Compostability as a Packaging End-of-Life Option

Posted on 10/10/2012 9:06:47 AM By Jeff Timm

My last blog touched on the debate between recycling or biodegradation as an end-of-life choice for packaging made from bioplastics.  The conclusion was that there really should be no debate as packaging designers should design adhering to the requirements of the package, fitness for use and what the logical and available end-of-life option are.

One end-of-life option is composting.  Biodegradation and compostability are not the same.  Think of compostability being a subset of biodegradation.  In other words, not all biodegradable plastics are compostable.  SPI defines biodegradation as “a plastic that undergoes biodegradation, a process in which the degradation results from the action of naturally-occurring micro-organisms such as bacteria, fungi, and algae, as per accepted industry standards.”   As of 2008, some of the accepted industry standard specifications are:  ASTM D6400, ASTM D6868, ASTM D7081 and EN 13432.  Compostability is defined by SPI as “a plastic that undergoes degradation by biological processes during composting to yield CO2, water, inorganic compounds, and biomass at a rate consistent with other known compostable materials and leaves no visible, distinguishable or toxic residue.” 

Note that ASTM D6400 stipulates that the standard covers plastics and products made from plastics that are designed to be composted in municipal or industrial aerobic composting facilities.  Anaerobic digestion has a different standard.

Composting is the biological decomposition of organic material under controlled conditions.  There are a variety of composting processes -- windrow, vessel/contained, aerated static pile and vermicomposting.  Most common is the windrow aerobic (oxygen using) process where microorganisms are introduced to the compost feedstocks under controlled temperatures throughout the process.  Water and sunlight are the only other ingredients added to the mix.  Oxygen, temperature, moisture and CO2 are monitored throughout the process in order to achieve a variety of desired end-user choices.  The end result is humus -- the organic matter that remains after decomposition has occurred.  State and federal regulations exist to ensure that only safe and environmentally beneficial composts are marketed. 

As one can easily see, the involved composting process is very different from the sometimes misleading packaging claims of simply using the words “compostable packaging.”  In fact, the newly October 1, 2012 reissued FTC Green Guides list compostability claims as one of the many  sections.  The Green Guides list a number of misleading claim examples unfortunately all too commonly seen in today’s marketplace.  The important takeaways from Section 260.7 Compostability Claims are:

  1. It is deceptive to misrepresent, directly or by implication, that a product or package is compostable.
  2.  A marketer claiming that an item is compostable should have competent and reliable scientific evidence that all the materials in the item will break down into, or otherwise become part of, usable compost (e.g., soil-conditioning material, mulch) in a safe and timely
    manner (i.e., in approximately the same time as the materials with which it is composted) in an appropriate composting facility, or in a home compost pile or device.
  3. A marketer should clearly and prominently qualify compostable claims
    to the extent necessary to avoid deception if:  (1) the item cannot be composted safely or in a timely manner in a home compost pile or device; or (2) the claim misleads reasonable consumers about the environmental benefit provided when the item is disposed of in a
  4. To avoid deception about the limited availability of municipal or institutional composting (d) facilities, a marketer should clearly and prominently qualify compostable claims if such facilities are not available to a substantial majority of consumers or communities where the item is sold.
compost, packaging, adhesives, sealants, glue

All the definitions and technical standards are necessary, but what about composting in the real world?  Carla Castagnero, President of AgRecycle listed the following at the recent Sustainable Packaging Forum, Pittsburgh, PA when discussing then compostable marketplace:

1. Most end users (i.e. food service operations, restaurants) do not know what compostable really means.

2. Most food service product distributors are confused about what compostable really means.

3. Most food service product distributors confuse the terms, all natural, biodegradable, compostable, and made from 100% recycled materials.

4. Most food service product distributors often mistake the fact that if a brand makes some compostable products then all of their products are compostable.

5. Most food service product distributors want to sell you what is already stocked in their warehouses.

6. Composter revenue is derived from tipping fees and the reliable sale of finished compost products, therefore the quality and integrity of the compost is extremely important in maintaining a reputable product offering. 

Ms. Castagnero identifies the next step as continuing to work with the end user regarding compostable product selection.  AgRecycle requires material suppliers to provide all new products for testing to verify their compostability.  The product verification can take anywhere from 10 minutes, to several hours, to weeks.

Finally, finding a composting facility for end-users of compostable packaging in the local area can be an issue.  A unique website founded by BioCycle Magazine and the Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI) is a free, searchable information resource to connect generators of organic waste streams with composting facilities in North America.  BPI also provides third party certification for compostable offerings.  Another nationally known compost facility, Cedar Grove in Seattle, WA offers a very good example of a complete approval process evaluation for determining compostability of bioplastic offerings.

There is a lot to think about here when considering composting as the end-the-life option.  My familiarity with the market indicates most reputable composters are more than willing to work with packaging designers to offer guidance and qualify their products for compost facilities.  The BPI will certify ones offering as degradable with a recognizable third-party certification process.  The FTC Green Guides are written in such a manner which makes them easy to comply with and understand.

When all is said and done the packaging industry and brand owners need to clean up their ranks of companies that make packaging with misleading claims.   Retailers need to do the same by eliminate misleading claims from products that proliferate their shelves. If the consumer and all others in the packaging value chain are to be educated on end-of-life options the training needs to start here.



AgRecycle, INC.

BioCycle Magazine

Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Green Guides

Biodegradable Products Institute

US Composting Council

Cedar Grove, Seattle, WA

Cedar Grove-acceptable compost items

Cedar Grove, Inc-composting approval process Form

comments powered by Disqus