push for the bill just prior to its defeat. Californians use 19 billion single-use plastic shopping bags each year, according to the nonprofit Heal the Bay, which joined other leading marine protection groups in support of AB 1998 because of the detrimental effects the bags wreak on the environment when they become litter. For instance, leatherback turtles often mistake the floating bags for jellyfish, ingest them and die because the plastic obstructs the passage of real food. So far five California cities have adopted ordinances banning plastic single-use bags, including San Francisco and Malibu. Proponents of the statewide ban say they will now pursue similar bans in other local jurisdictions. “The polluters won the battle in the state senate, but we will win the war against single-use plastics in California,” said Heal the Bay president Mark Gold. “We look forward to working with enlightened and progressive leaders on the local level to end the environmental and fiscal waste caused by plastic bags.”

Vermicomposter Fined For Making “Pesticidal Claims”
A California vermicomposter got into trouble first with the county where he does business and then with the California Department of Pesticide Regulations (DPR) for making claims that his product deterred pests. George Hahn, owner of California Vermiculture LLC, in Cardiff by the Sea, has been fighting legal battles for several years over packaging and advertising claims that the company’s Worm Gold worm casting products boosted plants’ immunity mechanisms enough to fend off bad bugs. On August 16, a Sacramento Superior Court Judge issued a final decision upholding a $100,000 DPR fine for making the claims. Hahn, who plans to appeal, had already agreed to cease from making any such claims until the case was settled. The nonprofit Pacific Legal Foundation stated in its petition to the court on Hahn’s behalf that the term “pesticidal claims” was never defined and that although Hahn did advertise Worm Gold brand fertilizers as capable of causing a plant to resist infestation, he did not advertise them as pesticides. On that basis of the court ruling, says Tim Sandefur, principal attorney for the defendant, “water, fences and scarecrows would all be pesticides.” Sandefur says the appeal will likely focus on the truth of Hahn’s claims and his right to make them. “You’re allowed to say your product makes plants strong, but it’s illegal to say it makes them strong enough to deter pests. This is a First Amendment free-speech issue. You have the right to truthfully advertise your product. Our interpretation of the law is consistent with the Constitution, but the court rejected our argument.”

Urban Farming With “Homemade” Fertilizer In Mexico
In 2010, 18.2 percent of Mexico’s population fell into the food-based definition of “poverty,” an increase of nearly 32 percent from the previous year. According to an article published on the website by Rodrigo Medellin, 15 million Mexicans live in extreme poverty, most of them in marginal urban areas such as the slums of Mexico City. A few years ago, a group of 20 NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) launched a program to help the country’s urban poor develop ways to produce their own food organically in their own small backyards, and on patios, balconies and rooftops. Several hundred families in six different Mexico City slums have now been introduced to a growing method developed by Barbara Daniels, PhD, that uses drainless, approximately 5-gallon containers stuffed about 80 percent full with deciduous tree leaves or grass clippings and topped off with an inch or two of good soil. Seeds are planted or seedlings transplanted into the container, and a hole is made on the wall 2 to 4 inches from the bottom, allowing for maintenance of a water reservoir. A stick inserted to the bottom of the container measures the system’s humidity.
According to Medellin, the key to the technology is fertilization. “Considering the expense of commercially prepared fertilizers, the amount needed for a full-size deck garden and the fact that many of them don’t work well, I have found that urine is the best fertilizer for this system,” Medellin writes. “The decaying leaf medium breaks it down almost instantly so that there is never any odor, and germ survival in material such as this has been shown to be practically nil. We call this liquid organic fertilizer (LOF). The LOF … is abundant, with no cost, and easy to manufacture.” She notes that plants grew more rapidly and were bigger and healthier than those grown with conventional agricultural techniques and less water was needed.

California Rotary Drum And AD Report
A new CalRecycle report titled “Integration of Rotary Drum Reactor and Anaerobic Digestion Technologies for Treatment of Municipal Solid Waste,” is available through the agency’s publications catalog at The report analyzes the rotary drum reactor process (RDR) for breaking down municipal solid waste and separating biodegradable organic material from nonorganic material when the solid waste is used as a feedstock for anaerobic digestion. The report evaluates RDR in combination with anaerobic digestion to produce energy, compost and increased waste diversion. According to the report’s executive summary, biomass (paper, food waste and yard waste) makes up about 50 percent of the waste going to landfills in California. “Although in many communities, green waste (e.g., yard trimmings) and paper are separately collected and treated or recycled, food waste is largely going to landfills,” the report states. “Nationwide, according to data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, more than 40 million tons of food scraps are produced each year, which represents 25 percent of the food prepared. Such highly degradable materials contribute greatly to the gaseous emissions from landfills.” Highlights of the report include: assessment of rotary drum reactors as a pretreatment technology for MSW, University of California, Davis research on rotary drum reactors and AD technology, an overview of current rotary drum applications at U.S. MSW treatment facilities and a discussion of biogas production and yield.

New Guidance For Special Event Food Waste Diversion
The Northeast Recycling Council, Inc. (NERC) is nearing completion of a three-year demonstration project for special event food waste diversion. Funded by an EPA New England Resource Conservation Challenge Grant, the project included conducting food waste diversion pilot programs in four states: New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Vermont and Connecticut. The programs demonstrated different methodologies for designing and implementing diversion programs for pre and postconsumer food as well as compostable service ware and soiled paper. The project addressed reuse (food donation) and diversion through composting. Research and results from the diversion events contributed to a new guidance document posted on NERC’s web page at The “Guidance for Special Event Food Waste Diversion” publication and supporting documents offer a detailed resource for developing and implementing organics diversion programs. The document includes several case studies, sample contracts, signage, a food waste management plan template, volunteer training tips, a sample food waste vendor survey and introductory letter. For additional information, contact NERC Projects Manager Athena Lee Bradley at or (802) 254-3636.

Digesters Exempt From Sales Tax In Massachusetts
The Massachusetts Department of Revenue recently drafted a ruling at the request of an undisclosed “taxpayer” clarifying that five “complete mix anaerobic digestion systems” to be purchased from an also undisclosed vendor would be exempt from a 6.25 percent state sales tax under a clause in the tax code. The August ruling was sent in response to a letter wanting to know whether a clause that exempts machinery used in 1) agricultural production, and 2) furnishing electricity when delivered to consumers through mains, lines, or pipes was applicable to AD infrastructure. According to the ruling: “Taxpayer will purchase and install five turn-key Digesters from Vendor. These Digesters will be installed on five small dairy farms in Massachusetts. The five participating farms own 60% of Taxpayer, with the remaining 40% owned by an entity that manages the [digesters].” It turns out that “Taxpayer” is AGreen Energy, LLC, a consortium of five dairies that plan to build five identical methane digesters to convert cow manure and food residues from processors in the Boston area into electrical energy and fertilizer. “The way we’re trying to do it is the first in the country,” fourth-generation Deerfield, Massachusetts, dairy farmer Peter Melnik told the American Farmland Trust.

Rare Form Of Legionella In UK Compost
British doctors say a gardener contracted a rare form of Legionnaire’s disease through an open wound while handling compost. According to a case written up in the medical journal Lancet and reported by CBC news, doctors at the Royal Alexandra Hospital in Paisley, Scotland, disclosed that a previously healthy 67-year-old man contracted a serious fever in March. When the man was examined, he had been experiencing a trembling fever, shortness of breath, confusion and lethargy for eight days. Legionnaires’ disease, a type of pneumonia or lung infection, is caused by a type of bacteria called Legionella. Between 8,000 and 18,000 people are hospitalized with Legionnaires’ disease in the U.S. each year. According to reports, the man lacerated his hand while planting with compost two days before manifesting symptoms. Cultures grew L. longbeachea, which has been associated with potting soil but is not common in the U.S. or the United Kingdom (UK). With nine cases reported in the UK since 1984, according to Lancet, the UK Royal Horticultural Society has issued warnings about contracting Legionnaire’s disease from compost and has stated that bags of potting compost will carry warning labels.

Mafia Goes Green
The biggest mob haul ever has revealed that sister Italian crime organizations have taken “greenwashing” to a new level by attempting to launder money through alternative energy companies. According to a Reuters report, seized assets worth an estimated $1.9 billion included more than 40 companies, hundreds of land parcels, buildings, factories, bank accounts and luxury items. The investigation centers around Sicilian businessman Vito Nicastri, aka “Lord of the Wind” in reference to his vast holdings in wind farms and other alternative energy investments, including factories that produce solar energy panels. A senator who sits on an antimafia committee claimed in published reports that the Mafia was seeking new ways to launder money made from drugs and other illegal activities by breaking into the growing alternative energy economy.

Corn For Ethanol Push In South Africa
With farmers facing huge surpluses and plummeting corn prices in South Africa, the grain industry is lobbying hard for that government to reconsider a decision last December not to include maize in its renewable energy portfolio. Corn prices have been driven down to the point that some farmers are struggling to break even. But in the wake of the 2008 food crisis, there has been great reluctance to commit the staple food crop for fuel into the future. According to Biofuel Digest, this year’s 13 million metric ton bumper crop has forced prices so low that the government is talking to China about exporting the surplus. Grain SA, an industry trade group lobbying to lift South Africa’s biofuel restriction on corn, argues that such a move would add 9 percent to oil production, 39 percent to protein production for livestock, increase production of commercial CO2 and create 105,000 jobs. While proponents say the move could stimulate farming in previously neglected places, alternate views suggest large tracts of nitrogen-loving corn to be an unwise strategy in areas where poor soils are already challenged by lack of moisture and organic matter.

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