When considering recovery solutions for foodservice packaging, composting and anaerobic digestion (AD) facilities may offer a suitable processing option for some foodservice packaging (FSP) items. Hundreds of communities now have residential access to food scrap composting in the U.S., and of the larger cities on this list (>50k population), twenty-two are within 40 miles of at least one composter that accepts food service packaging. The opportunity for growth in residential settings is immense, but the number of collection programs for commercial venues is sizeable as well. Over 300 large (>50k population) communities that do not currently have residential programs are located within 40 miles of a composter that accept food service packaging.
As with recycling, there are many variables that determine successful recovery of FSP in these environments, both in terms of the actual foodservice packaging type as well as a specific facility's operating parameters. Factors that will determine compatibility include specific technology, processes used, which feedstocks are accepted, and the ultimate end product being produced. For example, materials may compost differently in windrows than in covered aerated static pile (CASP) systems, and performance will vary with temperature and moisture conditions, cycle time and accompanying composting materials. Many materials that would be considered contaminants in low-solids digesters are frequently accepted in dry, batch-fed anaerobic digesters. These considerations all help determine whether FSP is a good candidate for this form of recovery.
In terms of which kinds of FSP may be viable feedstocks for composting or AD facilities, there are a variety of different types of paper and plastic foodservice packaging which are compatible with these end-of-life solutions. For paper products, these typically include bags, cups, boxes, containers, napkins, etc. that have either no coating at all, a clay coating or a compostable polymer coating (such as PLA). In the same arena, molded fiber and bagasse packaging may be an option. On the plastics side, bags, cups, containers, cutlery, etc. can be made from compostable materials and are excellent candidates for those composting facilities throughout North America that operate under suitable conditions. Keep in mind, however, that it’s not just the core material type, but also chemical factors (like inks and adhesives), and physical factors including the thickness of the material that can impact acceptance at composting and AD facilities.
The quantity of foodservice packaging available for recovery in a composting or AD facility is difficult to determine, since use of these materials vary widely across large and small foodservice operations and acceptance by composters and AD facilities also varies.
What is not so tricky is recognizing the mounting interest in diverting food scraps away from landfills and sending them instead to composting or AD facilities. Increasingly, communities and organizations (including foodservice operations) are implementing organics collection programs in an effort to achieve zero waste and meet sustainability goals. At the same time – and for similar reasons – use of compostable foodservice packaging is growing. For composters and AD facility operators interested in potentially adding these materials, this raises questions.
Composters, please click here for FAQs related to foodservice packaging.
AD facility operators, please click here for FAQs related to foodservice packaging.
The case studies below highlight composting operations that are successfully recovering foodservice packaging, thus providing information on how other composters can expand their programs.
Earth Farms Organics |
Charlotte, North Carolina
Specialized Environmental Technologies |
Empire Township, Minnesota
Compostable Foodservice Packaging Information Sheet
An overview of compostable packaging, residential collection, composter acceptance, and frequently asked questions. Read more here.
Field Study on Foodservice Packaging as Compost Facility Feedstock
FPI, along with the Biodegradable Products Institute, funded a study to determine whether compostable foodservice packaging can be effectively used as a feedstock in commercial composting facilities. The results showed that these items performed as well as wood and other traditional feedstocks. Read more here.
Study of North American Composting Facilities
FPI conducted a study of North American composting outlets for both residential and business generators of source separated organics. The purpose of the study was to identify composters accepting food scraps and to understand which facilities are willing and able to accept various compostable packaging materials. Read more here.
Check out resources related to the impacts to the composting value chain when introducing compostable foodservice packaging. Read more here.
Managing Compostable FSP Webinar
Watch a webinar on "Managing Compostable Foodservice Packaging," which included speakers from FPI, the Biodegradable Products Institute, National Restaurant Association, and U.S. Composting Council.