Intervale’s Compostables ‘Fork In The Road’

BioCycle August 2011, Vol. 52, No. 8, p. 48

Improvising a system for making two lines of compost addresses the potential loss of organic certification at Vermont facility.

Molly Farrell Tucker

INTERVALE Compost Products in Williston, Vermont was facing a big dilemma. The state’s organic farming certifier decided in March that compost used on USDA Certified Organic farms could not contain compostable plastics. Up to 85 percent of the food scraps that Intervale Compost Products receives contain these compostable products.

The composting facility had already banned cutlery that contains compostable resins. “We figured out a couple of years ago that the utensils were not breaking down and that many of them contained petroleum-based plastics including polypropylene,” says Dan Goossen, Intervale Compost’s general manager. “We were handpicking thousands of these utensils out of the overs line and landfilling them. That is not something we wanted to spend time or money doing, so we banned the cutlery in December 2009.” The composting facility was still accepting toter liners, cups, bowls and clamshell containers made from compostable plastics.

Vermont Organic Farmers, LLC (VOF) is the certifying body of Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont (NOFA) and a regional agent of the USDA National Organic Program (NOP). VOF announced at a March 8, 2011 meeting that compost produced in Vermont containing any amount of compostable plastic products – regardless of who the manufacturer is – can not be included in compost destined for USDA certified organic farms if the materials contained in them are not on the NOP’s list of synthetic ingredients allowable in organic production. The NOP defines synthetic as “a substance that is formulated or manufactured by a chemical process that chemically changes a substance extracted from naturally occurring plant, animal or mineral sources.”

“VOF became aware that Intervale Compost was accepting these products and upon reviewing them realized they are considered synthetic under the NOP regulations,” says Nicole Dehne, VOF’s certification administrator. The prohibition went into effect July 1, 2011. “VOF is allowing Vermont composters to sell the material they had on hand prior to July 1 as organic-friendly until it runs out, so there’s quite a lag time for most folks,” notes Goossen.

The National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), comprised of organic community stakeholders, officially advises USDA as to what substances should be allowed in organic production. The NOSB currently considers the majority of compostable plastics to be synthetic products that cannot be used on certified organic farms. “Once VOF considers the product synthetic, the only way to get it allowed is for the manufacturer to petition the [NOSB under the] National Organic Program to approve it as an allowed synthetic,” says Dehne. “The ultimate goal is for a manufacturer to petition the NOSB to allow these materials as approved synthetics. Until then our hands are tied. At this point, no manufacturer of this product seems to be interested in submitting the petition.”

WITH AND WITHOUT
Intervale Compost’s first response to VOF’s decision was to stop taking feedstocks containing compostable plastics. “People associate Intervale Compost with use on organic farms, so we were heavily leaning toward not taking compostable products,” says Goossen. This caused an uproar from manufacturers and local distributors of compostable products, as well as generators using them as part of their food diversion programs. “We would have a really big challenge with collection of food scraps because the cups, bowls, liner bags and certified compostable items do compost okay,” he adds. “Banning liner bags could be an inconvenience because almost all of the haulers use them to line their toters. We considered asking the haulers to use paper or cellulose liners, or to go back to using regular plastic bags that Intervale Compost would pull out before composting.”

The composting facility recently moved from Burlington to Williston, about 8 miles down the road and is operated by the Chittenden Solid Waste District (CSWD). “Part of CSWD’s goal is to increase organics diversion from landfills,” explains Goosen. “We recognized that adding an impediment to composting food residuals would not allow us to get there. We need to allow haulers to use compostable liner bags in order to increase diversion of food residuals.”

After a lot of discussion, CSWD and Intervale Compost decided the composting facility would accept all compostable plastic products (except cutlery) that is certified as compostable by the Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI) per the standards for compostability and biodegradability (ASTM D6400/ASTM D6868) established by the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM). BPI and some compostable plastics manufacturers hope to continue to work with the NOP to get that agency to accept the ASTM standards – which themselves are in the process of revision.

The composting facility now plans to make one line of compost that contains compostable plastic and another line that contains no food waste, or at least no food waste mixed with compostable plastic. Goossen estimates that 15 to 20 percent of Intervale Compost’s food waste stream does not contain compostable plastic; this includes preconsumer food scraps and food processing residuals. The remaining 80 to 85 percent are postconsumer food scraps that likely contain compostable products. “We are exploring some other preconsumer feedstocks that do not contain bioplastics, so the percentages could change,” Goossen notes.

The new Williston facility is an aerated static pile system that was not originally designed to process two streams of compost, so staff has had to improvise. The plan is to have six bays in the aeration system, with at least one bay dedicated to producing compost for use on certified organic farms, says Tom Moreau, CSWD’s general manager. “If we decide we need to dedicate more, we will do that.”

VOF has been accommodating during this transition, adds Goossen. “VOF is bringing a common-sense approach and is not requiring that the compost containing bioplastics be 300 yards away from the organic compost, or that we change our composting system when the winds shift to another direction.”

Goossen explains the facility is still working out the kinks of the new two-stream process and as such has not yet begun assigning the “organic” label to any new compost batches. “We have several thousand cubic yards of maturing and finished material relocated from the Intervale,” he says, referring to the company’s original home in Burlington. Due to VOF’s allowance to market this material following the old rules, we do not foresee running out of “organic friendly” material any time soon. Chances are we will be starting up a bay or two with “organic friendly” material within the month.”

All or almost all of the organic compost will be bagged in four different products. Compost that is not organic-certified will be sold in bulk through garden center and homeowner purchases. Goosen expects that the new aerated static pile system will produce better compost than could be made at the Burlington facility, which utilized windrows. “We hope that our customers will realize that the ingredients list for the non-organic compost will be the same, only drier and higher quality, and is still their best source for local, natural compost,” he says. “I think that we are going to be okay, but the impact on sales remains to be seen.”

Molly Farrell Tucker is a Contributing Editor to BioCycle.

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