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Connecting the Composting Dots

Last week, I had the opportunity to join a panel at BioCycle East to discuss composting and packaging, and the “cost of contamination.” The panel was expertly moderated by Brenda Platt (Institute for Local Self-Reliance) and also included Carla Castagnero of AgRecycle, Matt Cotton from Integrated Waste Management Consulting and Steve Mojo from the Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI). If you know anything about the composting industry or compostable products, those are well-known names to you – and you know those are individuals who are not afraid to speak their minds! There was a lively discussion between panelists, as well as interesting discussions with the audience. While I hope everyone in the room had a few “ah ha” moments, here are mine:

“Compostable” means different things to different people. This was perhaps one of my greatest “ah ha” moments. The panel was discussing the role that labelling and identification plays in ensuring that only compostable products end up in the composting stream. Carla voiced her concerns that at a recent event, seven different (seemingly identical) cups were used, but only some of them were compostable. “Why not label them ‘compostable’ if they are compostable?” she asked. In her mind, like many composters, “compostable” means that the product meets strict guidelines and that the item will truly compost, becoming a beneficial nutrient in their finished product.

Compostable packaging manufacturers would agree with that definition, but they must also consider a different issue, and in fact are regulated to do so. As marketers, manufacturers must understand the complexities of making environmental claims, which are spelled out in the Federal Trade Commission’s Guides for the Use of Environmental Marketing Claims. More commonly known as the “Green Guides,” it reads “To avoid deception about the limited availability of municipal or institutional composting facilities, a marketer should clearly and prominently qualify compostable claims if such facilities are not available to a substantial majority of consumers or communities where the item is sold.” Because manufacturers typically sell their products through distributors or group purchasing organizations, they often do not know where their products will end up. And, unfortunately, the reality is that a substantial majority of U.S. consumers do not have access to composting bins. So, it’s not as easy as simply putting “compostable” on a product.

Consumers play a critical role. This statement is certainly not an “ah ha” for me; I have always known that consumers are a VERY important piece to getting more products composted (or recycled, for that matter). After all, we can spend lots of resources on developing products to be composted, and putting the infrastructure in place to accept and process them, but until the consumer chooses to put that product in the “composting” bin, instead of the “trash” bin, all our work is for naught. But, if we need an economic reason to put more emphasis on the consumer, than look no further than Matt Cotton’s presentation, which highlighted that training and education costs far less than picking, sorting, screening and separating needed to manufacture valuable compost. Something to consider as we look to future work.

Composting is a business, not simply a landfill diversion option. As packaging manufacturers, we often think of composting as simply a way to divert materials from the landfill. But perhaps we’re not thinking about why they are valuable and by whom. Composters are in business not to take our used products off our hands, but to turn those materials into something valuable – and a product that they can sell. And make money. Let’s be honest, we’re not being “green” just to be good environmental stewards. We’re also taking certain actions because there’s money to be made.

We know that composters are looking for more sources of valuable materials, and organics is seen as the next big source. We also know that some composters accept compostable packaging not because they see value in it but because it enables more organics collection. Our products are sometimes seen as an allowable contaminant, not the valuable product it can be to composters. I don’t feel it is FPI’s job to tell composters to accept our products. But, hopefully, they will see greater value in compostable packaging and want it. There’s clearly work to be done on that point. Which brings me to my final comment…

There’s still a lot of work to be done. While all the partners in the value chain – from raw material suppliers all the way through to composters – are debating and hashing out all the issues like infrastructure, contamination, labeling, education, standards, policy, etc., etc., etc., I am concerned that progress has been slow.

As many of you know, FPI’s Paper Recovery Alliance and Plastics Recovery Group have spent the last few years focused on increasing recycling of used foodservice packaging. In the future, we plan to focus additional efforts in the composting arena. We’ve already gone through an exercise to understand the barriers to getting more foodservice packaging composted, and soon we’ll be using that list to determine where FPI can and should play a role. We look forward to continued collaboration with others already in this space to make sure all interests are understood and appreciated.

So, stay tuned as we connect the dots between foodservice packaging and composting.

Posted By Lynn M. Dyer (President) | 11/4/2014 12:28:11 PM