Stakeholders Look to Close Loop on Compostable Packaging

What’s holding back greater uptake of compostable packaging? Factors such as composting/recycling infrastructure, public perception, and local government policies all play a role. To better understand the issue, the NZWC Product Design and Packaging Working Group engaged stakeholders in the compostable packaging industry in an examination of challenges and opportunities.

Certified compostable packaging has tremendous appeal. It would seem to be a great solution to turn packaging into compost as opposed to recycling or disposing more plastic. However when compostable packaging makes it into the organic waste stream, there’s no guarantee the materials will actually be composted. So, how do we close the loop and bring compostable packaging more fully into the circular economy?

To better understand the issue, the NZWC Product Design and Packaging Working Group engaged stakeholders in the compostable packaging industry in an examination of challenges and opportunities. Over 150 stakeholders were involved in this engagement process. In terms of solid waste managers, both from the public and private sector, the focus was on urban areas with populations greater than 100,000. Urban areas are more likely to separate organics from other waste and therefore are likely to have more experience with compostable packaging. According to this group of participants, one stumbling block is the lack of a national standard for compostable packaging.

The challenge is the existing compost manufacturing technology and infrastructure does not align with operating requirements that make modern compostable packaging materials “compostable.” Furthermore, at the volumes these large composting facilities are dealing with, compostable packaging is difficult to distinguish from conventional plastic packaging. So, at many facilities the default is to not accept organic waste containing packaging. But the situation varies sometimes across urban areas and the specific compost producing facility and it certainly creates disparities across Canada as to whether compostable packaging can actually be included in the local organics stream. This situation makes it impossible to embark on consumer education programs that can be rolled out across Canada.

Throughout the engagement work with stakeholders, three key themes emerged – Harmonization – Standardization – Communication. Improved communication between the packaging industry and owners/managers of compost manufacturing facilities. The industry needs to make their decisions in line with the standard conditions (e.g. cycle time, temperature, moisture level, oxygen availability) for recovering compost from organics in the facilities receiving their packaging. Organic diversion programs on the part of local governments are a necessary condition for composting packaging to be “composted.” The economics of the situation are challenging, compostable packaging is more expensive to purchase but at this time the uncertainty of the costs of diverting these materials from landfill disposal is high. And for everyone involved, the discrepancy between the compostability brand of a product and the likelihood of whether it will actually be accepted at the local compost manufacturing facility has confused consumers.

Not all the news is bad however. As compostable packaging gains ground in the marketplace, the compost manufacturing industry is growing along with it. Soiled paper food packaging is now generally accepted at composting facilities and both aerobic composting and anaerobic digestion can process most compostable packaging. Organic waste bans at landfills, coupled with curbside programs that accept food scraps are driving development of more centralized organic processing facilities that utilize new technologies. Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) programs, while still nascent, are seen to have the potential to promote more sustainable product creation.

For compostable packaging to fully realize its circular economy potential, all three areas need more attention and national standards. Want to learn more? Check out the NZWC’s Designing For Compostability in Canada series of information guides, and the case study highlighted in this article.

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