By Adam Gendell, Associate Director Sustainable Packaging Coalition, GreenBlue & SWEEP Steering Committee Member

There is no shortage of ambitious waste diversion goals, and several major cities are currently working towards 2020 milestones for high diversion or “zero waste” goals. Typical tactics for achieving these goals address construction & demolition waste, yard waste, and recyclable paper and packaging, but the hardest type of waste to address, however, is one of the most important: food waste. It makes up around 15% of all municipal solid waste, being too big of a slice of the pie (no pun intended) to be ignored, and it is also disproportionately impactful once landfilled, since food waste biodegrades quickly and emits greenhouse gasses before landfill caps and gas capture mechanisms can typically be installed. Diversion strategies for food waste are very straightforward, conceptually. Composting is generally considered to be the primary means of diversion, while anaerobic digestion and novel emerging technologies also merit consideration. But installing a program to collect food waste and send it to an industrial composter is daunting, which is why few cities have done so to date.

The Sustainable Packaging Coalition (SPC) undertook a series of five case studies to examine the role of composting in waste diversion and the linkage to compostable packaging. The breadth of compostable packaging in the market is well established and the technology is very developed, but packaging often sits in the crux of the conversation of the challenges around municipal composting. It’s impossible to collect food waste from consumers without also collecting some packaging. Consumers can’t be expected to always distinguish compostable packaging from lookalike conventional packaging, which acts as a contaminant in composting operations, and previously there had never been solid evidence that opening up the door to the combination of food waste and the packaging that comes with it will truly move the needle in terms of overall diversion.

The SPC’s research yielded two important takeaways. First, a composting program that includes consumer-generated food waste and compostable packaging does indeed move the needle on overall waste diversion. Second, there are tremendous opportunities in “closed” locations like concert and event venues where operators can exert control over the types of packaging sold to attendees, greatly minimizing the possibility of non-compostable packaging contaminating the waste stream.

Consider these findings from the SPC’s research:

  • At a community farmers market, recycling alone could provide 18% waste diversion. Using compostable packaging for all foodservice ware and using a composting program provides a diversion pathway for about 90% of all waste generated on the premises. Each pound of compostable packaging enables four pounds of food waste to be diverted.
  • Composting at a single evening concert with 6,000 attendees can divert over one ton of organic waste, including ~780 pounds of food-soiled packaging that would otherwise find itself not ideal for the recycling stream.
  • At a closed venue with 20,000 attendees, recycling alone was deemed to offer a diversion pathway for 24% of all waste, while adding a composting stream for food waste upped that figure to 55%, and including compostable food packaging brought the diversion potential to 81%, amounting to 17 tons of waste that would otherwise be destined for the landfill.
  • At a quick-serve restaurant, the use of compostable packaging and a composting program for consumer waste diverts 6 pounds of food waste for every 1 pound of packaging.

The full report is available here.

The holy grail of municipal composting remains residential curbside collection, but it’s clear that installing programs at institutions, venues, and restaurants – and leveraging the benefits that come with controlled distribution of fully compostable packaging – are key to achieving high diversion. Put simply, high diversion rates cannot be achieved without it. That’s how municipalities like San Antonio, New York, and Austin with aggressive waste diversion goals and relatively nascent food waste diversion programs, can best realize the benefits of composting. Many more communities have the opportunity to put these learnings into action, and SWEEP is poised to proliferate these best practices and recognize the leaders in waste diversion.

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