BOULDER, COLO. — Sustainable packaging solutions are not “one-size-fits-all.” With environmental impact taking center stage as a key priority for food and product manufacturers, communities and the global community, the pet food and products industry has several pathways leading to a more circular economy for packaging.
During Pet Sustainability Coalition’s (PSC) virtual UnPacked22 event in February, Rhodes Yepsen, executive director of the Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI), joined the conversation to discuss compostable packaging opportunities and challenges for the pet industry.
Formed in 1999, BPI promotes the production, use and end-of-life solutions for compostable materials. The nonprofit offers certification programs for the production of compostable products and packages, 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 focusing on this intersection between food scraps diversion and sustainable packaging,” Yepsen said. “In this way, compostable packaging becomes a driver for something bigger than just a replacement for non-recyclable plastic. It becomes a driver for climate resilience and regenerative agriculture… turning packaging into a climate change solution.”
According to Yepsen, if food waste represented its own country, it would be the third-largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the world, following the United States and China.
The United States currently operates roughly 4,700 composting facilities, but most only accept yard trimmings at this point, he added. Only about 10% of composting facilities in the United States accept food scraps.
About 90% of packaging on today’s market is plastic packaging from virgin feedstocks, and only a small portion can be recovered or recycled, Yepsen said, in the mechanical loop. To address this gap, biological solutions are needed to create a more circular economy for packaging.
“When we're thinking about the circular economy, they are two different circular loops,” Yepsen said. “A lot of the time when we're looking at packaging, we’re thinking of… the mechanical or technical loop. When we start thinking about composting and compostable packaging, we're looking at… the biological 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're designing products and packaging that fit into the system in which it will be collected and processed.”
Although biodegradable and compostable packaging are related, it’s important to note they are not one in the same. Biodegradable packaging is defined by specific environments and timeframes, and by their ability to biodegrade without leaving behind persistent synthetic residues. Biodegradable solutions are measured by ASTM standards D6400 and D6868. BPI has created a Certified Compostable label for products to help consumers, composters and waste management distinguish which plastic products have been designed to biodegrade completely, safely, and within the expected timeframe. For a product to be accepted at a composting facility, it needs a disclaimer, such as the BPI Certified Compostable label, that indicates it will fit both the mechanical and biological criteria.
“Several states have gone as far as banning the term ‘biodegradable’ as a marketing word, such as California, Maryland, Washington and Minnesota, for bags,” Yepsen explained. “This is really driven at the fact of trying not to confuse consumers into thinking that something that is biodegradable in other environments can also be composted, which would become contaminated at a composting facility, or that people might think it's okay if the item gets littered on the side of the road or in the ocean.”
BPI’s certification process looks at the technical requirements for compostable packaging, testing and eligibility to determine if a package is viable. One of the ways the organization does this is by testing biodegradation in a composting environment, which looks at the polymers used in the package and determines whether the compost microbes will be able to use the organic carbon in the package material as food. This measures the conversion of organic carbon to CO2. Another approach is disintegration of the final package, which measures whether the package physically breaks down in a composting environment with no adverse impacts such as plant toxicity or heavy metals.
This vetting process is important to ensure that compostable packaging materials don’t end up in the wrong waste stream, where they could be deemed a contaminant.
“It's very critical that the item is easily identifiable as compostable,” Yepsen said. “We want to make sure that it's designed to go into that biological loop rather than into the mechanical loop.”
But how does this tie into pet product packaging?
One area of opportunity BPI is currently serving is for pet waste bags in Canada. While pet waste is not accepted in most US curbside residential composting programs, Yepsen said, it is in Canada if it is bagged for sanitary purposes. This may translate over to the United States eventually, Yepsen added, as the country looks at more ways to divert waste materials from landfills.
Another opportunity is pet food itself. Pet food is commonly accepted in composting programs, Yepsen explained, so packaging for pet food products is a good fit for compostable solutions.
For pet food packages that are already readily recyclable, Yepsen said companies should not redesign their products to be compostable.
“What we're really targeting are items that are not readily recyclable today — for instance, food soiled or multi-material that can fit into that composting stream — and staying away from the items that have high recycling rates and that people very easily identify as recyclable,” Yepsen said.
Aligning the value chain
Over the last year, BPI has partnered with BioCycle to host a multi-stakeholder workshop in effort to align the composting value chain around a central set of acceptability criteria for packaging and products, Yepsen said.
“We have all these rules around labeling or eligibility, but there are still issues sometimes with getting items composted,” Yepsen said. “We wanted to make sure that from across the value chain, we're all speaking the same language and we’re agreeing what the barriers were and what the future state is — in other words, what does success look like? — and what are some projects that can get us there.”
This workshop devised six different barriers for compostable packaging: value proposition uncertainty, regulatory inconsistency, contamination, infrastructure funding, compostability standards, and organic agriculture rules. From there, stakeholders determined a future state and a project to address each barrier.
To address value proposition uncertainty, BPI is working with partners in Chicago to confirm a clear connection between the use of compostable packaging, organic waste diversion and lower 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 about packaging end of life,” Yepsen said. “However, we know that a lot of materials are not going to be easy to redesign to make them more readily recyclable. And because so much of what is in our waste stream… is organic in nature — food scraps, yard trimmings, wood waste, things like that — it’s unlikely that we’re going to be able to get a high recovery rate without considering composting.
“We've been working with states on their EPR bills, asking them to include composting when they look at things like their infrastructure assessment, and to not exclude composting or compostable packaging,” Yepsen continued. “EPR bills, rightfully so, look at all single use items when they're thinking about what is going to have a fee on it, and if fees are going to be on compostable packaging, a portion of that money should go to composting programs to help them manage the added cost of handling packaging versus just food scraps or yard trimmings.”
To address infrastructure funding, BPI played a role in developing a federal bill offering grants and loans to private businesses and municipalities to expand food scraps composting, improve tracking for compost and recycling programs, and providing pilot funding for fuel testing, Yepsen explained.
When asked about whether compostable packaging solutions are “always a win,” Yepsen reframed the question to indicate the value of compostability.
“In the world of sustainability and in the world of certification, we never say ‘always’ or ‘100%,’” Yepsen said. “It's so hard to talk in those absolutes. The way I would reframe that question is, ‘Is there still value in choosing a compostable package, even if it cannot be composted widely today?’ I think the answer to that is yes.
“…We can’t expect to turn the ship around overnight,” Yepsen added. “We need to be making parallel strides and getting better access for things like composting, while working out all the kinks for developing more compostable solutions.”