Janet L. Thoman, Compliance Director
USCC’s Compost 2023 was full of excellent information, innovation, old friends and new. But my favorite moment, by far, was A1 Organics’ Bob Yost, upon receiving the Hi Kellogg Award, closing his remarks with, “It is not about you.”
He’s right. It’s not about me. Or you. Or any individual or any organization. It’s about our planet being assaulted by consumption and greed and ignorance. It’s about what we can do, individually and collectively, to mitigate the harm we do daily.
The forces that have led us to this place are long-standing and complex. But it is safe to say that ego, manifest in greed and competition, has had a lot to do with it. I wonder if ego isn’t what is going to thwart our best intentions.
The composting and compostable products space is comprised of intelligent, hard-working people who want the best for our world. We each do what we can to fix the mistakes of the past to create a better future. We do not always understand the perspective and the forces compelling others’ actions. Society and legislation are constantly in collision with the realities of product development, market forces and running a business. What isn’t influenced by these forces are the microbes that do the heavy lifting. The microbes don’t lie. The piles don’t lie. Maybe we should listen to the microbes.
Maybe we should listen to each other. Maybe we should share our vision more and our agendas less. In that spirit, I want to share CMA’s vision and the reasons we do what we do.
CMA’s vision is a system that connects and works for everyone, that gets organics out of landfills and produces beautiful soil amendments to nourish our soils, clean our waters and sequester carbon. CMA strives to facilitate organics diversion by connecting compostable products – the vehicles for food — to compost manufacturers. We work to create a system where compost manufacturers who bravely choose to accept compostable products can minimize contamination so they can create a saleable product that improves our world. We want the cleanest compost, free of harmful chemicals and the microscopic particles that we cannot see but that wreak havoc on the environment and our bodies.
From where we sit, between product manufacturers and composters, we are pushing and pulling to try to make the ends meet in a sustainable way. This does not always make everyone happy. That’s ok. We keep trying because it matters. It matters that composters can create their products without being drowned by contamination. It matters that packaging producers are told the truth so they can spend their R&D dollars wisely. It matters that we get organics out of the landfills. It matters that we do anything we can to combat climate change. We are willing to ruffle some feathers to achieve that.
CMA requires products to pass the established and accepted laboratory standards for compostability. These tests are vital to ensuring we are not introducing harmful substances into the compost and, thereafter, our environment. But there are differences in interpretation about what these tests require. To achieve our goals, we choose to take the most conservative interpretation of these tests. Sometimes that is disappointing to our customers. We understand that frustration. But we also understand that we cannot achieve our goals without pushing to raise the bar a little at a time.
We also understand that there are products that may not meet every standard, but they are better than the alternative. We grant these products some special dispensation until the market can come up with something better. Some of these products fall into our Plastic Elimination Strategy category. This is a category in which we encourage product development so the less-than-ideal products can be phased out. But we want all stakeholders to take that trip with us.
Around 2018 we saw a huge surge in the manufacture of paper straws as an alternative to traditional plastic straws. These straws contained adhesives that did not pass the ASTM lab standards. However, from a composter’s perspective, paper straws were preferable to receiving traditional plastic straws. For about five years, we accepted paper straws in our Plastic Elimination category. Over those few years, product manufacturers responded. A compostable adhesive became feasible and widely available in the market, and we removed paper straws from our Plastic Elimination category. Paper straws must now undergo the same lab and field disintegration testing as any other product. This is our strategy in action. This is cooperation in action. This is how it can work.
CMA, and Cedar Grove before us, has worked for over sixteen years day-in and day-out in the piles. We put on our boots and get our hands dirty. We have performed nearly 200 field tests in eight different processes, and we have tested thousands of products. We have tested and examined the feedstock and process parameters for every one of these tests. We have made assumptions and proven ourselves wrong at times. We have tested others’ assumptions. We only now believe we have enough information to start drawing some conclusions. These conclusions, we hope, will provide everyone with more information to make the system work.
Over the next several months, we will be sharing some announcements and information we have from years of field testing. We will tell you what the piles have told us. We will share our thoughts about how that information can be applied to serve our collective vision.
Some of these communications might feel disruptive to a system that functions in silos. CMA is the largest connected network of compost facility operators in the U.S. that accept compostable materials. These compost facility owners have the final say in what works and what they accept, and we will continue to work to create a space where compost manufacturers, the supply chain, haulers and solid waste experts work respectfully together to define the next chapter of compostables.
We might keep ruffling some feathers. That’s ok. We will keep trying because it matters. We will try to share our vision a little more and our agendas a little less. Because, you know, Bob’s right. It’s not about me.
CMA invites you to this conversation. Please contact me at email@example.com and share your vision.