Quantifying Diversion Impact Of Compostable Packaging

Waste stream analysis of two events held at a concert venue identified significant quantities of front-of-house compostable material, including a large amount of food.

Charlotte Dreizen
BioCycle  August 2017, Vol. 58, No. 7, p. 34
Approximately 20,000 people went to some portion of the 12-hour Farm Aid festival. Per capita waste generation was 3 lbs/person.

Approximately 20,000 people went to some portion of the 12-hour Farm Aid festival. Per capita waste generation was 3 lbs/person.

Anecdotally, it has long been understood that not only can compostable packaging minimize contamination, it can also increase the quantity of food scraps diverted. Much like recycling, it is intuitively understood that rates of participation and correct separation are higher when there are less steps to take. So, discarding a half-eaten hamburger in a molded fiber clamshell into a compostables bin will happen successfully more often than when a person must separate the recyclable or unrecoverable container and dispose of the food separately, even if the bins are co-located.

Generally speaking, compost manufacturers are enthusiastic about accepting clean organics from the kitchens of large venues. But, deciding whether or not to accept compostable packaging and food from areas where patrons discard material (the front-of-house) can be more complicated. Without accurate data, some composters may believe that they are capturing the majority of food waste by only accepting back-of-house kitchen material. There also may be a perception that front-of-house compostable material would be primarily packaging and not food, i.e., the “good stuff” that they really want to produce high quality compost.

To quantify the relationship between the weight of food and compostable packaging generated in the front-of-house and back-of-house, the Sustainable Packaging Coalition (SPC) embarked on the “Value of Compostable Packaging Report.” The goal was to identify the maximum quantity of food that compostable packaging could divert in five different venues. The potential food capture rate is highlighted in the report to assist large food-service operators and compost manufacturers to make informed decisions about collecting and processing compostable material.

Methodology

The SPC performed waste characterizations at a small farmers market, a quick-service restaurant, a grocery store, and an evening show and full day festival, both held at a 20,000-person capacity concert venue. The project team defined the main categories of waste to be food scraps, compostable packaging, recyclables, and landfill material.

SPC measured the weight of each material produced in kitchens and food preparation areas, as well as front-of-house public areas. Food waste was measured separately from compostable packaging, which included uncoated paper items like napkins and straw wrappers. Recyclables and landfill material were also measured as an independent stream. Landfill material, however, was made more nuanced by distinguishing material that had no recoverable alternatives and items that had to be landfilled but do have compostable alternatives available (e.g., conventional coffee cups or conventional plastic utensils).

Some venues studied had a mix of compostable and conventional foodservice packaging, while some used only compostable packaging. While the full report goes into specific detail of packaging present at each venue, the two largest characterizations of an evening concert and full day festival are explored in this article, both of which used exclusively compostable packaging with one or two limited exceptions.

A 3-bin sorting system was used to collect front-of-house materials at Farm Aid, which yielded 22,851 lbs of compostable material. Food scraps comprised 46% of that total; 54% was compostable packaging and uncoated paper.

A 3-bin sorting system was used to collect front-of-house materials at Farm Aid, which yielded 22,851 lbs of compostable material. Food scraps comprised 46% of that total; 54%
was compostable packaging and uncoated paper.

Waste Characterization Findings

Both the concert and full day festival waste characterizations were performed at Jiffy Lube Live Pavilion in Bristow, Virginia. Assistance was provided by Lucy August-Perna with Live Nation, the venue owner, and Justen Garrity and his team at Veteran Compost, with financial and in-kind support from Eco-Products, a compostable products supplier.

Evening Concert

About 6,000 attendees were at the evening concert, which lasted for about six hours. Food preparation began in the early morning on the day of the event. While the venue used almost entirely compostable food serviceware, with the exception of an extra-large sized beer cup, only recycling and landfill bins were available to concert goers. All waste was sorted irrespective of what material was placed in which bin, to quantify the maximum food scrap diversion potential of compostable packaging should perfect sorting occur in a three-bin system. Of the 6,000 lbs of waste from the event as a whole (Figure 1), approximately 4,600 lbs were generated in the front-of-house and 1,400 lbs were generated in the back-of-house.

Figure 1. Evening concert total waste generation (6,000 lbs)

Figure 1. Evening concert total waste generation (6,000 lbs)

Of the material generated in the front-of-house from bins provided to attendees, 1,122 lbs were compostable, slightly more than the 1,043 lbs produced in the back-of-house. Proportionally, of the 1,122 lbs of compostable front-of-house material, 65 percent was compostable packaging and 35 percent was food scraps.

For each waste characterization, SPC applied the quantities of food, compostable packaging, and recyclables to a progression analysis to demonstrate potential landfill diversion rates. In stages, the landfill diversion possible if a venue were first able to recycle perfectly was displayed, followed by the potential landfill diversion if a venue recycles perfectly and composts back-of-house food waste, and finally, if they recycle and divert all food and compostable packaging venue-wide, including front-of-house postconsumer waste.

The evening concert waste characterization at Jiffy Lube Live revealed that perfect recycling would lead to a landfill diversion rate of 46 percent; if one were to also perfectly collect clean food waste from back-of-house kitchens, a total 63 percent landfill diversion rate could be achieved. A maximum of 82 percent landfill diversion would require composting food and compostable packaging throughout the venue, including the front of house.

Figure 2. Full day festival total waste generation (60,000 lbs)

Farm Aid Festival

The waste characterization at the full day Farm Aid festival exhibited similar trends. Front-of-house waste accounted for about 42,000 lbs of material, while the back-of-house produced roughly 18,000 lbs. Compared to the evening concert, far fewer recyclables were produced proportionally and compostable material made up a significantly larger segment of total waste produced overall. Figure 2 shows a breakdown, by percentage, of the categories of total waste generated.

Approximately 20,000 ticketed attendees enjoyed some portion of the 12-hour event, lending to a per capita generation rate of 3 lbs compared to the evening concert’s 1 lb per capita generation. Much like the evening concert, all food serviceware was compostable, this time with the exception of a novelty-shaped PVC cup. A three-bin system was employed for the Farm Aid concert throughout the venue for attendees to separate recyclables, compostables, and landfill material themselves. For the purposes of the study, however, all waste was sorted, irrespective of bin, after the event.

The full day festival incorporated back-of-house food preparation waste from several days leading up to Farm Aid. Of the 11,152 lbs of this back-of-house compostable material, 23 percent was compostable packaging and 77 percent was food scraps. The noticeable presence of compostable packaging in the back-of-house is largely due to quantities of corrugated cardboard that is unsuitable for recycling when wet, as well as the use of paper towels in VIP cooking areas and concessions’ kitchens.

Figure 3. Full day festival:Front-of-house vs. back- of-house

Figure 3. Full day festival:Front-of-house vs. back- of-house

In the front-of-house, 22,851 lbs of compostable material were generated; 46 percent was food scraps and 54 percent was compostable packaging and uncoated paper. The enormous quantity of food present in the front-of-house compostable material can be attributed to most attendees consuming at least one meal at the festival. Figure 3 illustrates, by weight, front-of-house versus back-of-house materials generated.

In examining the diversion potential of recycling, composting back-of-house food waste, and composting food and compostable packaging venue-wide, the results were particularly striking. At Farm Aid, a landfill diversion rate of only 24 percent would be possible if all recyclables were correctly discarded throughout the venue. To compost back-of-house food scraps in addition to perfect recycling would achieve a landfill diversion rate of 55 percent. For a maximum landfill diversion rate of 81 percent (the remaining 19% is comprised of waste and unrecoverable packaging, e.g., novelty guitar-shaped cups made of PVC), food and compostable packaging must be collected throughout the festival, including front-of-house postconsumer waste.

Analysis

The SPC’s findings in the “Value of Compostable Packaging Report” highlight that especially in larger closed venues, significant quantities of front-of-house compostable material exist and within the postconsumer compostable stream, a large portion of material is food. Waste characterizations done at the concert and festival demonstrated that more than a third of front-of-house compostable material was food. Interestingly, in data collected at all five locations studied, none could achieve a landfill diversion rate of more than 50 percent through recycling alone. Similarly, in order to break the 80 percent mark for landfill diversion, a venue could not compost back-of-house food waste alone. Composting food waste and compostable packaging generated throughout a venue was critical.

Understanding the ratios of food and compostable packaging generated in the front-of-house and back-of-house spaces of large venues with ticketed events can unveil exceptional opportunities to procure clean compostable feedstock. With many other facets of food and compostable packaging in closed venue settings unknown, the Value of Compostable Packaging Report can provide a solid foundation for further exploration.

 

Charlotte Dreizen is a Project Associate at GreenBlue. The Sustainable Packaging Coalition is a project of GreenBlue.

 

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