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Support for "recyclable or compostable" packaging? Yes, BUT...

Yesterday, the Washington, DC City Council voted in favor of a ban on polystyrene foam foodservice products starting in 2016, followed by a ban on foodservice packaging that is not “compostable or recyclable” starting in 2017.

If you know FPI at all, you know our stance on bans: we oppose restrictions on any foodservice packaging products. We believe in a free and open marketplace where foodservice operators should be able to decide which product, or material, is best suited for their operations and customers.

We also know that banning a product or material will do little to help cities meet their environmental goals, which often include waste diversion from landfills or reduced litter. Sorry, but you won’t get far targeting a product that is a mere 1-2 percent of the municipal solid waste stream. And as for litter, it’s a people problem, not a packaging problem. A ban will simply change the composition of the litter stream, not lessen it.

Enough on the bans – that’s pretty clear cut for us. Where the waters get a little muddy is the growing interest by city governments to mandate the use of recyclable or compostable packaging. Here’s the problem: in theory, this sounds great. Yes, we certainly support increased recycling and composting of foodservice packaging. That’s why FPI is facilitating the work of the Paper Recovery Alliance and Plastics Recovery Group (see our “Stewardship” page for more details). But the honest truth is we still have a ways to go before all foodservice packaging items are recyclable or compostable, which leads to unintended bans on even more of our industry’s products.

One issue is what do “recyclable” and “compostable” mean? In a shocking development (yes, I am being facetious), it means different things to different people. In DC’s case, the terms are not defined in the legislation. Instead, the Mayor gets to decide, and he or she is directed to “make public a list of vendors offering affordable compostable or recyclable disposable food service ware products,” according to the legislation that passed yesterday. If the Mayor’s “recyclable” list is tied to what’s currently accepted in the city’s program, that means only plastic cups, paper bags and aluminum containers will be allowed. As for what’s “compostable,” who knows since the city does not currently offer a composting program.

In Minneapolis, where similar legislation was passed recently, the ordinance stated that recyclable packaging meant “glass bottles, aluminum cans and plastic food and beverage packaging that have robust recycling markets.” The ordinance went on to further dictate the types of resins that would be accepted: PET, HDPE and PP. (Guess the city doesn’t believe paper items can be recycled.) “Compostable” was deemed to be packaging “made of paper, certified compostable plastics that meet ASTM D6400 or ASTM D6868 for compostability or other cellulose-based packaging capable of being decomposed through composting or anaerobic digestion.” The real kicker in Minneapolis is that foodservice operators will also be required to set up in-store collection programs for recyclables and compostables. There are all kinds of wranglings going on behind the scenes before this new law goes into effect on Earth Day 2015, so we’ll see how it all plays out.

Operators have long complained that foodservice packaging bans have created a difficult patchwork of laws and regulations that are difficult to manage. Just wait – it’s going to get more complicated as the bans on singular products/materials morph into mandates affecting the entire industry. Not sure what we can do to stop the well-intended but ill-informed legislators at this point, but what I do know is that we’ll continue the hard work to make more foodservice packaging “recyclable” or “compostable” according to any definition – and keep our products in the marketplace.

Posted By Lynn M. Dyer (President) | 7/15/2014 2:01:51 PM