Cultivating a Compostable Packaging Master Plan

In SPC Advance’s first ever Composting Workshop, it was made abundantly clear that to use compostable packaging effectively, thoughtful coordination and proactive troubleshooting are essential. Compost manufacturers like Carla Castagnero of Pittsburgh-based AgRecycle, Michele Riggs from Seattle’s Cedar Grove, Susan Thoman of the Compost Manufacturing Alliance, and Fritz Gottschalk of Virginia-based Veteran Compost, and Brian Fleury from New York’s WeCare Organics spoke to this reality. Castagnero in particular underscored that for most composters, herself included, all profits are made from the sale of compost and not the service of hauling compostable material from generators like institutions or restaurants.

Framing compostable packaging and food waste as feedstock for their compost manufacturing process illuminates the necessity of working with the whole supply chain to optimize packaging to create the best compost possible. This perspective, David Fridland of Eco-Products expressed, is the goal during compostable product development. Fridland highlighted that actively educating clients on best practices for collecting compostable material, as well as working closely with operations and facilities staff has proved key. With some venues that are prone to contamination, Fridland explained that they’ve developed post-game sorting protocols that help ensure the least amount of contaminants.

Contamination can be due to a lot of things. Judd Michael, Penn State University Professor and Green Sports Alliance Ambassador, went into further detail about his observations on contamination at both Penn State and Pocono Raceway. Noting that many attendees first experiences with compostable packaging is at large events like games and races, Michael articulated that there was a palpable sense of anxiety from attendees when disposing products and packaging. In a swarm, attendees grouping around landfill, recycling, and organics bins were under pressure to be quick and were visibly unsure of correct disposal options without time to read lengthy signs even with visual aides. In refining the process, Michael explained that volunteer attendants to help educate and ensure correct disposal helped to alleviate both consternation and contamination.

While effective in a large and closed venues, Daryn Ogilvie with Chipotle Mexican Grill divulged that the strategy likely couldn’t be directly translated to quick-service restaurants like Chipotle. Namely, the pressure of an attendant adjacent to collection bins could lend to an unpleasant sense of scrutiny to diners. Yet, fast-casual establishments do have a clear advantage to steward compostable packaging use and contamination reduction, according to Ogilvie. With thousands of locations and repeat customers, there exists a real potential to integrate correct disposal into habitual visits from lunch-hour regulars and similar diners.

Kevin Carney with Sabert, a partner of Chipotle Mexican Grill, seconded Ogilvie’s ideas and expanded on the possibilities that compostable packaging represents today. Now that compostable packaging has had a substantial history of use in large venues and big events, Carney believes that past success is ripe to be applied to less conventional areas like schools, universities, hospitals, and corporate campuses. From Carney’s point of view, demand from new clients has been overwhelming and exponential. And, from the perspective of industry expert Susan Thoman with the Compost Manufacturing Alliance, the increased presence of compostable packaging will provide more opportunities for individuals to interact with compostable packaging and build correct disposal patterns. Thoman also stressed the critical connection that curating environments where all food service-ware and packaging is compostable will mitigate contamination, as well as simplify disposal from a consumer or attendee perspective.

Yet, many food waste generators exploring compostable packaging in particular have confronted the problem of niche items critical to operations only having conventional plastic or non-compostable products on the market. BASF’s Paul Kearns emphasized that when a sports stadium, for instance, has food service-ware and products that are almost either all recyclable or compostable, nagging items like chip and peanut bags can mandate that landfill bins are deployed throughout a venue. Complicating disposal by having three bins instead of only a recycling and compostables bin not only increase the contamination to the compostable material stream, but also opens the opportunity for recyclable and compostable materials to end up in the landfill bin. Especially when prompted by the ‘bin anxiety’ Michael alluded to at collegiate and professional sports venues.

In designing packaging and food service-ware to easily match collection infrastructure, it was clear that ensuring compostable packaging will break down in predictable and specific timeframes and conditions is a priority to ensure that compost manufacturers are able to accept the material. Thoman explained how the services of the Compost Manufacturing Alliance can provide assurance to compostable packaging manufacturers that items compost on-the-ground in different composting systems and geographic regions, assurance that has long-eluded the industry. Once verified in real compost piles, compostable packaging manufacturers and end-users can be firm in their strategies to mitigate contamination and direct feedstock to compost manufacturing facilities. And, with increased coordination and systems-thinking throughout the supply chain, the design challenge of creating a successful organics recycling system can be cultivated.



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