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New research sheds light on how compostable packaging breaks down

April 20, 2024

Compostable packaging breaks down successfully at composting facilities that meet reasonable operational parameters, according to a new study.

The study by the Composting Consortium, an industry collaboration led by the Center for the Circular Economy at Closed Loop Partners, shares findings from an 18-month field test conducted at 10 different facilities across North America.

It found compostable plastic packaging and products broke down successfully across five composting methods used in the facilities, achieving 98% disintegration on average by surface area, which exceeds industry thresholds to achieve a 90% or higher disintegration.

And compostable fiber packaging and products achieved 83% disintegration on average by surface area, meeting industry thresholds to achieve an 80% or higher disintegration.

The study tested over 23,000 units of certified food-contact compostable packaging within large-scale industrial composting environments across the facilities.

“Alongside design and reduction as well as reuse and recycling, composting is an important solution for waste mitigation,” said Kate Daly, managing director and head of the Center for the Circular Economy at Closed Loop Partners in a statement.

“Through this research, the Composting Consortium sheds light on what is needed for compostable packaging to have the greatest positive impact.

“Informed by this robust data, we can together ensure the responsible growth of compostable packaging and composting infrastructure, and drive toward circular outcomes, including increased diversion of food scraps and compostable packaging from landfills,” added Daly.

But Anita Spiller, ESG vice president at Tru Earth, which produces eco-friendly laundry strips, said in an email not enough people are aware of the differences between industrial composting and “backyard” composting to begin with.

“Compostable plastics can’t break down in your backyard like your table scraps would. They have to be taken to a specialized facility and break down under certain conditions,” said Spiller.

“And of course, there are issues with infrastructure. Consumer package goods companies can innovate new products as much as they want, but if their compostable products require a facility, then most of it will end up in landfills and waterways,” she added.

John Mascari, the co-founder and chief operating officer of Blueland, which specializes in eco-friendly cleaning products, said in an interview the industrial composting infrastructure in the U.S. has a long way to go to ensure easy, truly universal access and educating the public about how to dispose of compostable packaging properly.

“We have always taken the view as a business that it’s important to invest in the demand side of the equation, which will then increase the likelihood that the infrastructure will follow,” Mascari told me.

And Dr. Kim Warner, a senior scientist at Oceana said in an email more information is needed to ensure the safety of the compost tested, like the levels of microplastics present from these bioplastics.

“There is an urgent need for companies to provide us with plastic-free choices and develop systems that refill and reuse packaging and materials,” said Dr. Warner.

“For the sake of our health, communities, and oceans, policymakers must pass legislation to ensure we are moving away from harmful plastic pollution in all its forms.”

by Jamie Hailstone


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