Recent BioCycle CONNECT Editorial misrepresents some of agency’s research.
David Allaway, Oregon DEQ
Your recent editorial (“The 2020 Compostable Packaging Narrative”) misrepresented some important details in the Oregon Dept. of Environmental Quality’s (DEQ) recent research. You are correct that the packaging LCAs reviewed by DEQ did not account for emissions avoidance benefits of food waste diversion or using compost to sequester carbon. That is a deficiency in the current state of packaging LCA literature. However, correcting for those omissions isn’t guaranteed to change outcomes. The potential of compostable packaging to increase recovery of postconsumer food waste is context specific and variable, as is the amount of compost produced (and carbon stored) from packaging.
Omissions in the literature cut both ways, as the packaging LCA literature we reviewed also excludes the impacts of nondegraded packaging. Those impacts are surely not trivial, especially if contamination reduces demand for finished compost product, or if significant effort is required to remove nondegraded packaging.
Perhaps most importantly, DEQ did not find “that the production of compostable packaging has a bad environmental footprint”. Rather, our key finding is that upstream impacts are both large and highly variable. Some compostable items are better, while others are worse. Promoting “compostability” as a universal good focuses on smaller downstream impacts while ignoring larger upstream ones. This strategy may win the proverbial battle of “zero waste”, while failing to achieve deeper reductions in impacts. Waste recycling and composting are beneficial, but by themselves, insufficient.
DEQ agrees that more work is needed if packaging is to be composted successfully and result in a net reduction in environmental impacts. We also agree with your Editorial that producers and designers of packaging need to be more responsive to the needs of both the composting industry and the larger environment.
David Allaway is a Senior Analyst with the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality.