March 23, 2011 | General

Stakeholders Weigh In On Compostable Plastics

BioCycle March 2011, Vol. 52, No. 3, p. 42
A one-day symposium in January helped to identify opportunities to shape relationships between bioplastics providers, composters and consumers. That conversation continues at the BioCycle Global Conference.
Jeff Krump

COMPOSTABLE plastics offer great possibilities including reducing reliance on petroleum-based products and increasing the diversion of food waste. However, they also present challenges and create uncertainty for consumers and end-of-life processors. As the types of products and uses for compostable plastics rapidly expand, all players involved in their life cycle need to be in conversation to ensure this industry meets its potential.
In January 2011, commercial composters, municipal representatives, bioplastics professionals and consultants gathered at a one-day bioplastics symposium hosted by the US Composting Council (USCC), California Organics Recycling Committee and the SPI-Bioplastics Council. These stakeholders tried to determine where bioplastics products are most effective, where they present challenges, and why. More than 200 attendees listened to presentations from industry leaders who helped to provide details, evoke questions and inspire opportunities for action.
A critical element of the symposium were the summary breakout sessions in which stakeholders defined successful use of the products and outlined issues facing producers, users and composters. The breakout group topics (see below) were identified throughout the day by symposium speakers, moderators and participants. Stakeholders discussed their concerns and created action steps that will be taken to existing bioplastics forums such as the ASTM Committee D20.96 on Environmentally Degradable Plastics, the Sustainable Packaging Coalition as well as a new bioplastics subcommittee being established by the USCC.

ASTM Standards: The need to modify and clarify current testing methods to reflect the variations from composting facility to composting facility was identified. In addition, the current ASTM 6400 performance standard that measures compostability is based on film. A new standard is needed for molded bioplastics products like cutlery.
Identification/Labeling: Labeling inconsistency, lack of clear definitions and competing certifications cause confusion. Labeling standards need to be cost sensitive and include the brand owners as stakeholders. Composters as well as materials processing facilities that recover recyclables need easily identifiable labeling to facilitate sorting, and consumers need easily recognizable labels for appropriate source separation.
Enforcement/Legislation: Manufacturers of products that do not perform according to claims should be regulated by agencies such as the Federal Trade Commission, but state-to-state variations in regulations hinder enforcement efforts. Several actions can strengthen enforcement, including: organizing and consolidating the reporting of violators; replicating enforcement models like the existing California Public Resources Code 42355 and supporting legislative lobbying groups such as Californian’s Against Waste.
NOP Impacts: Must better understand the history of the USDA National Organics Program (NOP) and to create an organized report before petitioning the NOP to adjust standards. There is no formal petition before the NOP at this time requesting that compostable bioplastics be an allowable synthetic under the National Organic Rule. The accompanying article in this section, “Compostable Plastics and Organic Farming,” discusses this and related topics in detail.
Consumer Education: Start small with the basics because most consumers know little about composting and less about bioplastics. Aligning with well-respected nongovernmental organizations to tackle consumer education from a broad, national standpoint would streamline resources and strengthen messaging. Messages could include treating food waste as a resource and producer responsibility for packaging. The issue of labeling confusion needs to be resolved in order for consumers to correctly divert the products to composting, recycling or disposal.

The BioCycle Global Conference 2011, April 11-14 in San Diego, California, features two sessions on compostable plastics: “The National Organic Program And Compostable Plastics” and “Composters And Compostable Products,” both on April 12, Tuesday afternoon. A special evening Bioplastics Roundtable will be held at 7:30 pm on April 12 that will leverage conversations started in January, combined with the BioCycle Conference presentations in order to identify opportunities to shape the relationship between bioplastic producers, composters and consumers.
A Bioplastics 101 white paper sponsored by the California Organics Recycling Committee will be available at the 2011 BioCycle Global Conference. The white paper will provide a basic overview that defines terminology, outlines where bioplastics are currently used and sets a foundation upon which further discussions can address the challenges bioplastics present and potential they hold.

Jeff Krump is an Environmental Services Specialist with the City of San Jose (CA) Environmental Services Department.

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