Composters, manufacturers and restaurant executives have some ground to cover before compostable plastic products get wider use in the food industry, according to Jeff Clark, director of the National Restaurant Association's Conserve Education Sustainability Program.
Four barriers need to be broken down to realize the benefits of composting as one of the ways to repurpose food waste, Clark told a 150-person audience during a webinar organized by the Foodservice Packaging Institute.
“It's not an exhaustive list,” he said of the pieces of the composting package that need to fall into place: the location of composting facilities and the cost, performance and labeling of products.
First, the number of commercial composting facilities needs to increase in order for the nearly 1 million restaurants and food-service sites represented by the trade association to participate, Clark said.
By his estimate, more than 350 compost facilities in North America accept food waste and about 25 percent take compostable plastic products. These early building blocks of the infrastructure make composting more of a local option than a national solution, according to Clark and the two other webinar speakers from the Biodegradable Products Institute and U.S. Composting Council.
Clark said there's little benefit for a business to spend more on compostable plastic products if they won't end up in a place where they will break down into humus.
“You need a composting facility nearby or you're putting money down the drain,” he said.
More than 270 communities offer residential or commercial organics diversion, Clark added, and the number will grow, especially as more cities set zero-waste goals to reduce the amount of waste created and increase reuse and recycling.
Later this month, the National Restaurant Association will help Atlanta “relaunch” the Zero-Waste Zones it set up in 2009, Clark said, describing part of the plan as leveraging waste hauling and recycling services in the zones for ease of pickup.
Biodegradable products are aiding the initiatives although they currently make up only about 5 percent of the waste stream, said David Brooks, BPI certification manager. The non-profit group has certified more than 3,300 compostable products from collection bags to utensils. The items carry the BPI logo after passing independent tests verifying they will disintegrate in the heat and moisture of a commercial compost facility.
Composting will help communities move beyond the stagnant total average recycling rate of 34 percent to 55 percent, Brooks said.
“The value of compostable plastics is to replace the non-degradables and facilitate the collection of that very large fraction of the waste stream that is food scraps,” he said.
The cost of compostable plastics is coming down and it could pay off for a business to spend more on those items if it means saving on waste disposal, the panelists said.
Clark said sometimes he sees a “split incentive” between purchasing departments and restaurant operators, particularly at eateries that source-separate their trash and face bigger bills for waste sent to a landfill vs. a recycling or composting facility.
“Purchasing wants to save money on the front end by getting the lowest cost,” Clark said. “On the operating side, they want to save money at the restaurant.”
A “whole-view approach” makes sense in places with a composting infrastructure. The difference between purchase cost and disposal cost could make compostable plastics the prudent choice.
“Take the money — and often it's a lot of money on the operation savings — and then funnel it back into purchasing,” Clark said. “Then, purchasing might be willing to pay a little more for compostable packaging and products. It just takes time and effort to think about this on the executive level.”
In addition to cost considerations, the performance of compostable plastics is another challenge, Clark said, adding that all compostable products aren't suited for all restaurants.
“It's difficult for manufacturers to satisfy everyone's needs,” he said, pointing to Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. as a company that wants to reduce its waste footprint.
The Denver-based chain of about 1,500 restaurants prides itself on its commitment to “food with integrity,” which includes sustainably grown and naturally raised ingredients, be it meat or produce. However, Chipotle still is in search of the right compostable plastic serviceware.
“There are some cost issues to consider and they have shied away from a few things because it hasn't met their performance standards, specifically cutlery,” Clark said.
Although he doesn't have access to Chipotle's specific requirements for packaging and serviceware, Clark said, “I'm sure they did multiple tests on different kinds of forks and plasticware and for whatever reason it didn't meet the standards for their businesses.”
He has heard that refrain before.
“It's challenging to have a spoon made of corn-based plastic that isn't going to melt in a hot bowl of soup, things like that,” Clark said.
Labeling is another problem, with product descriptions of “plant-based” or “degradable” or “decomposable” and even “compostable” giving consumers pause.
“What's a compostable package vs. what is a certified compostable package vs. what is a package accepted by composters?” asked FPI President Lynn Dyer. “Unfortunately, it seems there are three different terms that get thrown around and can be confusing even to us in the industry.”
Michele Young, co-chair of the Compostable Plastics Task Force created by the U.S. Composting Council, said her group is working to develop accepted label guidelines and pass laws to enforce them.
“We're anticipating over time there will be a much greater use of these materials and we want to get some of these things figured out before it expands to a point where it is much harder to manage standardization,” Young said.
Dyer agreed it is time for all stakeholders to collaborate more in order to realize the potential compostable plastics can play in capturing food waste and then fading away into nutrient-rich compost.
“We all need to work together, from the raw materials, the converters, the operators and even further downstream with the composters, city officials and government officials,” Dyer said. “We all need to make sure we're talking and these products are successfully composted.”