Zero Waste Infrastructure

To fulfill our mission to advance Zero Waste systems and help our customers be better environmental stewards, we need to increase their access to composting facilities that will accept their front-of-house food scraps, soiled paper, and compostable packaging. Many cities do not have enough composters generally, and there are even fewer that accept food scraps and foodservice packaging to be composted. There are a few reasons for this:

  1. Incoming feedstock is not guaranteed: For composters to make money, they must turn the incoming material into finished compost and sell it. Without mandates to keep organics out of landfills and send them to composters, composters have a difficult time proving to banks that their business model will be successful. And without financing, it can be difficult or impossible to invest in the equipment needed to run a modern composting operation that can process packaging.
  2. Contamination is expensive: Due to an inability or unwillingness on the part of many consumers to properly sort materials into different bins, incoming material must be sorted at composting facilities, requiring time and labor. Non-compostable items, such as glass or traditional plastics, can damage processing systems and devalue finished compost.
  3. End markets need to be developed: Revenue for a composting business is usually generated by charging for accepting incoming material and selling finished compost. Unfortunately, in many parts of the U.S., finished compost isn’t particularly financially valuable because demand is low.
  4. Policy doesn’t make it simple: Legislation requiring composting is not widespread, and where there is legislation, requirements can vary by locale. This makes it difficult to put universal composting infrastructure and diversion programs in place. Also, lengthy permitting processes and high costs to bring a composting site into compliance with local regulation can make it difficult to build new facilities or simply run established ones.
  5. Hauling is complicated: With limited foodservice operators opting to compost, haulers have difficulty serving those who do because it is hard to make routes profitable when the pickup locations are far apart. In many parts of the U.S., it can cost more to haul materials to composting or recycling facilities than it does to dispose of them in landfills. The additional cost to divert material disincentivizes operators from participating in waste diversion practices.

How We’re Responding

We are working to increase the number of composters that will accept food scraps and compostable foodservice packaging. We are confident that when done correctly, composting front-of-house at a foodservice operation leads to increased waste diversion with minimal contamination.

To further our understanding of what it takes to maximize waste diversion, we began evaluating best management practices for front-of-house diversion programs. We collaborated with the University of Colorado’s Leeds School of Business and Eco-Cycle, a local nonprofit recycler and Zero Waste thought leader, to conduct studies at four types of food operations: full-service restaurants, fast casual restaurants, corporate cafeterias, and grocer-delis.

In addition to identifying best practices for waste diverting operations, these studies will also quantify the amount of food scraps captured in front-of-house through the use of compostable packaging. Our hope is that this data will make a compelling argument for composters seeking food scraps to accept packaging as a feedstock. We look forward to reviewing the findings when the study is complete in mid-2018.

In 2018, we will work with the Compost Manufacturing Alliance to learn more about how our products break down when they are processed at a composting facility. We hope to identify the ideal conditions for the degradation of our products. Once best practices for composting foodservice packaging have been established, we look forward to working with composters across the country to put these practices into place and examine our compostable product bundle to ensure that we are continuing to design for compostability.

Also during 2017, we continued pursuing our goal to expand access to commercial composters in at least three U.S. communities by 2020. We are leveraging our network of contacts to identify promising areas. This effort has proven to be no easy task; however, we have seen positive progress in several communities. Achieving this goal could take many forms, but we are particularly interested in getting existing composters on board with accepting front-of-house organics from foodservice operators that buy-in to our Zero Waste systems approach and commit to the exclusive use of compostable packaging as a way to minimize contamination. If your community has limited commercial composting access for food scraps and foodservice packaging, please reach out. We would love to work with you to achieve success.

Market Restrictions Threaten Recycling as We Know It

Recycling only works if there is enough demand for recycled material to warrant the cost of building and running facilities to process and sell those materials. Historically, a large amount of the post-consumer plastic collected for recycling was being exported to Asian countries to be turned into “new” plastic items. In 2017, one of the world’s largest importers of post-consumer plastic, China, rattled the industry when it imposed restrictions on what it would accept and the level of contamination that it would allow.

This new policy, called “National Sword," has already had a negative impact on the plastic and fiber recycling industries around the world, essentially shutting down the markets for these materials and leaving recyclers scrambling to find other buyers. It remains to be seen what the long-term impact will be and how countries around the world will respond.

Because of this new policy, as well as the sustained low prices of virgin plastic, demand for certain types of post-consumer plastic and/or contaminated plastics is very weak. Unfortunately, this makes it highly unlikely that these items will be actually recovered and recycled in the United States, at least for the foreseeable future.

How We’re Responding

We recognize new end-markets cannot be established overnight. However, we are hopeful that domestic markets for post-consumer recycled plastics and paper will continue to develop in response to the dire situation. This is why we support industry groups in their expansion and development of domestic recycling opportunities.

We are very proud of our use of post-consumer recycled material – both plastic and paper fiber – in our BlueStripe line. Furthermore, we are always looking for ways to increase the amount of post-consumer content in our products, and we urge our partners to do the same. Groups such as the Foodservice Packaging Institute and the Sustainable Packaging Coalition are doing great work to increase the use of post-consumer recycled content across the foodservice packaging industry, and we look forward to the success that they will hopefully see in the coming year. While designing products for recyclability and promoting recycling markets through increased demand for post-consumer material was very important prior to the National Sword policy, the need for packaging to fit into circular economic systems has clearly become even more important.

With all this being said, we stand by the idea, stated so well in the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s report, “The New Plastics Economy: Catalyzing Action”, that for “nutrient contaminated” packaging, compostables are the best way to go. That’s why we are collaborating with our partners – such as the U.S. Composting Council, Biodegradable Products Institute, the Foodservice Packaging Institute, the Composting Collaborative, the Sustainable Packaging Coalition, and BioCycle – to identify and promote local composting solutions.

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