Frequently Asked Questions on Foodservice Packaging in Composting Facilities

Why should composters accept foodservice packaging?

Compostable foodservice packaging can contribute valuable carbon nutrients to a composter’s “recipe” and also bring with it additional nitrogen-rich food scraps. It can also help reduce contamination from non-compostable FSP, which may otherwise come along with the food scraps.

Are special permits required for composters to accept foodservice packaging?

Special permits are not required to accept these items, but composters may need additional permitting to accept food scraps. State rules vary in terms of specific requirements and complexity. For more information about permitting, please check out US Composting Council’s map of state compost regulations.

Which composters are best suited to accept foodservice packaging?

The Foodservice Packaging Institute surveyed food waste composters across North America and Canada in 2017 and found that there is not a clearly defined set of operating parameters that is required for success with foodservice items. Research found that composters of many different scales, geographic regions, climates, and technologies are successfully processing cups, containers, boxes, and paper bags. These composters generally accept both pre-consumer and post-consumer food scraps, and the amount of compostable packaging is very small, in fact less than 2% of total incoming material. Greater than half of facilities which accept foodservice packaging operate windrows, while roughly a quarter use aerated static piles; other technologies include in-vessel or mass bed.

At the same time, a number of factors will contribute to successful composting of these items. Generally speaking, a starting carbon-to-nitrogen recipe of 30:1, size reduction, longer residence times (the ASTM specification is 84 days for disintegration), thermophilic (50°-55°C  or 122°-131°F) temperatures and maintenance of optimal operating conditions (such as sufficient aeration, moisture, pile porosity) increase the ability of a facility to process compostable packaging.

 

Another consideration is the ultimate end product being manufactured by the composter. If a composter sells a “certified organic” product in the U.S., compostable plastics are not currently an allowable feedstock (this would also apply to paper FSP that has a compostable polymer coating), based on the current USDA National Organic Program guidelines.

How can a composter determine which foodservice packaging will successfully compost in their facility?

There are numerous ways to identify which foodservice packaging products are suitable for composting:

  • Check with the FSP manufacturer to determine whether the item has been tested to meet appropriate standards, such as ASTM D6400 (for compostable plastics) or ASTM D6868 (for compostable polymer coated-items like paper) in the U.S., or CAN/BNQ 0017-088 (for compostable plastics) in Canada.

  • Research whether the item has been certified by the Biodegradable Products Institute as meeting the above standards. If so, the item can display the BPI certification logo to show that it has been independently tested and verified. A searchable database of BPI-certified products may be found here.

  • Look to see whether the product is accepted by other composters. Many composters turn to Cedar Grove's list of accepted items.

  • Last, many composters prefer to test products directly within their own facility to ensure they're a good fit. Most likely, if the FSP meets applicable standards, is BPI certified and/or is accepted by other composters, it will compost successfully in your facility. But because the operational aspects of facilities do vary so widely, field testing should be done to confirm. One best practice for pre-processing involves shredding materials to decrease particle size and increase surface area. This is particularly helpful for thicker or denser materials, both fiber-based and compostable plastic and will contribute to faster decomposition.

Can foodservice packaging be processed in home or community composting operations?

That depends. Most compostable foodservice packaging is designed for commercial-scale/industrial compost facilities because higher temperatures (~130°F) need to be reached for a certain amount of time to kill pathogens and ensure a safe finished product (compost). Achieving and maintaining the necessary temperatures can be difficult in backyard and some community-scale operations. Having said that, some FSP may successfully compost in these smaller facilities. It may be necessary to process for a longer period of time or shred the materials into smaller pieces to help the decomposition process along.

How can composters maximize recovery and minimize contamination?

Once you determine which foodservice packaging will successfully compost in your facilities, it’s important to work with various stakeholders to make sure you get the materials you want – and limit the materials you do not want. After all, contamination is one of the biggest challenges for composters accepting these items.

 

  • If you plan to accept food scraps and compostable foodservice packaging from residential collection programs, work with the municipality or county’s program coordinator to review the list of acceptable materials. If possible, provide input into the educational materials for and outreach to residents. It is advisable to launch resident education and collection of these new materials on a pilot basis (e.g. certain routes or neighborhoods) in order to manage the change in the stream. During the pilot phase, communicate your observations back to the program coordinator and identify any areas that need to be improved before a broad roll-out.

 

  • If you plan to accept food scraps and compostable foodservice packaging from commercial collection programs (i.e. restaurants and other foodservice establishments), work with these operators and/or their haulers to review the list of acceptable materials. Enquire whether the foodservice operator will use only compostable packaging (which will help reduce contamination), or a combination of recyclable and compostable packaging. Beyond managing the packaging assortment at the outset, check whether they will be taking the appropriate steps to further minimize contamination by educating both staff and customers to put only compostable items in the compost bins. You may want to discuss ramifications (if any) of loads contaminated with non-compostable materials. You may even offer them a tour of your facility so they understand the process and value the end-product – compost.

Toolkit brought to you by FPI's Paper Recovery Alliance (PRA) and Plastics Recovery Group (PRG).

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