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Composters Warm to Plant-Based Packaging

Most composting facilities accept compostable packaging and products, but many also say a consistent method for labeling and identifying compostable items is needed, according to a survey.

The Sustainable Packaging Coalition, responding to concerns from its members about composters possibly rejecting compostable packaging, surveyed 40 composting facilities across the United States about their current practices, opinions and problems they've encountered.

Overall, the survey found positive results. Out of the 40 facilities, 36 (or 90 percent) actively accept compostable packaging, and three are accepting specific types of compostable packaging on a trial basis. Two facilities said that they would accept more compostables if there was clearer labeling, and one facility said it used to accept compostable packaging, but it stopped because the packaging would not break down fast enough.

More than 80 percent of facilities said they want to see a more universally recognized label for compostability, such as color coding, a prominent and consistent logo, or a combination of the two.

The main standards that composters look for are ASTM D6400 and ASTM D6868, as well as certification from the Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI), which evaluates products using the ASTM standards. But among composters, not all give ASTM and BPI the same value.

When asked what standards or certification are required for compostable items they accept, 47.5 percent said they require compostables to meet ASTM, 37.5 percent require them to have BPI certification, 20 percent said they require "other" and 32.5 percent do not have any requirements. The facilities that require "other" said they do their own tests on compostables to decide if they will take them or not. Since ASTM standards are done in laboratory settings, composters that do their own tests are able to take into account climate, composting method and other circumstances not taken into account by ASTM.

Even when an item meets the ASTM standard, it might not be taken by a composter depending on how long it takes to break down. ASTM standards say an item must biodegrade within 180 days, but 19 of the facilities surveyed said they need items to break down within 70 days or less, with some working in as short of a timeframe as 14 days.

That is an issue that SunChips' new compostable bags have run into in a few municipalities. Ontario's Niagara and Durham regions have said they will not accept the SunChips bags because the bags take longer to break down than their composters will accept. The Niagara Region's composter, for example, has a turnaround time of eight weeks, while the SunChips bags break down in 14 weeks. The city of Cheyenne, Wyo., on the other hand, won't take the bags because there is no way for employees to easily identify them as not being trash.

Another concern noted in the survey is what impact compostables have on compost that is going to be used on organic agriculture. A little over 30 percent of facilities have their finished compost approved for use in organic agriculture, and 23 percent said that adding compostable products and packaging would put that approval at risk. The others were unaware or uncertain if the addition of compostables would affect what agriculture their compost could be used on.

While many composters receive compostables from special events (75 percent), schools (63.9 percent), restaurants (61.1 percent) and supermarkets (52.8 percent), a much smaller amount (30.6 percent) get compostables from residential waste streams. Only 15 of the facilities accept residential food waste, and four of them do not allow compostable packaging in because they are concerned about how difficult it is to identify compostable packaging, and they want to avoid any potential non-compostable contaminants.

Those that disallow compostables from residents say that is it much easier to work with commercial and institutional sources on compostable packaging education (which they can do directly with the customer) than it is to educate the general residential population with marketing and materials.

The survey results are collected in Compostable Packaging: The Reality on the Ground, a report by the Sustainable Packaging Coalition.

Compost - CC license by Flickr user normanack


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