The Essential Connection Between Food Scrap and Compostable Products

The Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI) only certifies materials, products and packaging associated with the diversion of desirable feedstocks like food scrap and yard trimmings from landfills to composting. This essential connection between compostable products and food scrap is at the heart of why BPI exists. Unfortunately it is too often absent from the conversation, and compostable products are looked at in an isolated fashion, rather than in the context of an organics diverting system.

While it is the role of BPI producer members to sell compostable packaging, it is BPI's role to make sure claims of compostability are meaningful. That means working to make sure those claims are based on good science, have been evaluated independently, are communicated clearly, and that products and packaging carrying those claims are getting composted. 

BPI started certifying products and packaging to ASTM standards for compostability in 1999 so that people across the value chain could validate compostability claims. Without ASTM standards to define compostability (and a certifier to verify compostability claims) there was no scalable way to determine whether or not something would actually break down in a compost facility. What businesses and municipalities knew from looking at their solid waste data, was that the U.S. was (and still is) sending tremendous amounts of food waste to landfills. To this day, we we send more food waste to landfills in the U.S. than anything else. That landfilled food scrap creates serious economic and environmental harm, including methane generation and missed opportunities for soil enhancement and regenerative agriculture. The chart below shows the 2017 EPA data for landfilled material in the U.S. The EPA has lots more information like this you can find here.

Another interesting data point is that, of the nearly 5,000 commercial composting operations in the US, only about 10% of them accept food waste - most accept yard trimmings only. Why? There are many reasons, including the fact that bans on the disposal of yard trimmings in landfills spurred the development of most of these facilities. Expanding sites to take food scrap can be challenging and expensive, as different permits are required, properties need to be rezoned, and new equipment often needs to be purchased. The chart below is from BioCycle's 2019 study of Food Waste Composting Infrastructure in the US.

There are also serious concerns around contamination - i.e. non-compostable material riding along with the food scrap. Given the way food is packaged and consumed in this country, much of that contamination comes in the form of plastic and plastic packaging. Here is the way one of the first BPI brochures set up the problem:

"Each year, more than 50 million tons of food scrap and wet paper are landfilled - materials that could have been composted. The obstacle: a small amount of conventional plastic that is hopelessly commingled and impossible to sort out of most waste streams. By replacing these plastics at the source of waste generation, certified compostable products can prevent this contamination and help make composting more efficient and sustainable."

When the problem is set up that way, it is hard to imagine how compostable products and packaging could ever be disconnected from the conversation around food scrap diversion. 

Thanks, in large part, to consumer awareness around issues with single-use products, the term "compostable" quickly became part of the packaging lexicon because it described a new set of options often made from renewable resources (vs. fossil-based conventional plastics) that could be composted after use. Compostable items flourished in settings where they helped enable the diversion of food waste, like in the food service operations of Seattle and San Francisco - cities that established ordinances requiring food service items to be diverted to recycling or composting.

But most communities still don't have access to food waste composting, and most of the public does not get the opportunity to put compostable items into organics bins. And many composting facilities that do accept food scrap continue to struggle with contamination from non-compostable items to the point where they screen out all packaging. This results in compostable products and packaging ending up in the landfill too often.

This infrastructure challenge is getting a lot of attention from BPI and others, most notably USCC. The lack of access to composting infrastructure for the majority of the U.S., and the contamination issues associated with diverting food scrap, aren't just problems for the compostable packaging industry - they are problems for businesses and communities looking to divert food waste from disposal back to the soil. This is something we've written about recently in Waste Dive. 

All of this is a reminder for everyone to keep the essential connection between compostable products and food waste top of mind when assessing the value of compostable products. We are not going to recycle our way out of the food waste to landfill problem, and we know we are going to need composting to help fix it. That means working with composters to resolve contamination issues when accepting food scrap, and helping them to trust the compostable packaging that comes with it. It also means doing everything we can to expand access to composting across the U.S.  

Rhodes Yepsen is the Executive Director of BPI, where he leads the organization’s efforts to promote the value of compostable products and organics diversion.