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Are We Ready For Compostable Packaging?

TRENTON, New Jersey, March 28, 2013 () – Every day, more and more companies are thinking of how to get on the green “bandwagon” which leads to many engaging in what they believe to be eco-friendly behavior. A big trend for companies now is to package their products in compostable, bio-based packaging. While it is great for industries and companies to become environmentally conscious, it is also necessary for them to do so only if there is a true benefit to their new initiatives. Unfortunately, the perceived benefits of bio-plastics and compostable packaging may be overstated and hidden costs might be underestimated.

Composting, as many already know, is an intricate process that requires dedication, time, effort and precise execution in order to work. However, the benefits are extremely rewarding as organic waste becomes a chemical-free fertilizer. In fact, until the past century, farmers solely depended on organic fertilizer made from their own composting efforts. Composting can also divert as much as 30% of household waste from garbage cans and reduce overall waste that ends up in landfills. This is important since more than 1/3 of the waste filling our over-crowded landfills consist of materials that can be composted.

Compostable packaging is a far more recent advancement and still is only being to be applied to a minority of products. At first glance, it seems like a breakthrough-- packaging made entirely from organic by-products that could break down and eventually result in organic soil material. It’s great, but in fact most compostable packaging is very difficult if not impossible to actually compost. Very few, in any, studies have been conducted on what percentage of compostable packaging is actually composted – but I would confidently wager the number is insignificant.

The problem is that only approximately 3,000 publicly accessible compost programs currently operate in America. Furthermore, only a small percentage of consumers compost at home, a number that shrinks significantly in the highest populated areas where most people don’t have large enough spaces to compost. Another impediment is that those who do compost in the privacy of their homes often do not have the expertise or time to ensure the process is done properly. Even organic material can take years to break down in the average compost heap.

Let’s look at one of the first names that come to mind with compostable packaging: SunChips. Frito-Lay boasts that their Sun Chip bags can be broken down in 14 weeks once put into a hot, active compost heap. However, bloggers began documenting the SunChip compost journey when their bags were not breaking down as implied. In response, Frito-Lay pointed out that the bag must sit in a hot, active compost pile. The ideal temperature for an active compost pile is 140 degrees Fahrenheit. Achieving this temperature is not problematic, but the majority of people composting are unaware of this and this leads to the SunChip bag sitting in the Earth, neither recycled nor disintegrated.

Another drawback with compostable packaging is not many people are willing to put in the necessary effort that is needed. In Cheyenne, Wyoming, city officials flat-out refuse to take in compostable plastics and packaging because they cannot effectively compost it and it pollutes the regular plastic recycling. Despite the many ways a person can differentiate between what is eco-friendly and not, many people continue to place harmful packaging in the recycling and compostable bins. It would require having increased staff at compost facilities to sort waste correctly.

This is not to say that every city will respond to compostable plastics and packaging this way. San Francisco had implemented a mandatory compost ordinance in 2009, with the approval of 85% of its residents. Since its initial compost collection program in the 1990’s, San Francisco and its residents has composted 1 million tons. A similar system may be harder to implement in larger scale cities, but it is nevertheless possible especially if it is approached in steps.

If done correctly, composting can lead to a win-win situation for everyone involved. In all, I do think the potential benefits of compostable packaging can outweigh the bad. First the carbon impact of the creation of bio-plastics must be completely understood and ways to make the material easy to compost developed. And, there needs to be additional education and opportunities for consumers to actually compost these materials.

So while compostable packaging and bio-plastics are an important and promising development, be wary of anyone claiming they are a panacea!

Tom Szaky will be presenting an exlusive and free i2live webinar entitled: "Turning Waste Packaging Into Massive Equity" on April 17th at 11.a.m PT/ 2p.m ET. Registration here

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