EarthChoice compostable containers are used some of Madison's food cart vendors.
So you ordered your food cart lunch and were cheered by the fact that it was presented to you in a nubbly, off-white EarthChoice compostable cardboard container instead of Styrofoam. Then you ate your lunch and tossed the container in the trash.
If you did that, it might as well have been Styrofoam, notes Madison recycling coordinator George Dreckmann. "The key element of composting is that the material needs air, water and light." None of those is at work in a landfill. "Those containers will eventually break down in a landfill, but it will take a loooong time," says Dreckmann.
If the cardboard container had no food stains on it, it could be recycled in the blue-lidded recycling receptacles on the Mall/Concourse downtown, or with your other cardboard at home or at the office -- or the clean cover could be torn off and recycled, as many people do with pizza boxes.
Only if you are in the city's small pilot organics program (in which materials go to a digester) can you compost the cardboard containers marked "compostable" or "industrially compostable" (food stains and all).
You could attempt composting the "compostable" cardboard in your DIY backyard bin, but Dreckmann advises "tearing it up into small pieces" and experimenting with one first to see how well it decomposes. But he also warns about keeping remnants like "salad dressing, sauce, grease, oil" out of the compost; these attract critters.
Ironically, polystyrene containers can actually be washed and then dropped off at either of the city's two Styrofoam recycling sites, 1501 W. Badger Rd. and 4602 Sycamore Ave.
The plastic containers that stir-fries and salads often come in may be labeled with a number indicating it is recyclable by the city, but if the bottom of the container is black, as it often is, the optical reader can't read the mark -- and there is little market for black recyclable material anyway, says Dreckmann.
If the lid is clear plastic, though, it probably is recyclable and could be put in the blue recycling receptacles.
"This is where recycling away from home gets really complicated," says Dreckmann. No kidding.
Banning polystyrene containers has been suggested, but Dreckmann feels now is not the time to put the onus on cart operators to pay more for the cardboard containers, since currently it's all material largely headed for the landfill: "When we get full-scale city composting, then we could pursue a ban."