Commentary: Compostable Products: 2016 Outlook

Rhodes Yepsen

Rhodes Yepsen
BioCycle March/April 2016, Vol. 57, No. 3, p. 51

Don’t miss Composting Compostable Plastics session on Wednesday, April 6 at BioCycle WEST COAST16.

In September 2015, I was selected to succeed Steve Mojo as the new Executive Director of the Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI), but my name may already be familiar, as a former Associate Editor and contributor to BioCycle. This is an exciting time for the compostable products industry. The attention on food waste diversion in the U.S. is at an all time high, with corporate sustainability initiatives, municipal zero waste goals, state legislation banning food waste from disposal and/or requiring collection programs, and more. On a broader scale, there is a widespread and growing public interest in sustainability, whether for financial reasons (cutting costs, building equity in stable markets), social reasons (human health, green jobs) or environmental (climate change, reducing waste).

What role does BPI and the compostable products industry have to play? The BPI is a nonprofit with the mission to promote the production, use and appropriate end of life for materials and products that are designed to fully biodegrade in specific biologically active environments, such as industrial composting. Our organization’s focus (since forming in 1999) has primarily been as a certification authority; BPI currently has over 180 members from North America, Europe and Asia using the BPI Compostable Logo on over 5,000 products. All certified products and materials must meet ASTM D6400 or D6868 specifications, as tested in an approved laboratory, then verified by an independent third party.

BPI developed the certification program with the idea that a clear label was needed to prove products were appropriately designed to break down in the composting process (following the USCC’s “Compost Facility Operating Guide”), and not create any negative impact on the finished compost (e.g. heavy metals, bioaccumulative toxins, etc.). BPI remains active with USCC as a Benefactor member and cochairs the Compostable Products Task Force (CPTF), which has created several valuable tools in the past few years, including Labeling Guidelines for Compostable Products (for designers and marketers of products), and a Compostable Foodservice Quick Guide (for haulers and program managers identify the right products).

Our organization was also the founding sponsor of BioCycle’s FindAComposter.com website, which is critical for helping to gather information on the composting industry, and assist those searching for composting facilities in their area, and what they will accept (as well as to purchase compost products). This tool is going through some major upgrades, and will be an even more powerful tool, free to everyone.

Barriers And Solutions

Why should BioCycle readers care about BPI? Products and packaging are simultaneously one of the biggest barriers, and most significant solutions, to the building crescendo of food waste collection and processing programs around the world. On one hand, contamination is one of the primary issues surrounding food waste diversion, leading to higher processing costs (for screening equipment, disposal of the residues, etc.) and even failed composting facilities (inability to sell finished compost, or devalued markets). Fear of contamination alone stunts the growth of collection programs and investment in composting facilities, or leads to the development of over-engineered, expensive mixed solid waste processing systems that move away from the best practices of source separated organics.

But at the same time, compostable products offer a solution, both in the short and long term. Short term, there are already over 5,000 BPI certified compostable products catalogued down to the SKU in the BPI database (products.bpiworld.org). They are being used as tools for collecting and diverting food scraps — at universities, events stadiums (sports, concerts, etc.), restaurants, and homes. They are taking the place of traditional products that would either need to be separated from the food scraps and thrown in the trash (or in some cases rinsed and recycled), or if left in with the food scraps, end up being the biggest source of contamination in the feedstock sent to composters. Enabling consumers to place food scraps and products into one bin, without separating the food-soiled items (which inevitably leads to either contamination or lack of participation), or simply keeping a kitchen container cleaner and easier to use (in the case of bag), certified compostable products in many cases make it possible for organics diversion programs to function smoothly, and reduce contamination.

Long term, as more communities and businesses adopt organics diversion, we are going to see an increasing number of products redesigned as compostable — items associated with food, like fruit stickers (an eyesore in finished compost and a pain to screen out), produce and shopping bags at supermarkets (a common contaminant, but if made compostable are an invaluable tool for collecting food scraps), and food packaging that is difficult to recycle (like multilayer films or coffee pods). Certified compostable applications like these are in development and being tested already.

Are compostable products a magic bullet? Absolutely not. There are still many hurdles to overcome, whether that’s contamination, or selling compost into organic agriculture. BPI has been engaged in the composting industry for over a decade, and continues to support the common goal of increased diversion of organics from disposal. Through collaborative projects, BPI and its members will remain an active partner in the BioCycle movement.

Rhodes Yepsen is Executive Director of the Biodegradable Products Institute (www.bpiworld.org).

 

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