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What’s Cooking at the Composting Council Conference?

Compost 2016

Last week, I attended my sixth U.S. Composting Council Conference. It’s interesting to look back and consider how times have changed and also look to the future. Six years ago, I was surprised at how many presentations included comments about foodservice packaging. These days, it’s far fewer. Is it because foodservice packaging in the composting stream is a given? That foodservice packaging has seamlessly integrated in today’s composting operations? I would love to say yes, but I know that’s not the case.

Discussions about foodservice packaging seemed to be on the backburner at this year’s conference. It’s possible that it’s been pushed there because of another larger topic on the horizon: reducing the amount of food scraps that go to landfills.

If you’ve followed past blogs, you know this issue has been simmering for a while now. A few things have been driving this. First, the growing number of communities and other entities trying to achieve zero waste. After years of focusing on recyclables like packaging, people finally recognized they had to tackle the largest chuck of material sent to landfills – food scraps (which make up just over 20 percent of discards to landfills, according to the latest EPA data).

The Federal government had a similar epiphany last year, when it set a goal to reduce wasted food by 50 percent before 2030. Their focus is through its Food Recovery Hierarchy, including overall reduction of wasted food, feeding humans and animals, providing industrial uses for food scraps and enriching soils through composting. For more of my thoughts on where foodservice packaging fits in the Food Recovery Hierarchy, read this blog post.

How are these goals going to be met? That was a common theme throughout the conference, both during official sessions and private events like the dinner I attended that brought together views from the packaging industry, composters, the EPA and others.

I have been fortunate to have been part of a number of conversations over the last year on how to expand the commercial composting infrastructure for food scraps (and yes, associated packaging). This is especially important for us as interest in compostable packaging continues to grow. And there’s a lot of work to be done, considering less than 10 percent of U.S. composters accept food scraps and packaging, according to a 2015 study done by the Institute of Local Self Reliance and reported on in BioCycle. So, what are we to do?

Over the last year, we’ve come to recognize that there’s a lot of work to be done – and many groups who can play a role in that work. We need composting experts like at USCC and BioCycle to lead some of the work specific to composters, but what about packaging-specific work? At the dinner last week, it became clearer what we need to do, and frankly have already started working on it through FPI’s Paper Recovery Alliance and Plastics Recovery Group.

We know that more composters will be considering whether to add food scraps to their program. At the same time, they may consider whether to add packaging. If we want the packaging included in these new or expanded programs, we’d like to be able to show two things: that packaging really does enable additional food scrap collection and that there is value to the packaging for the composters. Through the ongoing work of FPI’s PRA and PRG, we hope to get this much needed data.

But it doesn’t stop there. An entire day at the conference was dedicated to community-based composting. How will foodservice packaging designed for large-scale commercial composting facilities perform in these smaller systems?

That question raises another topic dealt with during last week’s Compostable Plastics Task Force meeting. BTW, that group will soon be renamed to the Compostable Products Task Force so as to include paper items, as well. Work is being done both within the task force and outside on more closely aligning compostability standards with today’s composters. If you make compostable packaging, you should be paying close attention to this.

In general, if your company makes compostable products, I would strongly encourage you to participate in the USCC. Become a member. Attend the annual conference. Get involved in the CPTF. As the interest in composting food scraps grows, one of two things will happen: compostable packaging will be seen as a beneficial part of a successful organics program, or folks won’t see the value and decide to eliminate it.

When I look back five years from now, I wonder if we’ll realize whether this really was a turning point – one way or the other – for compostable packaging. Only time will tell.

Posted By Lynn M. Dyer (President) | 2/2/2016 2:54:26 PM
 

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