BioCycle March 2011, Vol. 52, No. 3, p. 36
Mixed messages from regional certifiers bring to the fore the issue of bioplastics in National Organic Program.
LONG before the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) and resulting federal Organic Rule went on the books in 1990 and 2002 respectively, industry players – from farmers to food processors – have grappled with the nuances of developing and maintaining a national organic standard that satisfies all participants. Ostensibly created to level the playing field and instill consumer confidence with a uniform “USDA Organic” label, the National Organic Program (NOP) has faced myriad challenges that have often seen organic purists at odds with the food industry.
Prior to establishment of the federal organic program, a few states and a handful of nongovernmental entities ran their own successful organic certification programs. Once the NOP was in place, many of these were “deputized” as third-party certifiers to administer the new uniform standards at the local and regional level. This includes inspecting and certifying organic farms to make sure practices and inputs remain in line with the federal Organic Rule. Perhaps in part due to this somewhat disparate history, consistent application, interpretation and enforcement of the federal Rule have at times proven difficult. These challenges are reflected in the recent confusion over bioplastics, with varying interpretations among organic certifiers as to which, if any, are allowable under the guidelines of the Rule.
Organic farming holds its roots in following nature’s cues to create on-farm fertility and resilience by encouraging biological diversity above and below the ground with little or no need for outside inputs. The Organic Rule speaks directly to this management approach, encouraging recycling of nutrients through practices such as cover cropping and making and applying compost. The federal Organic Rule also covers allowable processes and inputs to grow food and make “value-added” products – such as organic cookies or soups – and includes an evolving list of allowable synthetic materials.
The National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) is an advisory body made up of industry stakeholders including producers (farmers), handlers, certifiers, retailers, environmentalists, scientists and the public at large. The NOSB weighs in with the NOP as to whether a substance should be allowed or prohibited in organic production or handling, helps develop standards for substances to be used in organic production and advises the USDA on other aspects of implementing the OFPA.
Compostable plastics (aka “bioplastics”) are typically derived from raw materials such as starchy plants, renewable biomass and plant oils and are nontoxic to manufacture. Some compostable plastics, like their conventional brethren, are derived from petroleum/ fossil feedstocks. Others are formed with the help of bacteria through microbial fermentation. And some compostable end products made from these bioplastics combine two or more of these materials. All compostable plastics that meet defined industry standards will break down and be completely utilized by the microorganisms in composting to form carbon dioxide, water and cellular biomass.
The most commonly used raw material for making compostable plastics is corn starch, and the most common compostable plastic on the market is polylactic acid (PLA), which is derived from corn starch. To make PLA, dextrose is extracted from the starch through the corn milling process, converted into lactic acid via fermentation and then polymerized by self-condensation. Cargill-owned NatureWorks fashions its PLA resin into pea-sized pellets under the trademark “Ingeo” and ships it to manufacturers, who use it to produce everything from to-go clamshells and cold cups to impervious lining for hot cups to packaging material and compostable plastic bags. According to the manufacturer, PLA requires 60 percent less energy to produce than conventional plastic, is nontoxic and generates less air pollution.
Despite the environmental benefits over conventional plastics, a growing number of certifiers are interpreting the NOP standards to exclude compostable plastics from organic production as disallowed synthetics. It’s a gray area that has left some composters, many of whom sell their product certified for organic production at a premium, having to decide whether to give up the lucrative organic market or cease taking compostable plastics. At the heart of the matter is whether the chemical processes required to produce PLA and other compostable plastics render them synthetics under the NOP’s definition (see glossary) as well as the fact that some of the plasticizers and binding agents are petroleum-based. Some composters and others question why compostable plastics fall under such a heavy microscope when essentially anything the federal Food and Drug Administration deems “food” – such as the Polysorbate 60 and FD& C Red Dye #40 that account for two of the 37 ingredients found in a Twinkie as well as petroleum-based preservatives found in many other foods – is allowed as a compost feedstock, with no further consideration of either the ingredients or the processes used to put them together.
“I am in agreement with others in the industry,” says Terry Gebhardt, head of new product development for Pak-Sher, an industry leader in compostable packaging. “We don’t understand why these compostable products are falling under such scrutiny since the end product is compost and the products themselves end up as carbon, water and biomass. And there doesn’t appear be any residual petroleum products left.” While compostable plastics made with 100-percent PLA and other organic resins do exist in the marketplace, he adds, “if you want the performance of traditional plastics – stretch, temperature resistance, sealability – at this point in time some of the material needs to be derived from petroleum.”
In mid-February 2011, Intervale Compost Products, which is in the process of relocating from Burlington, Vermont, to nearby Williston, sent a letter to clients – including the University of Vermont and the university-based Fletcher Allen Health Care – stating that it would soon cease accepting compostable serviceware or the compostable plastic bags that had historically been used to gather and transport food waste. “These decisions are being made by national and regional organizations that determine and enforce organic use standards,” stated the letter from the Chittenden Solid Waste District, which operates the compost facility. The letter was referencing a draft policy statement sent out by Vermont Organic Farmers (VOF), a program of the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont (NOFA-VT), and the third-party certifier charged with overseeing the NOP in that state. Composters from around Vermont were scheduled to meet with NOFA-VT at press time, when the draft policy based on VOF’s reading of the federal standards was expected to be made official.
The Intervale Compost letter to customers continues: “The material in question is generally anything made from ‘bioplastic’ or ‘compostable plastic,’ such as PLA, CPLA, PHA, AAC, and TPS. Many of these products carry the label ‘Compostable,’ while others are labeled ‘Biodegradable.’ The NOP currently considers bioplastics to be synthetic products not allowed in organic agriculture, regardless of how well they break down in compost.” Some industry insiders say that interpretation has neither been clearly stated nor consistently applied. They point out that compostable plastics are relatively new on the scene, the rise in their use going hand in hand with an increased diversion of both pre and postconsumer food waste.
“Prohibited Feedstocks,” according to the VOF draft policy statement and based on the federal Organic Rule, include “Plant & Animal Materials that go through a chemical change,” with a parenthetical reference from VOF clarifying “some bioplastic materials may fall into this category, for example corn-based plastic mulches and tableware.” The statement then directs producers to “VOF’s Brand Name Product List for Organic Production for approved brand-name materials.” According to Burlington’s weekly newspaper Seven Days, if the local ban on bioplastics goes through, at least one of Intervale Compost’s biggest clients – Fletcher Allen Health Care – plans to go back to landfilling its food waste and will likely revert to the cheaper, noncompostable serviceware.
Just over the border, the Canadian Organic Standards permit biodegradable plastic mulches that are incorporated into the soil after use, as do the European (IFOAM) organic standards. Canada’s organic program has equivalency agreements with the NOP, meaning that each program recognizes the other as legitimate and products from one market may be sold into the other. “Equivalency is important to the NOP,” says VOF’s Certification Administrator Nicole Dehne. “We have this equivalency agreement with Canada, yet growers in Vermont are prohibited from using biodegradable plastic mulch. Anytime you can reduce labor it’s a big deal, and they have that advantage right across the border. It’s a real point of contention.”
Dehne says that while she thinks most certifiers view compostable plastics as synthetics, she’s hoping to see this issue addressed at the national level. And until a manufacturer petitions the NOSB to rule on whether bioplastics are allowable in organic production, she says, that’s not going to happen. Recently, an organic farm in Maryland had its certification revoked for using biodegradable plastic mulch. That case is currently under appeal. It is Dehne’s hope that the compostable serviceware/packaging/bag and biodegradable plastic mulch issues will be resolved simultaneously.
Across the continent and also sharing a border with Canada, the state of Washington’s Organic Food Program under the Washington State Department of Agriculture (WSDA) is one of the oldest in the country, predating even the OFPA but still under the jurisdiction of the USDA. In 2009, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack appointed the founding director of the WSDA organic food program, Miles McEvoy, to the position of Deputy Administrator of the NOP.
Jerry Bartlett of Cedar Grove Composting, a large-scale composter in the Seattle region, says that when his company got wind a little more than a year ago that WSDA was to begin following what he couched as the NOP’s evolving and more stringent guidelines and enforcement where compostable plastics in organic production were concerned, it began retooling its operation so it would have the ability to keep the questionable materials out of its compost stream certified for organic production. While certified organic farmers currently represent less than 1 percent of Cedar Grove’s business, Bartlett says, the distinction that the compost is approved for organic production offers a valuable marketing tool.
“They’re so big that they are able to do two separate streams,” says VOF’s Dehne, who reached out to composters and organic certifiers across the country while researching this issue. “The problem with our composters is they’re just not that big, so when we say ‘it’s not allowed,’ it’s just not allowed, and that’s disappointing.” WSDA’s own Brand Name Materials List highlighting products “allowed for use in certified organic food production under the USDA National Organic Program” continues to include some compost products made with feedstocks that incorporate compostable serviceware.
While the NOP waits for an entity petition to add bioplastics to its roster of allowable synthetic substances, many look to the NOP for a more specific directive. In September 2010, the NOP published draft guidance for compost and vermicompost in organic crop production as a means of “clarification on allowed practices for composition, production and use of compost … in organic crop production.” Bioplastics are not mentioned. The document cited section 205.203, which states: “The producer must manage plant and animal material to maintain or improve soil organic matter content in a manner that does not contribute to contamination of crops, soil, or water by plant nutrients, pathogenic organisms, heavy metals, or residues of prohibited substances.” The guiding document goes on to explain, per the initial rule, that “plant and animal materials” include raw animal manure (with specific restrictions), composted plant and animal material and uncomposted plant material and further explains, “The NOP concurs with the NOSB that the examples provided in 205.203(c)(1-3) is not a finite list of acceptable plant and animal materials for use in organic production. Site-specific variation in feedstock materials, management practices, and production requirements dictate that organic producers exercise flexibility in managing plant and animal materials on their operations.” More gray.
“I think it’s safe to say that there is variation in interpretation of the National Organic Program Standards where compostable plastics are concerned,” says Lindsay Fernandez-Salvador, review program manager for the Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI), a nonprofit organization that reviews brand name input products for compliance with the NOP standards. “The best message we can give right now is there are certain reasons we think these products are not allowed. One is the various adhesives and resins that they contain, and we’re also concerned about the process by which the actual biodegradable polymer is manufactured.” Fernandez-Salvador says that OMRI’s current interpretation is based on section 205:105(a) of the rule that prohibits the use of synthetic materials. “OMRI currently does not allow these things as feedstock material.”
ASKING THE RIGHT QUESTION
Three years ago, Will Bakx of Sonoma Compost Co. says he was the lone voice in the wilderness crying out to the U.S. Composting Council (USCC) about what he saw as an emerging issue with service ware and other products labeled as “compostable” finding their way into feedstocks destined for “USDA Certified Organic” production. “Some just assumed it was allowed and they never verified it,” he says. “I wrote OMRI three years ago, and I got an immediate response that it was definitely not allowed.”
Bakx, who sells about 15 to 20 percent of his certified-organic compost to certified organic farmers (although he says the majority of his customers appreciate the organic listing), says compostable plastics create problems for composters who serve non-organic markets as well, in part because their performance is inconsistent. Contaminants must be removed before they reach the grinder, Bakx says, and since it’s virtually impossible in the current environment to distinguish compostable plastics – which will eventually break down – from conventional plastics, that means they all must come out at his facility.
“If I tell my employees they need to take regular plastic out but they can leave compostable plastics in – we can’t identify [compostable plastic] as any different from regular plastic,” says Bakx. “It’s the same with plastic bags. I’ve seen every color under the rainbow. We’ve got all these products and we grind them into smaller pieces and we’ve got an even bigger problem on our hands. If I accept compostable plastics into my compost stream, it increases my workload because I have to take them out.” Bakx says the customer is charged a tipping fee of $34.10/ton by the county for the green waste and vegetative food waste he takes in and that it can easily cost him four times that much in labor costs to rid the same volume of material of contaminants.
Bakx is part of a working group that formed at the U.S. Composting Council’s annual conference in Santa Clara, California, in January to discuss how to tackle the problem. “We made progress identifying the problems, then we listed those, and now there will be several subcommittees going to work to find solutions,” he says. “We need to sit down with the NOP and decide what’s the pathway? What do we want? Do we want someone to petition compostable plastics and say carte blanche that all compostable plastics meeting certain standards should be allowed?”
Since research has shown that food waste collected in biodegradable plastic bags greatly increases the rate of diversion – which means less landfilling of organics and more going toward improving the soil -perhaps a different approach should be taken with compostable bags versus to-go food service items, Bakx suggests. But pressing the NOP to make a decision, he warns, could backfire into a blanket answer no one wants to hear. “If they are not allowed, probably corn starch is not allowed either, and suddenly a whole bunch of products are not allowed. That’s always a risk you take. Suddenly it becomes even more complex.”
Last year, three California composters lost their organic certification when their compost tested positive for the synthetic pyrethroid bifenthrin. It soon became apparent a widespread problem existed and that composts using residential green waste as a feedstock were likely going to test positive for the insecticide. The NOP took decisive action, clarifying a policy on what the program considered unavoidable residual environmental contaminants (URECS). According to the new language, compost produced from approved feedstocks – including plant and animal materials such as crop residues, animal manure, food waste and yard trimmings – is acceptable for use in organic production, provided that any residual pesticide levels do not contribute to the contamination of crops, soil and water.
Bakx and others contend there is a big difference between URECS and knowingly opening up the floodgates to compostable products (see “Certified Organic Compost Under the Gun in California,” March 2010). “URECS are incidental, whereas compostable plastics are not incidental,” he says. “Once we say we will accept them, they become feedstocks that we willingly take in.” This presents another gray area, as some certifiers consider incidental quantities of compostable plastics in markets where the composter is making a good faith effort to keep them out of compost destined for organic production to be just that (URECS).
Regardless of if and when the NOP spells out uniform standards for compostable plastics across the board for all certifiers, a process Bakx predicts could take two to three years, he says that from the composters’ perspective there’s still more work to be done. “We need an identification system like a patented color green or some sort of cheap UV lighting system to identify these materials. A third way would be to ensure that these products do actually break down in an average composting facility.” The bottom line, he adds, is that the emerging compostable products industry should be accountable for figuring out how to conform to the best practices and standards of composters and not the other way around.
Cedar Grove’s Jerry Bartlett concurs. “It’s up to the manufacturer’s to get their products approved,” he says. Not only is organics recycling mandatory in Seattle, as of July 2010 single-use or takeout containers utilized by restaurants are required to be either recyclable or compostable. As Seattle’s contracted composter, Cedar Grove decides which items in the latter category pass muster. The company has worked with a variety of vendors to develop and/or identify more than 700 products that meet its own compostability standards, including those easily identifiable by Cedar Grove’s brown-stripe logo that are the only compostable containers permitted in Seattle’s residential organics recycling stream. It’s an evolving challenge, says Bartlett: “You have to put the timeframe in perspective. When we were applying for our permits in 1997 and 1998, these products didn’t exist, and no one was composting postconsumer food waste.”
A STANDARD TO BEAR
Compostable plastics received a black eye early on when so-called “biodegradable” plastic bags introduced in the mid-1980s disintegrated into small fragments of polyethylene that did not fully break down. Subsequently, standards were developed by the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) for compostability. These are ASTM D6868 and ASTM D6400 and measure disintegration, biodegradability, plant growth and regulated metals testing. The nonprofit Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI) certifies products under these standards. “Biodegradation is a process that take place in many locations, ranging from soils, to compost sites to anaerobic digesters and wastewater treatment plants,” explains BPI Executive Director Steven Mojo. “Compostable items – ones meeting ASTM D6400 and D6868 – are designed to completely and safely biodegrade in a commercial composting facility. Most items that claim to be ‘biodegradable’ will not do so fast enough or completely to satisfy composters. In fact, many if not most ‘biodegradable’ claims for solid waste items are misleading.”
Ramani Narayan, PhD, a Michigan State University chemical engineer and University Distinguished Professor specializing in biobased polymers, has been drafting a scientific position paper for the NOP and other stakeholders on behalf of BPI, essentially making the argument that all biodegradable products that meet ASTM D6400 (Standard Specifications for compostable plastics) and ASTM D6868 (Standard Specifications for compostable biodegradable plastics used as coatings on paper and other compostable substrates) should be exempt from scrutiny as allowable synthetic substances since per the requirements of the NOP standards, Ramani explains, they completely vanish.
“‘Biodegradable’ is defined as the ability of the microbial population to utilize the plastic carbon substrate and completely remove it from the environment,” Dr. Ramani told BioCycle. “The key phrase is ‘completely.’ Inside the cell, the microorganism biologically oxidizes the [compostable plastic] material releasing energy, which is harvested by the microorganism for its life processes. ‘Biodegradability’ is a direct measure of the capacity of the microorganism to utilize the carbon substrate.” If tests can demonstrate that nothing remains but carbon dioxide, water and cellular biomass and that the finished compost exhibits no phytotoxic or ecotoxic properties, Narayan contends, “then there is nothing remaining. The plastic doesn’t exist. It has all been converted to CO2 or cell microbial biomass.” This, he says, should serve to meet the NOP’s stated requirement that any amendment applied to organic farms “does not contribute to contamination of crops, soil, or water by plant nutrients, pathogenic organisms, heavy metals, or residues of prohibited substances.”
While NOP officials have suggested petitioning the NOSB to use the ASTM standards might be a logical approach, OMRI declined comment on such a strategy. The NOSB meets in Seattle April 26-29, 2011, and while compostable plastics were not officially on the agenda at press time, industry players expressed their intention to attend the public meeting and raise the topic. One item that is on the agenda for the NOSB meeting is discussion of a liquid by-product of the corn wet milling process – corn steep liquor -currently allowable as an organic fertility input. At issue is whether the condensed fermenting process involving sulfur dioxide changes the corn’s chemical structure, thereby rendering it a synthetic. While OMRI and other organic industry stakeholders have sometimes been at odds over the answer, the question, which in some ways parallels the PLA discussion, is being debated once more.
As these complex issues are being resolved, people like Dan Goossen, general manager of Intervale Compost Products, are left to wring their hands. “Right now the focus is on PLA items,” says Goossen, whose facility stopped taking compostable cutlery on its own last year because it was not breaking down adequately. “My concern is that they may decide next that paper and cardboard are not acceptable – or any fruit or vegetable that has a PLU sticker. Yet it’s okay if you have a Twinkie or your favorite commercial breakfast cereal with 47 different ingredients, half of which you can’t even pronounce, just because the FDA says it’s fit for human consumption.”
Intervale Compost is working with VOF to come up with a list of acceptable alternatives for food waste composting clients in tandem with evaluating other adaptive strategies. “Does it make sense go back to plastic bags that end up in landfill?,” he asks. “They’re still releasing petrochemicals from the plastic while they’re in the toters, but if we’re taking them out of the system, it’s acceptable! Consider the thousands of plastic bags we’d be removing from the waste stream each week and just landfilling them. It’s a logistical nightmare when you consider dealing with food-covered plastics, odor and disease vectors and the health and safety of employees. It presents a real problem for us.”
Pak-Sher’s Terry Gebhardt counsels common sense. “These products meet the standard of compostability,” he says. “What the organic [standards] community doesn’t seem to understand is that these products do break down into carbon, water and biomass. They are not like a [conventional] plastic bag that will be around for years in the landfill and give off chemicals. Proper tests ought to be set up to see what it does say rather than say ‘no’ to all compostable plastics.” Goossen suggests that the NOP may be so hung up on protocol that it cannot see the forest for the trees. “The NOP has done some really great things and other things, because of the way it is structured, don’t make any sense. They’re not following the science. It’s been frustrating for us.”
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Some composters are being told, based on certain certifiers’ interpretation of the federal Organic Rule, that their compost will no longer be sanctioned for organic production if they continue to take in compostable plastics feedstocks. Elsewhere, there are no such restrictions.
Products that meet ASTM D6400 and ASTM D6868 standards for compostability and biodegradability vary in both their composition and the processes used to make them. For instance, some are 100-percent vegetable based while others contain petroleum products. Some manufacturers buy polylactic acid (PLA) “raw” and then add other materials in order to achieve the performance characteristics desired for the product’s end use.
Some composters protest there is currently no easy way to tell compostable plastics from conventional plastics, thus operators end up saddled with the expense of removing it all. Clear PLA (SPI resin ID code 7 “other”) is difficult to distinguish from PET (Polyethylene terephthalate, SPI resin ID code 1); this can cause problems for recyclers as vegetable-based PLA and mineral-based PET mix about as well as oil and water.
“Biodegradable” bags that leave behind shards of polyethylene. “Compostable” cutlery that is still distinguishable as a fork after a year in the pile. These are a few black eyes the compostable plastics industry has received. Even as these products improve, some manufacturers have made the decision to stipulate that their products are only compostable under commercial conditions. Not everyone has access to such a facility.
Multiple Agencies, Myriad Issues
The Washington State Department of Agriculture (WSDA) and California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) offer two examples of states that operate their own organic certification programs. While these programs must meet the minimum standards set by the NOP, states are free to go one better. A case in point is California’s new and controversial AB856 regulation for composters, which defines allowable “Organic Input Material” and sets up strict guidelines and associated fees for registration, inspection and licensing, with penalties – including loss of license – for noncompliance.
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Organic Food Production Act (OFPA): A law passed by Congress as part of the1990 Farm Bill to establish national standards governing the marketing of certain agricultural products as organically produced, to assure consumers that these products meet a certain standard and to facilitate interstate commerce in fresh and processed organically produced food.
Federal Organic Rule: A formal rule first published in the Federal Register by USDA in 1997 for implementing organic standards. Due to overwhelming public comment – more than 275,000 letters – the USDA redrafted the rule prohibiting irradiation, GMOs and sewage sludge in organic production. The final rule was published in October 2002.
National Organic Program (NOP): Authorized by the OFPA within the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) to develop, implement and administer national production, handling and labeling standards. By statute, organic certification of producers is to be administered by state and private entities and not the federal government.
National Organic Standards Board (NOSB): A board made up of stakeholders including farmers, handlers, certifiers, retailers, scientists and the general public, which makes recommendations to the USDA’s National Organic Program about whether a substance should be allowed or prohibited in organic production or handling, assists developing standards for substances to be used in organic production and advises the Secretary of Agriculture on other aspects of the implementation of the OFPA.
Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI): A nonprofit advisory and educational support agency established in 1997 by organic certifiers to provide professional, independent and transparent review of materials allowed to produce, process and handle organic food and fiber. It publishes a Brand Name Products List (BNPL) of products suitable for use in organic production, processing and handling. Inclusion, for a fee, allows manufacturers to display the OMRI Listed seal on product labels and in advertising and promotion. OMRI is a private entity, and products need not be listed with the agency in order to be allowable in organic production.
American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM): An international standards organization that develops and publishes voluntary consensus technical standards for a wide range of materials, products, systems and services.
Synthetic (as defined by the NOP): “A substance that is formulated or manufactured by a chemical process or by a process that chemically changes a substance extracted from naturally occurring plant, animal, or mineral sources, except that such term shall not apply to substances created by naturally occurring biological processes.”
Unavoidable Residual Environmental Contaminants (URECs): Background levels of naturally occurring or synthetic chemicals that are present in the soil or present in organically produced agricultural products that are below established tolerances.