Incorporating Compostable Products Into Solid Waste Systems
The opportunity to compost regionally provides one of the most compelling sustainability models within any solid waste system, and the use of compostable food service products in regional organics recycling programs can enhance or impede the progress of these programs. Compostable food service packaging helps capture organic residuals, converting what was once “single use” garbage into a beneficial soil amendment used for a multitude of applications. However, just to say you want to incorporate compostable products is not enough. There must be a high level of collaboration between stakeholders (municipal educators, policy makers, compostable products manufacturers, compost facilities, carters/haulers, end users, distributors and retailers) to do it right.
This takes time, knowledge, mutual respect, active listening, and is the most critical component for success in implementing compostables into an organics recycling program. When it comes to adding compostable food service ware to organics recycling programs, product manufacturers must engage first (not last) with composters. In turn, compost manufacturing facilities need a better way of understanding the world of compostables and the supply chain. Compostable product manufacturers expend considerable resources to find the right formulations for optimal consumer performance while trying to balance the product’s ability to biodegrade and disintegrate at a composting facility. And if they produce an item that has met the field, lab and market requirements, the work is just beginning! What must follow are thoughtful and informed ways to communicate compostability to end users, as well as understanding the need solid waste educators will have to effectively integrate the right messaging into well designed education and outreach programs. Working between the manufacturers, composters and government to address these things puts all parties into a more compatible relationship (with each holding necessary pieces of the system) and sets all up as strategic partners.
Food Scrap Diversion with Compostables
Compostable packaging facilitates the capture of valuable food feed stocks for composting facilities, which minimizes the carbon footprint of landfilling while making the highest impact on recycling rates in areas where robust mixed recycling programs already exist. Closed loop food service operations, schools, and other large venues continue to see the impact, while product offerings needed, and the scale for their availability has gaps. Continuous product innovation, development and production means further opportunities to engage.
Even though many compostable food service product manufacturers and distributors have come to understand the need to consider the practical “end of life” for its products, sometimes the cart does get before the horse. A new player coming into this “compostables” world begins a race to get products to market before they are successfully vetted among stakeholders. Hence, a product may launch in the market without the necessary understanding to ensure that the product properly breaks down within the facility (which creates a contaminant for the compost facility), or the product is not within a food category, or the product is not actually completely compostable, or it creates market confusion.
It is important that there be a mutual relationship between the compostable products manufacturer and the compost manufacturer as both are working to develop quality products to growing markets. Compostable products manufacturers musts ensure that product development follows best practices and that the end products are truly compostable. What are best practices? Before any product sold or marketed as compostable, it must meet at least one of the recognized standards for compostability, (e.g.-ASTM D6400, D6868, or EN13432, or any equivalent specification). These benchmarks ensure that if these products are introduced as composting feed stocks, they will biodegrade and cause no detrimental effect to the finished compost.
Understanding the Process
There can be many hurdles to meet compostability standards, and manufacturers must ensure their products will be accepted into the intended commercial composting facilities their products were designed for. Collaboration between the product developer, the composter and municipal solid waste professionals is crucial. Even when a product disintegrates adequately within a specified composting technology, there are other considerations. If the composter makes a registered organic compost product for use in organic agriculture, synthetics (compostables and other “man-made” items) are not allowed to be used as a feedstock.
Confusion Among Consumers
If a manufacturer develops compostable snack bags or water bottles, is there a risk that consumers will start to think that all chip bags and water bottles are compostable when most are not? This can and does happen; just ask any commercial compost manufacturer! Understanding the scope and breadth of an item’s impact is important to product and market development, so research and compromise may be required. Systems to minimize is potential for “come-alongs” or “look-alikes” can ruin good feed stock streams, so all must proceed with knowledge and care.
Compost Must Remain a Valued Commodity, and Production Costs Must Go Down
Recycling programs only work if the recycled product being generated can exist within a viable business model. There must be an end use for the product, and the sale of the product must reap a profit. Just as food packaging manufacturers must ensure that their incoming components meet specifications, private and municipally run compost facilities have narrow specifications for inbound inputs, as well as their finished product. If a composter’s feed stock is inundated with plastics, or packaging doesn’t break down within an active composting cycle (and must be screened out and sent to the landfill), or fraudulent product claims bring in the wrong materials, this confuses the consumer and the composter as well. Regardless, in almost every case, the composter is left holding the bag (pun intended). These scenarios dramatically drive up labor, disposal and processing costs, and puts successful composting programs in economic jeopardy. What’s at stake? Vital composting infrastructure and communities at risk of losing valuable compost and community generated soils, making all that effort for naught.
Many seasoned stakeholders who have pioneered this space the past decade understand why these factors and considerations are important. Yet there are many organizations at various stages of implementing organics recycling programs that may not understand the need to have all parties at the table.
The steps outlined in Figure 1 illustrate a hierarchy for introducing a compostable product into a regional composting program. First and foremost, the product must meet the established compostability testing standards (both in the lab, and in the field) and must also be related to food.
In moving forward as “compost-centric communities” (a term coined by CMA founder, Susan Thoman), it is important for the solid waste industry leaders, brand owners, product manufacturers and supply chain leaders to create a wide and open table for coming together at the onset of new and developing programs. There is a need to foster mutual engagement, strategic goal setting, education, watch dogging, and the proper vetting of compostable products so the programs and products we work so tirelessly to create will have an optimal chance to transform from bold ideas to collective norm across our great cities.
Michele Riggs currently serves as the president of the Washington Organic Recycling Council (WORC), is a ten-year field pioneer of compostable products disintegration testing, and is an experienced Compost Facility Operator Training (CFOT) instructor. Michele is the field technical advisor for the Compost Manufacturing Alliance, and the Senior Field Projects Consultant for Solid Waste Strategies. Her specialties encompass a wide body of field work (composting trials, market development research, storm water management programs employing compost BMPs) and solid waste research services that include waste audits and characterizations.