Globally, cardboard is viewed as a problematic waste stream as 80% of all products in The USA and Europe are packaged in cardboard. Within the Caribbean region cardboard accounts for 10-20% of our solid waste, and puts a strain on our landfill and dumpsite management due to its volume and lack of recycling facilities.
This semester at The Cape Eleuthera Institute (CEI), our sustainable materials team conducted research with plant-based fibers to design consumer products and biodegradable packaging solutions. Traditionally, plant fibers are used in a variety of products such as paper and cardboard, clothing, and textile manufacture. Plant fibers, which are one of the most abundant renewable resources on Earth, can be sourced from green waste especially wood and other agricultural residues. From our sustainable design process, cardboard was selected as the plant fiber source due to its biodegradability and accessibility (campus generates 120 lbs/month as waste), to produce paper plates. While the majority of our campus cardboard waste is composted, upcycling this waste stream to a new usable product helps us to better meet our zero-waste goals and be on the cutting edge of research and innovation in sustainability.
To feasibly produce these compostable plates, the research team offered novel materials as better alternatives to conventional single-use plates. This required qualifying the cardboard material not only for what it is, but also for what its properties can facilitate, and what it can be manipulated to do. Our cardboard waste was first screened and treated to ensure it was clean and without any other materials. It was then converted to a pulp, formed into sheets, dried, moulded into plates and then sanitized to be food safe.
As part of The Island School semester’s Sustainable Design curriculum, students and our research team used the compostable paper plates to tackle a campus sustainability challenge; reduction of wastewater and energy at our dining hall area. On Earth Day, the pilot launch of the project produced over 160 plates that were used during lunch and dinner times on campus, and allowed the opportunity to test sustainable design principles for an eco-friendly “consumer product”. As a result of this sustainability initiative with compostable paper plates, our campus community saved about 75 gallons of water by not having to wash dishes, and if implemented on a daily basis we could save 41,000 gallons of water and offset $3,000 annually in utility cost.
While this project is an innovative approach to sustainability and being zero-waste, it highlights the importance that sustainable materials and design can contribute to improving our waste management systems and conserving our environment. As The Bahamas 2020 Plastic Ban has forced us to eliminate styrofoam food containers and plates, the hope is to bring awareness to the potential that upcycling green waste has from the design of eco-friendly products to regeneration of soil.