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

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.

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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.

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