Food processing

Opportunities, barriers and solutions for compostable packaging

BOULDER, COLO. — Sustainable packaging solutions are not “one size fits all”. With environmental impact at the forefront of food and product manufacturers, communities and the global community, the pet food and product industry has several pathways to a more circular economy for the pet industry. packaging.

At the Pet Sustainability Coalition’s (PSC) UnPacked22 virtual event in February, Rhodes Yepsen, Executive Director of the Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI), joined the conversation to discuss the opportunities and challenges of compostable packaging for the pet industry.

Founded in 1999, BPI promotes the production, use and end-of-life solutions for compostable materials. The non-profit organization offers certification programs for the production of compostable products and packaging, and promotes education and awareness around this topic. The organization also works to expand waste diversion infrastructure for compostable and related materials through its advocacy.

“BPI is focused on this intersection between food waste diversion and sustainable packaging,” Yepsen said. “In this way, compostable packaging becomes a driver for something bigger than just replacing non-recyclable plastic. It becomes a driver of climate resilience and regenerative agriculture…turning packaging into a solution to climate change.

According to Yepsen, if food waste represented its own country, it would be the third largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the world, after the United States and China.

The United States currently operates about 4,700 composting facilities, but most only accept yard waste at this point, he added. Only about 10% of composting facilities in the United States accept food scraps.

About 90% of packaging in today’s market is plastic packaging from virgin raw materials, and only a small portion can be recovered or recycled, Yepsen said, in the mechanical loop. To fill this gap, organic solutions are needed to create a more circular economy for packaging.

“When we think of the circular economy, it’s two different circular loops,” Yepsen said. “Most of the time when we look at packaging, we think of…the mechanical or technical loop. When we start thinking about composting and compostable packaging, we look at…the organic loop. There are some similarities to conventional recycling, but in many ways it’s quite different. What we really want to do is make sure that we design products and packaging that fit into the system in which they will be collected and processed.

Certified compostable

Although biodegradable and compostable packaging are related, it is important to note that they are not the same. Biodegradable packaging is defined by specific environments and time frames, and by its ability to biodegrade without leaving persistent synthetic residues. Biodegradable solutions are measured by ASTM D6400 and D6868 standards. BPI has created a certified compostable label for products to help consumers, composters and waste management distinguish plastic products that have been designed to biodegrade completely, safely and on schedule. For a product to be accepted into a composting facility, it needs a disclaimer, such as the BPI Certified Compostable label, which indicates that it meets both mechanical and biological criteria.

“Several states have gone so far as to ban ‘biodegradable’ as a marketing word, such as California, Maryland, Washington and Minnesota, for bags,” Yepsen explained. “It’s really driven by trying not to confuse consumers into thinking that something that is biodegradable in other environments can also be composted, that would be contaminated in a composting facility, or that people might think it’s no big deal if the item is thrown on the side of the road or in the ocean.

BPI’s certification process examines technical requirements for compostable packaging, testing and eligibility to determine if a packaging is viable. One way the organization does this is through testing biodegradation in a composting environment, which looks at the polymers used in the packaging and determines whether the microbes in the compost will be able to use the organic carbon in the packaging material as food. It measures the conversion of organic carbon into CO2. Another approach is final packaging decay, which measures whether packaging physically breaks down in a composting environment without adverse effects such as plant toxicity or heavy metals.

This verification process is important to ensure that compostable packaging materials do not end up in the wrong waste stream, where they could be considered contaminants.

“It’s very important that the item be easily identifiable as compostable,” Yepsen said. “We want to make sure it’s designed to go into that biological loop rather than the mechanical loop.”

But how does this relate to pet product packaging?

One area of ​​opportunity BPI currently serves is pet waste bags in Canada. While pet waste isn’t accepted at most U.S. residential curbside composting programs, Yepsen said, it is in Canada if bagged for sanitary purposes. That could eventually translate to the United States, Yepsen added, as the country looks for other ways to divert waste from landfills.

Another opportunity is the pet food itself. Pet food is generally accepted in composting programs, Yepsen explained, so packaging for pet food products is a good fit for compostable solutions.

For pet food packaging that is already easily recyclable, Yepsen said companies shouldn’t redesign their products to be compostable.

“What we’re really targeting are items that aren’t easily recyclable today – for example, soiled or multi-material foods that may enter that composting stream – and stay away from items that have high recycling rates and that people very easily identify as recyclable,” Yepsen said.

Value Stream Alignment

Over the past year, BPI has partnered with BioCycle to host a multi-stakeholder workshop with the goal of aligning the composting value chain around a core set of acceptability criteria for packaging and products, a Yepsen said.

“We have all these rules about labeling or eligibility, but there are still issues with composting items,” Yepsen said. “We wanted to make sure that across the value chain we were all speaking the same language and agreeing on the roadblocks and the future state. In other words, what does success look like? – and what are the projects that can bring us there.

This workshop designed six different barriers for compostable packaging: value proposition uncertainty, regulatory inconsistency, contamination, infrastructure funding, compostability standards and organic farming rules. From there, stakeholders determined a future state and a plan to overcome each obstacle.

To address the uncertainty of the value proposition, BPI is working with partners in Chicago to confirm a clear link between the use of compostable packaging, the diversion of organic waste and the reduction of contamination. The organization is also working on labeling guidelines and a comprehensive model bill for Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR).

“A lot of these EPR bills focus on traditional mechanical recycling because that’s what people think of when they think of end-of-life packaging,” Yepsen said. “However, we know that many materials will not be easy to redesign to make them more easily recyclable. And because much of what is in our waste stream… is organic in nature – food scraps, yard waste, wood waste, etc. – it is unlikely that we can achieve a high recovery rate without considering composting.

“We’ve worked with states on their EPR bills, asking them to include composting when they look at things like their infrastructure assessment, and not exclude composting or compostable packaging,” Yepsen continued. “EPR bills rightly look at all single-use items when thinking about what’s going to charge, and if a charge is going to be on compostable packaging, some of that money should go to composting programs. to help them manage the added cost of handling packaging compared to just food scraps or yard scraps.”

To address infrastructure funding, BPI played a role in crafting a federal bill offering grants and loans to private businesses and municipalities to expand food waste composting, improve tracking of composting programs and recycling and provide pilot funding for fuel testing, Yepsen explained.

When asked if compostable packaging solutions are “always a winner,” Yepsen rephrased the question to indicate the value of compostability.

“In the sustainability world and in the certification world, we never say ‘always’ or ‘100%,'” Yepsen said. “It is so difficult to speak in these absolutes. The way I would rephrase that question is, “Is there still value in choosing compostable packaging, even if it can’t be composted on a large scale today?” I think the answer is yes.

“…We cannot expect to turn the ship around overnight,” Yepsen added. “We need to make parallel progress and gain better access to things like composting, while working on all the issues to develop more compostable solutions.”

Learn more about packaging solutions and trends for pet food and treats, and find more coverage from the Pet Sustainability Coalition virtual UnPacked22 event here.