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Curbside Composting Programs – Why We Need Them and Where to Start

3p Contributor | Thursday July 22nd, 2010 | 13 Comments

By: Dinesh Thirupuvanam

Over the past few years, curbside composting programs have taken root in several of our major cities (e.g., San Francisco, Seattle, Boulder), but the US is still only composting 3% of it’s food waste.

We need curbside composting programs in municipalities all across the country. The trouble is, we’re not ready to roll these programs out yet.

Much of the food we buy comes packaged and increasingly restaurants and food service businesses are using compostable packaging to package their food (including a few high profile moves like the new SunChips Bag). Moving forward, compostable packaging is going to be critical to encourage the composting of food waste by consumers and businesses and to ensure that commercial compost piles that accept food waste are not contaminated by plastic or other traditional packaging.

The problem we’re facing today, though, is that the composting and compostables industries are currently lacking the unified standards and infrastructure needed to ensure that all food waste and certified compostable packaging is actually composted.

Here are the major issues

1. Lack of uniform labeling for compostable packaging.

There is a major debate taking place within the compostable packaging industry regarding the need for a standardized “compostable” labeling. Some products are using a “green-colored stripe” to denote compostability. Others are using the logo of a certifier or the word “compostable.” Some are using no marking at all. As a result, composters are having a difficult time identifying products that are actually 100% compostable as these products look very similar to traditional plastic products. A recent study by the Sustainable Packaging Coalition (SPC) called “Compostable Packaging – Reality on the Ground” noted that 82% of the facilities that accept food waste want a more universally recognized label of compostability.

For packaging to be considered compostable it must be certified according to ASTM standards D-6400 and D-6868 or the European standard EN13432. A variety of 3rd party certifiers exist to ensure products meet these standards, including: The Biodegradable Products Institute (the leading US certifier of compostable products), Cedar Grove (the largest composting facility in the US), OK Compost (the Belgian certification program run by Vincotte), and Canada also now appears to be developing its own certification program.

These certifiers however, are not working together to use a uniform logo or label to denote that a product has been certified as 100% compostable. Because of this lack of cooperation and regulation, many products are also greenwashing and claiming to be compostable when they do not meet the appropriate standards (see PerfecTouch Hot Cups).

2. Lack of uniform acceptance of compostable packaging at composting facilities.
Compostable Packaging Acceptance Across Composting Facilities
The issue here is that even if a product is certified compostable according to ASTM or one of the certifiers, it could still be rejected by a composting facility.

The SPC survey highlights the fact that the types of food packaging products accepted by these facilities vary widely (see chart on the right) as do the standards to which they hold these products, with 47.5% of facilities requiring ASTM certification, 37.5% requiring BPI certification, and 20% requiring some form of on-site testing.

These variations in requirements across geographic markets make it very difficult for manufacturers to build certified compostable products that can be composted by facilities anywhere in the country.

Why is this important?
Well today, only 8% of the 3,400 commercial composting facilities across the country accept food waste. As a result, ~32 million tons of food waste (or 12.7% of the total trash in the US) is being sent to landfills.

As many of you know, food waste that decomposes in a landfill lets off methane, a GHG emission that’s 25x as potent as C02. And in fact, methane from landfills accounts for ~34% of all human-related methane in the US.

As such, diverting food waste from landfills to composting facilities represents not just a large opportunity to reduce our waste, but also to reduce our GHG emissions. With only ~8% of commercial composting facilities accepting food waste, however, Americans have very little access to simple non-DIY composting solutions.

What needs to happen moving forward?

The first step needed is the development of uniform standards for both the labeling of compostable packaging and the acceptance of compostable packaging at all facilities.

This likely needs to come from either the US Composting Council, the Biodegradable Products Institute, or a separate 3rd party association with members across the compostables and composting industries.

So what are the results we’re likely to see after these standards are in place? Well, the standards should:

  1. Ensure that existing composting facilities can accept all food waste and all certified compostable food packaging,
  2. Encourage more composting facilities to start accepting food waste and compostable packaging (as opposed to just yard trimmings),
  3. Improve the sorting of compostable food packaging at composting and recycling facilities (which in turn decreases contamination at both these facilities),
  4. Make it easier for consumers to understand how they should sort their compostables from their trash,
  5. Increase demand for compostable packaging,
  6. Encourage manufacturers to invest more in the manufacturing of compostable products

And ultimately, putting these standards in place should increase demand for curbside composting programs all across the US.

Are you passionate about seeing more composting in cities across the country? Tell us what you think.

***

Dinesh Thirupuvanam runs an Eco Buying Group for small businesses called the Viv Biz Club. Viv helps businesses pool their purchasing power to save up to 80% on sustainable products, including compostable food packaging supplies, recycled office supplies, and green cleaning products.


▼▼▼      13 Comments     ▼▼▼

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  • Amanda Philips

    Thanks for your post- very informative. I'm curious about one thing, though. Doesn't food waste in a composting facility also offgas methane? The composting facility needs to engage in methane capture in order for the global warming potential of the food waste to be eliminated, just like a landfill would. I'm not sure the GW argument is the most effective one in favor of curbside compost.

    • http://vivbizclub.com dinesh

      Hey Amanda – Thanks for raising the question. The short answer is as follows:

      Landfill methane, as you may know, is produced due to the anaerobic decomposition that takes place – essentially, waste that is buried in a landfill doesn't receive oxygen and thus produces methane.

      In a composting environment however, CO2 is the main offgas produced. This is because composting piles undergo aerobic decomposition (with oxygen) due to the fact that they are being turned or other living organisms (e.g., worms) are helping to break down the organic matter.

      This will vary somewhat depending on the method of composting, but composting facilities will typically produce far less methane than landfills.

  • Gkuter

    From the perspective of a composter, we do not care about maximizing the amount of food or packaging that is removed from the landfill/incinerator. We care about the quality of what is removed. Small amounts of plastic in compost make the compost undesirable. Why compost if you are not making a product that has value, i.e. is purchased. We need to look at composting as the process to manufacture compost not as a waste disposal option.

    • http://vivbizclub.com dinesh

      Very interesting and thanks for sharing. I'd be curious to hear if there are particular types of packaging (e.g., bags, cutlery or maybe styrofoam v. plastic) that seem to cause the most of the contamination problems.

    • Cala3319

      I prefer viewing the issue through a broader systems lens versus a singular process focused on the manufacturing of a product. I'd like to suggest that turning waste into a viable product (compost) produces the “sweet spot” that is sought after to achieve sustainability.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Greg-Maff-Beverlin/1634623109 Greg Maff Beverlin

      So what about composting in your own home? The easiest way to get around waiting for cities to implement sound composting systems is to simply do it yourself. Worm composting bins, like the one in the link below, can be done in your own kitchen. And if you garden the finish product of the composting can be used as nutritious soil for your plants.

      http://coolproducts.com/shop/product/Redworms

  • http://www.ecoramblings.com Luke

    Dinesh – You raise some excellent points and outline a logical approach. I also think it's important for additional municipalities to implement curbside composting programs even though all of the issues aren't fully resolved yet. That is the best way to learn what needs to happen, and if those municipalities wait for the silver bullet solution, they might be waiting a long time. Curbside composting is a critical way to minimize greenhouse gas emissions. I'll repost at http://www.ecoramblings.com

    • http://vivbizclub.com dinesh

      Thanks Luke. It's a great point – we definitely need to parallel process. I wonder how often these municipalities talk to each other though? I'm sure San Francisco and Boulder for instance could (and perhaps did) provide some amazing insight to Seattle who just launched their curbside composting program. Overall though, agreed – the more programs in place, the quicker we can improve and work through these issues.

  • Msolmos

    Dinesh –

    There are some great points here. Most of which I completely agree with. Can you please tell me where you found this data:
    ” Well today, only 8% of the 3,400 commercial composting facilities across the country accept food waste. As a result, ~32 million tons of food waste (or 12.7% of the total trash in the US) is being sent to landfills.”

    • http://vivbizclub.com dinesh

      Sure – most of the statistics I've pulled from the Sustainable Packaging Coalition's “Reality on the Ground” report (see link in the article above if you'd like to download the report; it's $50 for non-SPC members); Their references include the EPA, BioCycle, and others.

  • Kristin

    Has anyone done a full greenhouse gas emission analysis on curbside composting? It would seem to me that extra truck runs necessitated by the curbside collection process have not been fully evaluated for their greenhouse gas emissions. Also, for landfills equipped to collect methane, are the benefits of separate composting facilities clear? And how does the option compare to the benefits of encouraging more intensive backyard composting?

    • Kristen

      Kristin,

      You make a great point and ideally I think the byproducts of backyard composting are far better than those of curbside composting programs. However!, social behavior is extremely hard to change and asking people to start making and maintaining a pile of “waste” in their home space is no easy task. Plus, not many people care to create their own compost (lack of a green thumb). On top of that, not everyone has a backyard to do so and with increasing urbanization that number is decreasing. Curbside composting is the easier alternative and is at least a step in the right direction. The cumulating impact will definitely be beneficial.

      I’m from Boulder, CO and it’s great to see my composting efforts helping a community garden flourish. Furthermore, the CompoKeeper has made recylcing my food scraps a cinch. Check it out. http://www.compokeeper.com

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  • http://500gallons.com mahesh

    great post Dinesh. We believe curbside composting will really help the interested but on the sidelines consumer to get active quickly. It would also help restaurants to compost more efficiently if they are not doing so already.
    Thanks for the insights on composting standards!
    mahesh
    http://500gallons.com
    twitter: #500gallons

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