The following piece of commentary was written by BPI Executive Director Rhodes Yepsen, and is featured in the March / April edition of BioCycle Magazine.
Innovation may occasionally start by accident, but it requires foresight and dedication to bring that spark to fruition. The Zero Waste movement is an example of this, a vision of reality where our resources aren’t being squandered in landfills and incinerators, which takes not just one but a series of steps to accomplish large scale change. Specific to food waste, it involves solutions to reduce wastage all along the value chain, from the farm to distribution and retail, to feeding hungry people and diverting the non-edible portion to composting and anaerobic digestion, and returning those nutrients to the soil to complete the cycle.
There are hundreds of examples of these successful food waste diversion programs across the U.S. and the world (many profiled in BioCycle over the last 60 years), some led by governments and municipalities through regulations and goals, others voluntarily by businesses that see opportunities to do things better. Several million households in the U.S. now have access to curbside collection of food scraps alongside their trash and recycling; dozens of stadiums, hotels, and restaurants have reached over 90% diversion rates through robust composting programs.
But all of that is harder than the status quo of landfilling and burning our waste, and inertia pulls us into comfort zones, away from the challenges of continual improvement. At the core of this is a situation where some communities and composting facilities are moving backwards to “food only” due to a handful of difficulties, telling the businesses and residents they serve that the Zero Waste program is no longer available. Compostable products and packaging, which very simply are items redesigned with food waste diversion in mind, are at the vortex of this debate.
Compostable food scraps bags have been shown time and again to boost participation rates by making it easier and cleaner -- you line your trash can with a bag, why would you expect people to collect the messiest part of that waste stream without a bag? And businesses are reaching over 90% diversion with compostable foodservice items that can be placed into one bin along with the food, rather than just getting those willing to scrape out containers and items into three bins (likely contaminating the recycling and composting streams along the way).
However, that’s not to say that all composting facilities are set up to handle the stream of postconsumer food waste and packaging. First, many facilities are not designed or operated with those feedstocks in mind – of the roughly 4,000 composting facilities in the U.S., most are low-tech and intended for yard trimmings only. They aren’t permitted to take food, much less equipped for how to compost that food and associated packaging.
Of the several hundred taking food waste, mostly have made only minor upgrades in order to handle basic, clean preconsumer food scraps, looking primarily at pathogen reduction, odor and vector control, etc. A much smaller number of facilities (likely around 100) are actively taking postconsumer food scraps mixed with food-soiled paper and compostable packaging. Of those, only a few have really been designed and are being operated with those packaging feedstocks in mind.
For instance, many food waste composting facilities are setting aggressive timeframes of only 3-6 weeks to maximize throughput of that food, which is mostly water, for a business model more reliant on tip fees than compost sales. Besides sacrificing higher end compost markets that require a mature product, these accelerated processes often cannot completely break down the postconsumer mix of food-soiled paper and compostable products, because, if certified, those items have been tested based on conditions throughout the complete biological composting process, not an abbreviated version thereof. Besides timeframes, we’re witnessing sub-optimum moisture content (in the teens, rather than 40-55%), elevated temperatures (maintained above 160°F), etc. To help pinpoint how these varying conditions at facilities impact the disintegration of products in the postconsumer mix, we’ve invested in the CCREF field testing protocol and database, so that we can have an open and informed conversation.
Beyond timeframes and composting conditions, contamination is likely the biggest challenge, as it’s difficult to tell the difference between compostable and non-compostable items. If there’s a mix of products at a restaurant or venue, there’s likely to be consumer confusion at the sorting bin. This can be improved through strong education and outreach, with requirements that only certified compostable items be used to make it simple, and with improved labeling (BPI has recently launched an improved logo), all of which we see working effectively in programs in Minneapolis, Pittsburgh, Seattle, San Francisco, Boulder, Raleigh, Burlington, Santa Cruz, and others. BPI is setting up a composting advisory panel to pool this collective knowledge and make sure there are resource to maintain and expand on these successes.
Organic agriculture is another barrier today, since facilities accepting compostable products cannot currently get that compost OMRI listed. And there are concerns about the impact of compostable products on the composting process (do they add value, are there emerging chemicals of concern?). But as an industry we are working on solutions to these as well, developing a petition for the National Organic Standards Board, changing our certification program to restrict fluorinated chemicals, and partnering with others on research that shows compostable products actually provide the same carbon, bulk density, etc., as traditional feedstocks like yard trimmings.
Finally, there is a movement in parts of the country to dissuade the use of compostable products, alongside recycled content and biobased products, under the premise that they are not in fact lower impact than conventional single-use counterparts. This is based on a false assumption of the perceived benefits, compared to conventional items. The only attribute of a recycled content product, by definition, is that it’s displacing a virgin feedstock. The only attribute of a compostable item, by definition, is that it will biodegrade in a composting facility along with food scraps and yard trimmings. There’s no assumption that it’s easier, cheaper, takes less energy, less water, etc., to recycle plastic into new items vs. extract new fossil resources and landfill the old ones. The linear model is so effective because the “low impact” premise is full of externalities that are difficult to quantify and compare, and it’s dangerous to use this as a means of advocating for disposal rather than the zero waste model of reduce, reuse, recycle and compost.
So, are there challenges to setting up and maintaining robust composting programs to reach Zero Waste? Absolutely, but if it were easy and already being done effectively in every community, then it wouldn’t fit the definition of visionary or innovative. By the very nature of the situation we are in, with over 70 million tons of organics wasted each year, costing us $208 billion, emitting potent greenhouse gases while robbing the soil of organic matter we need to mitigate the effects of climate change and feed the planet, this is a time to be pioneers and not throw up our hands because it is hard. Composting and recycling just the “easy” stuff will not get us there as a society. We need to rethink the system, take steps toward a different future, and work together to address the problems that arise along the way.
Starting this Monday, the US Composting Council will be hosting its annual conference and trade show. Established in 1990, the US Composting Council (USCC) is the only national organization in the United States dedicated to the development, expansion and promotion of the composting industry.
The USCC achieves this mission by encouraging, supporting, and performing compost related research, promoting best management practices, establishing standards, educating professionals and the public about the benefits of composting and compost utilization, enhancing product quality, and developing training materials for compost manufacturers and markets for compost products. USCC members include compost manufacturers, compost marketers, equipment manufacturers, product suppliers, academic institutions, public agencies, nonprofit groups and consulting / engineering firms.
BPI has been working closely with the USCC for many years, and is a proud sponsor and exhibitor at COMPOST 2019. You can find us at Booth 221when the Exhibit Hall opens on Tuesday morning.
BPI also holds its annual member meeting during the USCC conference and tradeshow as well. This meeting is open to the public, will recap the highlights from 2018, and provide a look ahead to what we have planned for 2019. This is a great opportunity to engage directly with BPI leadership and staff as well as other members and stakeholders. Please join us at 4 PM on Monday the 28th in Solana F!
Next month, BPI will begin its 21styear certifying compostable products and packaging in North America. The certification has always been based on ASTM standards for compostability, and all certified products are verified by a third-party entity (today that entity is DIN CERTCO) to ensure those standards are being met. Once products pass that third-party verification, their manufacturers may use the BPI Compostable Logo on the product, its packaging, and in marketing materials and other communications.
This process has served the industry well for more than 20 years and provided composters with valuable information about how a given product might perform in a real world compost environment. It is, however, a process that uses laboratory environments as proxies for those real world compost environments, and that is something not every composter is totally comfortable with. For some composters, the only way to know for sure that a given certified compostable product or piece of packaging will work in their facility is to test it themselves, but many composters lack the time and other resources required to manage testing programs like this on their own.
In January of 2018, the Composting Council Research and Education Foundation (CCREF) announced in the BioCycle article, "Open Source Field Testing for Certified Compostable Packaging", the establishment of the International Field Testing Program or IFTP. As stated in the article. “Compost manufacturers receive the tools and methods to test certified products on site. Their results are then anonymously posted in the testing program’s database for others to learn from. In short, they have the ability to answer their own questions about how specific materials may work in their operations, and at the same time contribute to a larger, broader understanding throughout the industry.” Composters or other researchers interested in participating in this project can start the process here.
All products must be certified by either BPI or the Bureau de Normalisation du Quebec (BNQ) in Canada to be accepted in the study, so field testing is in no way trying to replace the traditional laboratory tests that BPI employs in its certification. Field testing is an extra layer of confidence for a composter that a given product will break down in their facility, and can be generalized to some extent based on the type of process a composter is using.
This can be seen in the approach taken by the newly formed Compost Manufacturing Alliance (CMA). CMA offers field testing of products in the most commonly used composting processes such as Manually Turned Aerated Static Pile, Mechanically Aerated Static Pile, Covered in-vessel + Aerated Static Pile, and Open Windrow.
The addition of field testing data to the existing certification programs offered by BPI and others will hopefully add another layer of confidence as composters decide whether or not to accept certified compostable products and packaging into their operations. Studies have shown that accepting products and packaging is key to getting at the food scraps portion of the waste stream. Increases in the diversion of food scraps and other organic waste streams are essential if we hope to make meaningful progress on the road to zero waste.
For those who don't know, BioCycle Magazine has been in circulation since 1960, and is an authority on all things composting, organics, recycling, anaerobic digestion, renewable energy and community sustainability. There really is no better way to stay current on what is going on in the world of organics recycling, and we highly recommend that you consider becoming a subscriber and attending their excellent conferences.
The cover story of the most recent addition is an article by BPI Executive Director Rhodes Yepsen, and is a summary of a study commissioned by the Foodservice Packaging Institute (FPI) and BPI to assess the value of compostable foodservice packaging as a feedstock, and not just as a delivery mechanism for food scraps.
Since 1999, BPI has only certified products and packaging associated with organic waste diversion - products like cups, cutlery, straws, plates, bowls, and takeout containers. This has led many to view these products simply as "tools for diversion", and not necessarily of value to the quality of the finished compost itself.
This study used full-scale parallel field tests at two commercial composting facilities located in two geographies, with two of the most common composting methods - aerated static pile (ASP) at Olympic Organics in Washington state and open windrow at A1 Organics in Colorado, and was conducted by the Compost Manufacturing Alliance (CMA) to ensure relevance to other composters.
The results of the analyses provide evidence that compostable FSP at both the 15 and 30 percent loading rates did not affect the balance of C:N ratios, nutrient levels, moisture content, or porosity in the feedstock mix or finished compost at these two facilities. Further, compostable FSP performed as an adequate bulking agent compared to wood and other traditional feedstocks used in compost production.
The full report is available here.
BPI's goal is,
"The scalable diversion of organic waste to composting, by verifying that products and packaging will successfully break down in professionally managed compost facilities, without harming the quality of the finished compost."
Much of BPI's work is focused on ensuring that the verification process continues to work our member companies and the composters who are processing the products and packaging. That process is at the core of that BPI does, because if that process is no longer working, there is limited value to the certification itself.
But it is also critical that those same composters (and lots of other people) be able to confirm whether or not a given product is BPI certified. From the beginning, BPI has managed a logo program with its membership in an effort to signal people wanting to know whether a product has the certification.
Executing on that is easier said than done thanks to a wide array of product materials, shapes, sizes, and available printing / embossing methods, just to make a few of the many reasons. (We are in the process of overhauling our Logo and Messaging Guide to help our members and their resellers in their efforts to communicate as clearly as possible about compostability.
One way to begin to address this issue is to have an online database where anyone can go to determine whether a product is certified or not, and that is what BPI maintains on our newly updated website.
By clicking here, searchers can go to the landing page of BPI's Certified Compostable Products Database. (A search bar is also located on the homepage of the BPI website.) Once there, you can search by category, company, product, SKU#, or Certification #. This is by far the most efficient way to reliably determine whether a product is BPI certified or not, so please feel free to share this with anyone who would benefit from it.
Keeping organics out of landfills is becoming more and more of a core sustainability goal for individuals and organizations of all kinds, and compostable foodservice packaging has long been recognized as a lynchpin in this effort. BPI member companies have made extensive contributions to the cause by developing products like hot cups, cold cups, cutlery, and take out packaging made from fibers and resins that perform in a foodservice context, yet also break down in commercial compost facilities alongside other organic material.
But the need for compostable alternatives extend well beyond the realm of cups and plates, and include things like flexible packaging for snacks, coffee, etc. - product categories that are staples of consumer demand across retail environments like campuses, stadiums, and grocery stores. These flexible packs often use less material than rigids, but are extremely difficult to recycle due to multiple layers of materials, and compostable options have been difficult to come by. Progress is being made, and we’d like to highlight some of that here.
Organic Waste Bags
The first product category where the use of compostable films was commercialized was bags for collecting food scraps. These composable bags are used by households and businesses alike to make collection clean and easy, while not contaiminating the compost with conventional plastic film. BPI members like BioBag, Heritage, EcoSafe, Al Pack, Natur Tec, GLAD, Polykar, and Inteplast have pioneered products for this category, and have improved their performance considerably over the years. It is now common to see compostable bags in widespread use in both commercial and residential waste generating environments.
It is no secret that there is an ongoing love affair with “convenient snacking”, not just in America but around the world, which is why snack bags have been a recent focus of product development for BPI member companies like Futamura, TC Ultraflex, BASF, Bi-Ax International, Danimer, NatureWorks and Pepsi. More than five years ago BASF worked with Safeco Field in Seattle to pilot a compostable peanut bag as a way to create a diversion option for the many, many bags of peanuts consumed at Seattle Mariners baseball games. This has continued to evolve, most recently with a pilot with the Kansas City Chiefs, partnering with local composter Missouri Organic Recycling.
PepsiCo famously brought to market the first compostable chip bag for their Sun Chip brand in 2006, and then relaunched the product in 2011 to better fit consumer preferences. Just this past week, they were recognized alongside Danimer Scientific for another product development success in the chip bag product category. The award was given by the Plastics Industry Association in association with their Bioplastics Week event. You can read more about the award here.
Futamura launched a commercial chip bag in Germany with my CHIPSBOX, which it reports has applications for in the US as well. And it has been partnering with convertors in America for snack bar wrappers, being tested for certification now.
Closer to home, several companies have found success with compostable zip bags for snacks on the go, like SC Johonson, BioBag, TIPA, and Repurpose.
Coffee and Tea Packaging
Barrier packaging for coffee and tea has been a hot topic, with successes from Genpak on wrappers, and TC Ultraflex on compostable “mother bags” designed to keep compostable coffee pods fresh. More recently TC Ultraflex commercialized a more complex compostable package for whole bean and ground coffee, launched with Oakland Coffee.
Compostable coffee pods have been taking over the shelves, led by Club Coffee, and Rogers Family, Oakland Coffee, and Canterbury Coffee.
Tea companies are following right behind, working with Futamura on a tea bag wrappers, as well as with Asahi, Yamanaka and Ahlstrom for tea bags and filters.
For more information on BPI certified products, click here to search our recently updated database.
Much has been made of Flourinated Chemicals recently and their presence in some take out packaging. It is common for these chemicals to be referred to by the acronym PFAS, which stands for polyflourinated alkyl substance, but BPI will refer to them as Flourniated Chemicals or FCs. The City of San Francisco recently passed an ordinance stating, among other things, that,
“After January 1, 2020 all compostable foodware that is distributed, sold, or provided in San Francisco must have no intentionally added fluorinated chemicals. To verify, foodware must be BPI certified.”
BPI has been actively engaged on the topic of fluorinated chemicals, and last fall the BPI board brought a vote to the membership about restricting and eventually eliminating fluorinated chemicals from the certification. Specifically, the proposal was to adopt the EN 13432 limit of 100 ppm total fluorine in 2019, and a statement of “no intentionally added fluorinated chemicals” shortly thereafter. The vote passed, and BPI and has communicated a list of key milestones and dates for its member companies that can be found here.
BPI’s overarching goal is to assist in the diversion of organic waste to composting, by verifying that products and packaging will completely break down in a professionally managed composting facility, without harming the quality of that compost. While data is still emerging, there was enough of an indication from scientists as well as composters that something needed to be done about the issue of fluorinated chemicals in products and packaging, specifically the products and packaging that BPI certifies as compostable. Cities like San Francisco, as well as many other stakeholders, rely on BPI certification to provide third-party verification of compostability. A separate part of the SF ordinance makes clear that,
“Foodware that is accepted in San Francisco’s composting program must be BPI (Biodegradable Products Institute) certified to be considered truly compostable.” Full text here.
In a consumer climate where it can be difficult to tell the difference between real benefits and false claims, BPI will continue to work with its member companies and many others in the effort to make claims of compostability for products and packaging as clear and trustworthy as possible.
The Michigan Recycling Coalition’s annual conference last week in Kalamazoo featured content about composting and anaerobic digestion, including a keynote presentation from BPI’s Executive Director, Rhodes Yepsen, about connecting the dots between food waste and compostable packaging. Speaking to a packed house, Yepsen provided an overview of the problem (high volumes of food wasted each year, causing environmental and economic harm), on both the National and Michigan level, and then shared some success stories from the state of Michigan.
Dozens of diversion programs already exist in Michigan, such as HopCat, a multi-unit concept that is able to achieve 85-93% diversion at its 15 restaurant locations that are composting back of house and front of house organics using all compostable food service products. Without composting, they would only be at 60-65% diversion!
Significant discussion at the conference was dedicated to upcoming legislation that could dramatically change the recycling and composting landscape, such as rewriting Part 115, the state’s solid waste rules, and SB 943, which would increase the landfill surcharges from $0.36/ton (the lowest in the region) to $4.44/ton. While this would only cost the average MI household $0.37/month, it would bring in $74 million annually to support recycling and composting initiatives.
BPI plans to continue building collaborations with state groups like MRC, to provide useful information and offer support on food waste diversion programs and compostable packaging. Besides MRC, BPI participated in a well-attended workshop with the MN Composting Council in 2016, and will be meeting with the Colorado Composting Council this July about partnerships.
Last October in Toronto, there was a roundtable discussion hosted by the National Zero Waste Council of Canada about enablers of, and barriers to, the recovery of compostable packaging in Canada.
Anytime you do something like this, it is essential to have representatives from as many stakeholder groups as possible. For this event, we were lucky to have voices from municipalities, provincial governments, composters, certifiers, distributors, retailers, product manufacturers, trade associations, and others. The conversations were productive, yielding a recently published report entitled, “Packaging and the Circular Economy: A Case Study on Compostables in Canada.”
One of the more commonly cited barriers was the lack of conformity between compostability standards and current composting processing conditions, and in particular, the variability of those composting conditions. This is nothing new to anyone who has been paying attention to the issues facing large scale organics diversion in North America and across the globe.
One example of BPI’s engagement on this topic is the technical leadership and support we have provided to the CCREF’s Open Source Field Testing program, which will collect data on how different composting conditions impact the ability of compostable products to disintegrate. You can read about that in this recent BioCycle magazine article.
Additionally, BPI is working with the Compost Manufacturing Alliance (CMA) on testing a variety of items in two different composting systems to get better data for our Members on how BPI Certified products perform in those systems. CMA is a nationwide partnership of compost manufacturing facilities providing field disintegration testing for food service products.
For BPI, it will always be about the broader diversion effort, and the crucial importance of keeping wasted food and other organics out of landfills. If there is one thing we should all be able to agree on, that is it.
Thanks in large part to shifts in consumer sentiment and broader awareness of environmental sustainability, “greener” alternatives to traditional products and services have become increasingly common in today’s world. Compostability, where products and packaging associated with food scraps are re-designed to break down in composting facilities, is one strategy being employed in the effort to send less “waste” to landfills.
In order for composters to feel confident that the products and packaging they allow into their facilities is actually compostable, and for consumers to be able to actually identify those products, a system of third-party verification is required, and that’s where BPI comes in.
Certification is critical for making sure claims are clear, consistent, and scientifically based. BPI’s certification logo is on over 6,500 products in North America, and has been used by companies for almost 20 years, providing simple and uniform identification.
We verify that products meet ASTM’s scientific specifications, using internationally recognized test methods for compostability, conducted by independent laboratories. No self-made claims to wade through, just the facts backed up by rigorous testing and review.
At BPI, we only certify products and packaging linked to food scraps diversion, or things that composters may actually want in their pile. While many landfill-bound items need to be redesigned, not all are suitable for composting. Considering that food scraps are the number one category of “waste” ending up in US landfills, the ability to more easily divert this stream to composting is a major goal for consumers, businesses and municipalities.
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