compostable plastic food service products

Making informed composting decisions requires insight into how compostable products are made. In Are Compostable Products the Best Choice?, we looked at the different types of composting and the key challenges associated with compostable packaging and food service ware (FSW). Let’s look at how are these issues being addressed by producers, the labeling you can use to identify safe composting choices, and what is best for the environment.

Streamlining Certification and Testing Standards

Industry, governments, and NGOs have tried to standardize the definitions and certification of compostable packaging and products. But their competing approaches can make your choices more complicated.

Compost Manufacturing Alliance Composter Approved label

The Compost Manufacturing Alliance (CMA) provides industrial composting facilities a reliable standard for compostable FSW and packaging. They perform field testing to ensure that products sent to industrial compost facilities adequately break down within a standard composting cycle. Their website is a great resource to search for accepted products by compost facility, product type, usage, material type, or brands.

BPI Industrial Compostable label

Another widely recognized certification in North America is from the Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI), an association of government, industry, and academics that promotes the use and recovery of biodegradable polymers, such as bioplastic. Products bearing the BPI-certified compostable label follow the ASTM D6400 and/or D6868 industrial composting standards. Note that anything carrying this label must be sent to a municipal or commercial composting program; it cannot be composted at home.

TUV Austria Home Compost label

There is no established standard for backyard composting in North America, but you can look for the OK Compost Home certification offered by TÜV Austria to identify home-compostable products. This certification program lists “all technical requirements a product has to meet to obtain certification” for home compostability. The most common products carrying this label are shopping bags and liner bags, such as those from BioBag, which can be composted with food waste and used as liners for compost bins.

Industry Viewpoints and Initiatives

Composting is evolving quickly and we can learn from the industrial composting experts who are leading the charge.

The CMA has assembled cross-functional workgroups that include product designers, experts in global ASTM standards, and compost scientists to assess next-generation paper and molded fiber products.

We are excited at the prospect of working manufacturer to manufacturer to collaborate among the supply chain and solid waste systems to connect product design efforts to real-world piles,” said Susan Thoman, CMA managing director.

CMA field testing compostable packaging
CMA field testers examine composted packaging fragments. Photo courtesy of the Compost Manufacturing Alliance

However, home composters cannot count on consistent outcomes, says Jamie Blanchard-Polling, owner of Compost Queen PBC, a food and yard waste composter in Fort Collins, Colorado.

We have tried many different ways of composting [products contaminated with food waste] and still haven’t had great success with it yet,” Blanchard-Polling said. “All of our bags have the Austrian TUV Home Compostable certification, and we are still having problems.”

Addressing health concerns, it is encouraging to note that during 2020, BPI and CMA introduced new standards for fluorinated chemicals, like per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS).

Another positive development is the GreenScreen Certified label for food service ware, developed by the Center for Environmental Health along with Clean Production Action. The GreenScreen label will help identify single-use FSW products that use chemicals that are safe for people and the planet. It is slated for launch before the end of 2021. Note that this encompasses all FSW products, not just compostables.

GreenScreen Certified label

Leading vendors of molded plant-fiber-based FSW such as Greenlid and Eco Products are taking pains to ensure the proper compostability of their products, working closely in conjunction with the CMA and BPI. These vendors also use alternatives to PFAS to achieve the desired product characteristics such as grease resistance.

Morgan Wyatt, co-founder and CEO of Greenlid, a leading North American supplier of compostable household products, says:

We have always taken a composter-first approach to truly define compostability as a practical exercise. For us, even if a product is theoretically compostable or meets an ASTM standard or certification threshold but cannot be identified as such when it arrives — [regular] plastic versus compostable plastic cannot be visually sorted — or will cause issues in length of processing, we do not consider that compostable. There has been a real disconnect between manufacturers, brand owners/retailers, consumers, and the composters who process our waste.

We are trying to bridge this gap by working with facilities to review products, improve them, and create solutions that benefit the entire waste system. We think a dynamic partnership with all stakeholders — from consumers to manufacturers to restaurants/retailers to composters — is the next evolution in sustainable waste management.”

Governments are slowly waking up to these challenges too, as part of the overall plastic pollution problem. In the U.S., a proposed Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act 2021 would, if passed, include requirements for extended producer responsibility (EPR) for all plastic products, including compostable plastics. California and the Federal Trade Commission also have established labeling requirements and guidance to help consumers identify degradable, biodegradable, and compostable plastic products.

However, the lack of widespread availability of suitable industrial composting facilities remains an issue.

What Are the Best Choices?

The best solution is to avoid single-use plastics, no matter what material they are made from. Choose reusable packaging and service ware as your first option whenever possible. If you must use disposable, it is usually better to choose packaging and food service ware made from plant fibers over bioplastics such as PLA.

If you choose compostable products, look with those that have BPI and/or CMA certifications. Both of these organizations have searchable databases on their websites to help you find certified compostable products.

After you’ve used these items, make sure they are sent to an appropriate industrial composting facility that accepts these materials! The SPC/ Greenblue database of such facilities is useful, but as these facilities may change with time, it is best to check with your local waste management company whether they accept these products. If they don’t, it is best to avoid such products until they do.

For disposable items, those we can compost in our home/backyard compost are the best option. But until we have established standards in North America for home compostable items, backed by rigorous testing, it will be hard to ensure that all “home compostable” products fully break down in such environments.

Meanwhile, you can use OK Compost Home bags and liners for bagging food waste; ensure these are from a reputable vendor. But don’t use these bags as trash liners because they will not compost in a landfill. The only way to be truly eco-friendly about trash bags is to create less trash!

As GreenScreen Certified products become available, you can look for the label to help you make safer choices in your FSW. This certification will cover reusable plastic, disposable plastic, and disposable compostable items.

Last but not least, make your voice heard! Lobby your local, state, and federal government representatives to introduce extended producer responsibility for compostable products, such as the proposed Break Free From Plast Pollution Act, and also to provide more municipal industrial composting facilities in your area.

Did you miss part one of this two-part series? Read Are Compostable Products the Best Choice?.

About the Author

Renga Subramanyam is a sustainability professional who favors a balanced, whole system approach to environmental sustainability. He has obtained his ISSP-SEA certification from the International Society of Sustainability Professionals. In collaboration with A Plastic Planet, he focuses on addressing the plastics pollution crisis to help businesses in the U.S. work towards alternatives to single-use plastics and to increase awareness of the limitations of plastics recycling

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