Chipmaker’s All-Or-Nothing Claim Sets The Bar In Big And Bold

compost trials with SunChips bagsBioCycle August 2010, Vol. 51, No. 8, p. 20

Fortune 500 companies pave the way for improved products, better composting infrastructure and more organics recycling.

Dan Sullivan

THIS year Frito-Lay began marketing SunChips brand multigrain snacks in “100% COMPOSTABLE” packaging, shouting the claim from its south-facing rooftops and leaving no margin for error. SunChips has always represented the frontier of green thinking for PepsiCo’s Frito-Lay. In 2003, the SunChips facility in Modesto, California, cut the ribbon on a 5-acre solar field to power its factory. Not too long afterward, Frito-Lay began reevaluating SunChips’ packaging.

“We took a look at our existing packaging four or five years ago and began thinking about alternatives to that in terms of the front end of life and the back end of life for consumers,” says Brad Rodgers, Frito-Lay’s manager of sustainable packaging and advanced materials research. “We began evaluating what technology existed or was coming and what we could do to make it work for our particular situation.”
compost trials in commercially available compost bins bags

The company ultimately turned to NatureWorks, a subsidiary of Cargill specializing in the manufacture of compostable plant-derived PLA (polylactide) biopolymers under the brand name Ingeo. “We took a look at that particular process that was commercially available to see if we could make use of the film structures for our particular product,” Rodgers says, adding that the chosen material would have to be both compostable and provide the right barrier from the elements to keep the product fresh.

Why not just make the bags recyclable? “We identified two likely end-of-life scenarios other than the landfill: recycling and composting,” explains Rodgers. For the type of packaging required, composting was deemed the best option. “Flexible packaging is somewhat of a victim of its own success,” he says, noting that advances in making such packaging lighter and with less material have also made it less attractive to commercial recyclers. “So composting seemed a very viable end-of-life scenario. PLA is made up of renewable resources and also had the necessary attributes.”

Once a suitable material was identified, Frito-Lay began testing the product to the company’s own exacting standards. It wanted to exceed break down times set by the American Society of Testing and Materials (ASTM) D6400 and related Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI) certification and seal that have become the gold standard for compostable packaging. The company wanted the bags to be compostable in a backyard compost pile, and set to the task of developing a product that would hold up – or rather break down – in that setting. Because all backyard compost piles are not built the same, educating consumers became equally important.

Far from whispering the claim of “100% compostable,” SunChips chose to telegraph it in billboard fashion above the brand name and in an equally bold font size. “The plan we wanted to execute was ‘Let’s make people very aware of this,'” explains Rodgers. “It screams on the package.” Somewhat predictably, naysayers came out of the woodwork, questioning both the Fortune 500 company’s motives and the efficacy of its claim. But Frito-Lay had done its homework and also had a seasoned tutor in Will Brinton of Woods End Laboratories in Mt. Vernon, Maine. “We wanted the certification and verification programs [the packaging bears the BPI 'compostable' label], and we also developed our own test methods to verify the process for ourselves,” says Rodgers.

Print on SunChips packaging states that the bag “breaks down completely into compost in a hot, active home or industrial compost pile.” Brinton and his laboratory not only tested that claim but also assisted in creating a product that would deliver on it. “They interviewed several labs around the country capable of conducting multiple levels of scientific trials,” says Brinton. “We had the capacity to do that and also the experience with compost. This was experimental development work.”

SOME LIKE IT HOT

While Frito-Lay has taken some heat for SunChips packaging not breaking down readily in the average backyard compost pile, Brinton says the company went to great pains to assure that the required heat to break down the bag – 125°F to 135°F for two weeks – was attainable at home. “The ASTM D6400 standards are written based on a high-temperature composting process,” says Brinton. “They originated mainly for the PLA product which will not fully biodegrade unless first exposed to moist, high temperatures that trigger a transition state.” He adds that Frito-Lay was wary of making the “100% COMPOSTABLE” claim if the product required a commercial composting facility to meet it. “We had to show that home composting was capable of being hot,” Brinton says. “We tested five different feedstocks and six different [compost pile] sizes, and that gave them a lot of confidence to go forward. All the bins [tested] got hot, but the small bins only very briefly.” Woods End inserted SunChips bags into the various piles of differing conditions and correlated disappearance with pile size and temperature.

“To generate maximum heat, we found that it’s best to construct a pile as quickly as possible with collected materials rather than layering it over time,” Brinton says. Size also matters, he explains, adding that 21 cubic feet (or slightly less than a cubic yard) was found to be about the minimum volume that would generate sustained heat at the required temperature. As shown in Figure 1, the heat produced correlated closely with the volume of the bins. All three of the largest sizes (21, 29 and 50 cubic feet) readily broke down SunChips bags in less than 13 weeks.

Brinton acknowledges that home composters tend to layer their piles as food scraps and other feedstocks such as grass clippings are generated versus building one large pile (e.g., 21 cubic feet) right away. He suggested that one way to build a pile rapidly would be to dry grass clippings in the sun and then bag them for adding nitrogen just as one stockpiles leaves for carbon.

Frito-Lay has made Woods End’s findings available to the public on its website, www.SunChips.com, where consumers will find additional information on effective backyard composting as well as the location of regional commercial composters (see BioCycle’s www.findacomposter.com). Television commercials illustrating the time-lapse breakdown of a SunChips bag were shown during the Winter Olympics in Canada and during the Super Bowl in the U.S. “Frito-Lay just got the word out on compost with more publicity than all of us put together over the past 10 years,” Brinton says.

When asked about the science behind compostable packaging getting landfilled – an all-too-common scenario – Brinton explains that it will behave the same as any other organic material. “The more compostable it is, the more it will turn into methane in the landfill – that’s the crux of the issue here … The methane needs to be captured, and landfills are just a dirty way to do it.” Brinton suggested that if the country is serious about reducing its collective carbon footprint, biodigesters – aerobic or anaerobic – would be installed in communities to capture the full benefit of the energy in organic waste materials before applying them to the land. “Every society in Europe is way ahead on this. It’s kind of silly to be sticking this stuff in landfills. Moreover, we shouldn’t let bad become the benchmark for what’s good,” Brinton suggests, adding that we should continue to improve upon compostable and digestible packaging parallel to developing the infrastructure to put it to its highest and best use.
three small-scale composting methods

STEPPING UP TO THE PILE
Frito-Lay isn’t the only big player rolling out compostable packaging and making attempts to steer customers, and employees, toward the compost pile. The National Park Foundation and International Paper have teamed up to offer park visitors both compostable (and commemorative) cups, opportunities to compost them and to learn about composting, and a chance to support the parks financially (the paper company has pledged a penny per cup purchased to the park foundation, up to $1 million). “In June, International Paper and others launched a joint effort to conduct a waste characterization study at the Grand Teton National Park, which will be the basis for developing solutions for providing composting services to the Teton area and potentially other parks,” says Kristin Newman, director of marketing for International Paper Foodservice. “The National Park ecotainer cup is being used as part of the study.” The ecotainer cups are coated with Ingeo PLA – cold cups on the outside, hot cups on the inside – and all of the cups are chlorine-free.

A key objective of the study is to explore a variety of collection methods and composting options to establish a model for the Grand Teton area and other parks. “Our ecotainer products have been tested extensively by Mass Natural [Fertilizer Co., Inc., Westminster, Massachusetts], which found that they break down into organic matter within four days to 16 weeks, depending on the composting method,” says Newman. “Vermicompost, rotary drum and backyard composting were all tested. In addition, Cedar Grove Composting, an industry leader with strict standards, accepts ecotainer products in their composting collection.” The waste characterization study wraps up in September.

A key component of the National Park ecotainer cup program is education, adds Newman. “Through a microsite (zerowasteparks.org) and on-cup messaging, we aim to educate organizations and consumers about the benefits of composting. Additional support and customizable ecotainer point-of-sale materials are provided to parks and other customers upon request. International Paper encourages our customers and consumers to consider compostable products like ecotainer as part of their overall sustainability efforts. As customers inquire, we provide information and contacts to help them with their collection and composting.”

Starbucks Coffee Co., which utilizes both recyclable and compostable cups, operates by the mantra that a cup shouldn’t even be considered compostable if it doesn’t actually get composted. “Our definition of ‘compostable’ is not based solely on materials, but on the availability of local composting infrastructures,” explains Elise Chisholm, Starbucks global communications program manager. “We’ll only call our packaging and food waste ‘compostable’ where it’s being collected and processed.” The company has pledged to improve the efficacy of its own “compostable” cups by improving composting infrastructure in the communities where it does business. Considering that Starbucks operates nearly 17,000 stores, this could have significant impact.

“While our packaging items are the same across all markets, their compostability varies considerably from place to place,” explains Chisholm. “For example, our standard hot cup, made of 10-percent postconsumer recycled fiber (PCF), is compostable in San Francisco, but not in Seattle – where it’s recyclable. Our napkins, sandwich trays [made from sugarcane bagasse], paper bags, wooden stir sticks and coffee filters are compostable in both Seattle and San Francisco.” This, she explains, is because composters in different regions have varying standards for what they accept.

Coffee grounds are another large part of Starbucks’ waste stream. “We compost these, along with other food waste items, where local composting infrastructure exists,” says Chisholm. “We also divert coffee grounds from the waste stream through our popular ‘Grounds for Your Garden’ program.” And to help make sure such opportunities exist? “We’re collaborating with municipal officials and other stakeholders where there is composting infrastructure to ensure our packaging and food waste is collected and processed,” Chisholm says. “For example, in May 2010, we rolled out a comprehensive recycling and composting program in our Seattle stores. Partner [employee] education and easy-to-read signage have contributed to the success of this program.”

Tracking behavior
While companies such as Starbucks and International Paper are working to improve composting infrastructure and others such as Frito-Lay strive to design the perfect bag that will both keep food fresh and disappear in a backyard compost pile, no one seems to be effectively tracking how much compostable packaging actually makes it to the compost heap.

Brinton said it’s no surprise that many people are holding Frito-Lay’s feet to the fire with an attitude similar to Starbucks’ mantra that “it’s not compostable unless it’s composted.” He questioned the fairness of this response, applauded the company for setting the bar high and suggested there are plenty of packaging products that don’t live up to their claims. “For example, so-called oxo-degradable bags have shown up in Brooklyn, New York, green stores and even in Hannaford Supermarkets in Maine, claiming to be biodegradable. But a recent DEFRA [British Department of Agriculture] study shows these bags are not degradable under normal circumstances. Oxo products require hot, very dry heat for several weeks – only attainable under arid desert environments – followed by a warm compost environment for about one year before biodegrading. Frito-Lay has been very careful in stating the fact that PLA requires hot compost – nothing more – and avid home composters are able to get piles hot.”

Frito-Lays’ Rodgers readily admits that tracking consumer behavior is difficult. He adds that while the company does not disclose its future plans publicly, it is fully committed to continuing to reduce its environmental impact. He also freely admits that when a company as significant as PepsiCo makes its packaging needs known, the message tends to push the R & D envelope. Regarding Frito-Lays’ “WORLD’S FIRST 100% COMPOSTABLE CHIPS PACKAGE” screaming its claim from your grocers’ shelves now, Rodgers says: “It’s the first step in the journey.”

Sidebar p. 24
ORGANIC FARMING AND COMPOSTABLE PLASTICS
FARMING organically in a polluted world has become increasingly difficult. In 2002, the federal Organic Rule established uniform standards, a level playing field and a National Organic Program (NOP) under the U.S. Department of Agriculture. As the world changes, so must the program evolve. In reporting our story on compostable packaging, BioCycle ran into what seemed in some composters’ minds to be a grey area with regard to whether these products are allowable in organic production systems.

We decided to go straight to the source and asked NOP officials about Frito-Lay’s “100% COMPOSTABLE” SunChips packaging in particular and compostable plastics in general. The SunChips bags are about 94 percent plant-derived polylactic acid (PLA); the balance of materials includes a thin layer of inks (polymer binders and organic pigments), adhesives (derived from about 40 percent renewable and 60 percent nonrenewable sources) and metal (< 0.2-percent aluminum) used to print, seal and provide a barrier, respectively. “All of these materials break down when the bag composts,” says Brad Rodgers, Frito-Lay’s sustainable packaging czar. “Also, part of the ASTM D6400/BPI certification process requires the bag to pass heavy metals and ecotoxicity testing to ensure that there are no harmful materials left in the soil when the bag decomposes.”

That’s not quite enough, says Soo Kim with NOP’s public affairs office. “Unless it was somehow processed using only organic materials and only organic processes, it wouldn’t qualify.” That leaves a host of compostable products potentially out of the picture. Kim continued: “According to Section 205.203(d)(5)), plant material that has been chemically altered by a manufacturing process is allowed only when the material is on the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances. Therefore, if an inspector came across a certified operation composting any material that isn’t aligned with the regulations, he or she would treat it as he would any other violation.”

Compostable plastics, including those which comply with ASTM 6400, may be considered synthetic materials if they are manufactured by a chemical process or by a process that chemically changes a substance extracted from naturally occurring plant, animal or mineral sources, explains Kim. “Unless and until the National List is amended based on an NOSB [National Organic Standards Board] recommendation to allow synthetic compostable plastics as synthetic compost feedstocks, they’re prohibited.” The NOP hasn’t published guidance on the use of compostable plastics in compost for organic production but has addressed other aspects of compost in recent guidance, Kim says, and the issue is on the program’s radar. Meanwhile some certified organic composters are accepting certain compostable packaging and service ware while others are avoiding it altogether.

“We’re staying away from biodegradable plastics – everything I’ve seen indicates that there are still plastic polymers coming through the petrochemical industry in some way, shape or form,” says Jeff Moyer, farm director at the Rodale Institute and a member and former chair of the NOSB. “And the NOP says we can’t use any biodegradable plastics.”

Moyer says the 333-acre nonprofit research farm – which currently composts municipal yard trimmings, food waste from the for-profit Rodale, Inc. and a nearby hospital, and some animal manures from regional livestock operations – began experimenting with biodegradable cutlery in the late 1990s but was left with a pile full of pockmarked plasticizers. When the farm began accepting preconsumer food waste from Rodale, Inc., a couple of years ago, Moyer says, it also began composting paper plates as well as soup and salad bowls made of bamboo and palm fronds. Of the latter product, Moyer explains: “They gather the leaves that fall to the ground in the palm oil plantations, and a cold-press treatment presses them into plates. They just soak the fronds in water until everything is really wet and smash it together in a press. There are no glues or chemicals.” And, he says, they break down in compost just fine.

Moyer says he wouldn’t mind taking in other compostable packaging or service ware once it has gained NOP approval, but he also counseled caution with regard to such approval being granted (and as an NOSB board member, he’ll be part of that discussion). “Our big concern is that the research looks beyond the composting process to what the residuals are and what the ramifications are of those residuals to the environment,” he says.

Another concern to the organic community, other segments within the U.S. and to many export markets is the potential presence of genetically modified organisms (GMOS). Since 85 percent of all corn and 91 percent of all soybeans planted in U.S. soil in 2009 contained GMOs, the likelihood of plant-derived packaging containing genetically modified material is quite high. NatureWorks, LLC, which manufactures PLA under the brand name “Ingeo” and currently utilizes corn to extract the necessary plant starches, makes available multiple certified source options, according to the company’s website, in order “to address variable global market demands around GM feedstocks.” These options include third-party certification that the PLA resin purchased is GMO free, a source-offset program whereby NatureWorks agrees to purchase the amount of non-GMO field maize required to produce the equivalent amount of PLA purchased (2.2 pounds of corn yields 1 pound of resin), and an identity preservation program whereby large-volume, multiyear customers may verify the source of the required dextrose and the absence of genetic material from the point of origin through all phases in the production process.

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