Compostable Plastics Discourse

Working groups facilitate communication between compostable plastics and composting industries.

Nora Goldstein

BioCycle March 2012, Vol. 53, No. 3, p. 55

As the variety of products and uses for compostable plastics rapidly expand, all stakeholders involved in their life cycle need to ensure these materials are properly produced and managed to maximize their value. A national conversation is well underway among interested stakeholders who are targeting key issues, and taking action that can make compostable plastics a sustainable solution for producers, buyers, users and composters. The discussion will continue at BioCycle’s 26th Annual West Coast Conference in Portland, Oregon in April (details below).

After the January 2011 Compostable Plastics Symposium at the USCC’s annual conference, the Compostable Plastics Task Force (CPTF) was launched to improve dialogue between the compostable plastics and composting industries. Key challenges were identified, including improving compostable products identification and acceptance, pinpointing variables affecting rate of decomposition and increasing organics collection. The CPTF established working groups focusing on specific topic areas in order to make action recommendations to the USCC, as well as the existing bioplastics forums that they collaborate with, including the ASTM Committee D20.96 on Environmentally Degradable Plastics, SPI Bioplastics Committee, and the Sustainable Packaging Coalition. Updates from the working groups, summarized below, were presented at the 2012 Compostable Plastics Symposium (held in January at the USCC conference).

Working Group Updates

ASTM Standards: Current testing methods need to be modified and clarified to reflect variations between composting facilities, as well as materials such as film and cutlery. The working group is informing the national ASTM committee about real world commercial composting operations, and which parameter changes to the standards will be most applicable to operations in the field. Some changes have been agreed upon and others (e.g., temperature regimes) will be decided when current research is completed.

Identification/Labeling: Labeling inconsistency, lack of clear definitions and competing certifications cause confusion. Labeling standards need to be cost-sensitive and include brand owners as stakeholders. Composters and haulers, as well as materials processors that recover recyclables, need easily identifiable labeling to facilitate sorting, and consumers need easily recognizable labels for appropriate source separation. The labeling group is providing input for development of guidelines to easily distinguish compostable from noncompostable, including language to use on packaging to define compostability.

Enforcement/Legislation: Manufacturers of products that do not perform according to claims should be regulated at the national level by agencies such as the Federal Trade Commission, as state-to-state variations in regulations hinder enforcement. Two key objectives of the working group are reigning in “bad players” — companies that claim their products are biodegradable or compostable but fail to meet any existing standards — and protecting and replicating California’s two laws, AB 2071 and AB 1972, which establish labeling restrictions for using “compostable,” “marine degradable,” and “biodegradable” terminology. Senate Bill 567 expands the scope of current California law beyond  bags and food packaging to all plastic products.

Operational Impacts: The working group has focused on the current issue that compost made from feedstocks that include compostable products cannot be approved for use on certified organic farms. To support the petition to the National Organic Program to adjust those standards and permit certified compostable plastics, the working group has concentrated on documenting operational impacts and management practices related to the handling of compostable plastics. This will include review of findings from the San Jose Compostability Protocol project, which aims to establish and test best management practices for compostability testing that can be replicated at other composting facilities.

Consumer Education: Several key questions on how to educate consumers about compostable plastics include: 1) What are the primary areas of confusion? 2) What educational strategy can balance stakeholder goals, be mutually beneficial, transparent and effective? 3) How to better reach the different target audiences with appropriate education. One recommendation is emphasizing the message that composting is local thus education needs to focus on what can be done locally.

An outcome of the symposium discussions was to reconfigure the working groups to avoid overlap. They are Operational and ASTM Standards; Labeling and Education; and Legislation and Enforcement. To join a working group, contact Cary Oshins (caryoshins@compostingcouncil.org). A Bioplastics 101 white paper, which provides basic information and outlines issues, is available on the USCC website.

Discussion At Biocycle West Coast

BioCycle’s 26th Annual West Coast Conference 2012 (agenda on pp 16-17), features two sessions on compostable plastics: Bioplastic Innovations And Developments (April 17) and Municipal Compostable Products Guidelines (April 18). A discussion with the working group will take place at the end of the Compostable Products Guidelines session, starting at 5:15 p.m.

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