August 16, 2011 | General

Economic Realities Of Using Compostable Products

BioCycle August 2011, Vol. 52, No. 8, p. 45
With our disposal society mentality in the U.S., if you are unwilling to accept the plate with the food scraps, you are most likely going to forfeit getting the food. The key is to set high standards for what products your facility accepts.
Carla Castagnero

OUR company, AgRecycle, was founded in 1991 and operates multiple windrow composting sites in western Pennsylvania. We have a Pennsylvania General Permit for composting that allows us to accept: Yard debris and crop remnants; herbivore manures and bedding; food waste; liquids (not associated with biosolids); paper; corrugated; untreated wood; and some green building materials. The important language in this permit is, “organic wastes that have been source separated.” The capacity allowed under AgRecycle’s general permit is 6,000 cubic yards per acre, at any given time. The General Permit also stipulates that all finished compost products can only remain on the site for a maximum period of 12 months.
AgRecycle began accepting preconsumer, vegetative food waste in 1998. Early on, the company primarily serviced food processors in the area, accepting materials such as potato chip manufacturing residuals. In 2006, AgRecycle became able to accept all food waste residuals – pre and post consumer streams including proteins. We began to do our own food waste collection and hauling in 2007. Our company currently services about 45 commercial and institutional accounts, including grocery stores, restaurants, corporate cafeterias and health care facilities, university campuses, the Pittsburgh Convention Center and PNC Park, home of the Pittsburgh Pirates.
AgRecycle cannot afford contaminants in our finished products. The greater Pittsburgh area is in the bottom 20 percent of U.S. tipping fee rates therefore, from the beginning, our survival economics have depended upon marketing our compost and blends to high-value end markets. AgRecycle’s reality is clear: We make our profit from the sale of our finished compost products. As such, we are fanatical about the quality of the feedstocks we accept, including compostable products.
AgRecycle sells compost into very diverse markets. These include high end landscaping installations, soil remediation projects, container growing operations, turf top dressings, and custom compost soil blends for urban planters and green roofs. AgRecycle compost is Pennsylvania certified organic.
Because quality – from the point of generation to the finished compost – is our reality, AgRecycle spent a great deal of time and money identifying the best food waste collection system. We evaluated a variety of existing programs, looking at the containers used, placement of containers, frequency of collection, employee training, etc.
As we bring new customers on to our food diversion program, we rearrange our routing for two days in each of the first three weeks in which a new customer is diverting to us. We make the new customer the last stop so their items will be the first out of the truck and clearly identifiable to both the driver and the site operator. This provides an additional opportunity to identify contaminants that the driver may have been unable to observe while the materials were being unloaded. If noncompostables are discovered in the mix we return to the customer’s kitchen or cafeteria and perform additional employee training or AgRecycle helps the customer to replace a noncompostable product with a compostable one.

The two biggest trends that AgRecycle has noticed over the past 18 months are: 1) The exponential growth in corporate cafeterias wishing to divert their food waste to composting; and 2) Events that wish to be “green” or “zero-waste” events. With corporate cafeterias, 80 percent of the time this means switching all or part of their service ware to compostable products. For zero waste events, it’s 96 percent of the time.
Our policy has always been to assess the compostable products that our customers are planning to use. Since January 2009, we estimate that approximately 760 hours of time at AgRecycle have been dedicated to compostable product research. That is the equivalent of 19 40-hour work weeks. In addition, we estimate that 60 to 70 percent of that initial research is now out of date.

Why does AgRecycle spend so much time evaluating compostable products?
1. Most end users do not know what compostable really means. While composting has been an agricultural process since the cultivation of crops, how the word compostable applies to manufactured products of the 21st Century is genuinely perplexing to the purchaser.
2. Most food service product distributors are confused about what compostable really means. In many geographic areas, distributors are unaccustomed to customers wanting to divert serviceware away from landfills. As such, they are, just now, beginning to make inquiries with the product managers of the manufacturing lines that they sell. If the manufacturer is a dedicated green or compostable producer then information on compostability issues can be acquired easily. If compostable products are a niche item for a broad spectrum manufacturer, then the distributor, most often, has to initiate the dialog for information from the producer rather than the producer routinely educating all of its distributors.
3. Most food service product distributors confuse the terms, all natural, biodegradable, compostable, and made from 100% recycled materials.
4. Most food service product distributors often mistake the fact that if a brand makes compostable products then all of their products are compostable. While this has the potential to fall under a “greenwashing” issue if the manufacturer was not careful about language placement in their printed materials regarding the products, most often it is a simple assumption error. Unless the compostable items are given a separate product name designation, the distributor often assumes that if one hot cup coming out of a particular factory is compostable then all the cups out of that factory are compostable. The fact that PLA-lined cups (compostable) and polyethylene-lined cups (noncompostable) are visually identical adds another point of confusion for the distributor.
5. Most food service product distributors want to sell you what is already stocked in their warehouses. Stocking materials is costly. Chances are the compostable items are going to be a special order so inventory will not be reduced. Unfortunately, there are some distributors that try to pass off their in-stock products as compostable if they are the same brand name that the customer wanting compostable products has requested.
6. Our zero tolerance for contamination in our end products.
To address this situation, we work with the end user regarding the compostable product selection. All customers are required to send us an itemized list by product name and product number, for AgRecycle to verify prior to agreeing to accept the products. The product verification can take anywhere from 10 minutes to several hours to weeks.
AgRecycle does rely on the Biodegradable Products Institute’s compostable product certification, which includes compliance with either the ASTM D6868 or ASTM D6400 standards for biodegradability in a composting process. We do not accept products that are compostable but have not been certified as such. Because there is no fail proof visual analysis to verify compostability, to guard against unacceptable materials entering our composting sites we insist that all food serviceware products have certification. No exceptions.
AgRecycle now keeps a data base dedicated to compostable products, giving us the ability to help customers find specific products. This is done most frequently for customers planning one-time events. AgRecycle serviced 36 events last year that included the Pittsburgh Marathon, compostable weddings, etc. Food service companies and distributors are getting more involved in helping ongoing food operations locate compostable products.
At this point in the development and use of compostable products we feel we have no choice but to do all of this upfront investment of time. No income has resulted from the scope and depth of our research. In fact, because disposal tipping fees in western Pennsylvania are so low, AgRecycle would price itself out of the competitive market if we charged consulting fees to help our food diversion customers with the appropriate selection of compostable products. In the future we foresee this changing. For ongoing accounts (not events), we know that if they are willing to pay extra for the compostable products that they are serious about making diversion a long-term commitment. AgRecycle does limit this time commitment and advisory work regarding compostable products to our customers only.

Unless the generator using the compostable products has dedicated staff to sort its organics stream, AgRecycle has the “All or nothing rule!” This rule means that a customer cannot just have a 12-ounce cold cup that is compostable. It means that every cold cup has to be compostable. If not, the likelihood of contamination from noncompostable products going into one of our containers rises exponentially. AgRecycle works with our customers regarding the “all or nothing rule” prior to collecting their discards for composting.
The all or nothing rule is essential to well-managed composting site operations. If not, the time burden on site personnel is overwhelming. A plastic clam shell sandwich container looks just like its compostable starch-based counterpart. For example, a hotel customer of ours does not have the option of just using the compostable clam shell for environmentally sensitive events. If they wish to divert sandwich clam shells to us, then we need to know that they only purchase compostable clam shells. It is cost-prohibitive to the compost site operator to flip over every clam shell to make sure a new hotel staff member did not make a mistake when putting clam shells into our containers.
Corporate cafeterias can be particularly complicated because what is used to serve food eaten in the cafeteria may be exclusively compostable, but what they use to pack meals if employees wish to take the lunch back to their desks may not be. Ensuring that noncompostables never make it back to the cafeteria compostable stream is not doable.
The four biggest operational concerns at the composting site when dealing with compostable products are:
• Operator inspection of materials
• How to process the materials prior to putting them into a windrow
• Litter
• Knowing whether the products’ degradation rates impact traditional windrow management timelines.
In Pennsylvania, with dramatic seasonal weather changes, hitting the timing for finished compost buying cycles is crucial. Operational strategies regarding those four factors took time to develop. Now our operators are very good at creating the best recipes to combine our feedstocks so nothing stays in the active composting phase for undue lengths of time.
Compostable bags are very problematic for AgRecycle, primarily because of the amount of noncompostable items one is able to hide in them. After an 8-month study conducted by composting staff members, it was determined that the amount of noncompostable debris averaged just under 18 percent in compostable bags. The average without bags is under 2 percent. While AgRecycle does accept compostable bags, we had to create a very specific policy. Unless you are a long-term customer with a clean record of diversion to us, we will not accept materials in compostable bags. Until we know that your organics stream coming to us will be garbage-free, we ask the customer to empty the contents of the compostable bag into our container, then toss the empty bag into the same container. This way, we have a much better chance of spotting debris prior to having it enter the feedstock stream at the composting site. The bags are composted as well.
While accepting compostable products adds labor considerations into every step of our site operations, we know the addition of these products is worth it. Why? It is foolish not to be in the forefront of sound business practices, even if there is some extra expense to your company in the early stages. More importantly, from a feedstock flow perspective, in the U.S. with our disposal society mentality, if you are unwilling to accept the plate with the food scraps, you are most likely going to forfeit getting the food. With increased food diversion, composters need increased non nitrogenous feedstocks – compostable products are beneficial in creating this balance. This is particularly true with compostable coatings on paper items to increase the amounts of readily available carbon in our blends.
Rather than treating compostable products as just another feedstock, AgRecycle has taken the same approach we use when selecting equipment: Upfront detailed selection standards coupled with ongoing account servicing, maintenance and monitoring to achieve the highest quality finished compost. This initial time investment saves fourfold that amount of time from the compost site managers and operators dealing with “after-the-fact” consequences.

Carla Castagnero is President of AgRecycle, Inc. in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania ( and a member of BioCycle’s Editorial Board.

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