Role Compostable Packaging Plays in Food Waste Systems

Zero Waste in Action
08/18/2012

by: Holly Elmore

When Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport included a groundbreaking provision in their new concessionaire contract requiring food vendors to use compostable packaging, the catalyst was set in motion for a major shift in foodservice packaging. The ZWA Blog post, Atlanta Airport Makes Bold Statement, gives an overview of the contract provision at the world's largest airport.  The foodservice industry is at the cusp of a new era in packaging where compostable and|or recyclable products are the norm.

To ensure integrity within the new packaging era, the BPI Compostible Packaging Certification program and Seattle-based composter Cedar Grove set strict standards to ensure compostable packaging  breaks down within the ASTM D6400 Standard in traditional windrow or covered-aerated-static pile systems. Yet many municipalities and companies are exploring other technologies for handling food waste.These systems range from in-vessel composting to on-site digesters to anaerobic digesters. Industry experts are addressing how compostable products work in these food waste systems.

With strong European success, anaerobic digestion for commercial and residential food waste is gaining momentum in the U.S.The technology has solid  U.S. traction at municipal water treatment facilities and on-farm, yet is a frontier for food waste.

Predominately enclosed in a facility, anaerobic digestion systems tend to make the permitting process easier where citizens are concerned about smells generated at traditional composting operations. A challenge is if the state regulations do not contain anaerobic digestion provisions, leaving regulators perplexed as to the permitting process.

In layman's terms, anaerobic digesters decompose organic material in a closed anaerobic (without air) environment where the methane gas produced is captured for energy use.  Each system has its own "recipe," including food waste, yard trimmings, FOG (fats, oils & grease from kitchen operations) and other organic material.  After the energy is extracted from the organic material, digestate remains as the system by-product.  With further "curing" the digestate is often used as a soil amendment.

Traditional windrow composting uses an aerobic (with air) system where the piles are turned, thus not producing methane gas.  The energy component inherent within food waste remains within the compost, providing nutrients for the soil's microbial community.

With the pending shift in foodservice disposable items to compostable products coupled with zero waste programs, the food waste feedstock may soon include a significant portion of man-made products.  What is the impact of these compostable products on the sensitive anaerobic digester recipes?  Will the products contribute to the energy produced in the system?  Are the products a contaminant?  Will the products hinder the system's energy production? Are the products benign, flowing through the system without impact?  If so, is there reduced energy produced due to the recipe change?

At the October 15 -17 Biopolymers Symposium in San Antonio, TX, the half-day Anaerobic Digestion Forum on Monday, October 15 will answer the above questions along with providing a wealth of information on the role bioplymers (compostable plastics) play in the process.

With stellar speakers from the public, private and consulting sectors, the forum is staged for informative presentations and lively dialogue.  According to the Forum Co-Chair Debra Darby of Darby Marketing,  "There is an increasing interest in anaerobic digestion as a growing part of urban or municipal integrated waste management. The key is to involve commercial stakeholders and educate the public about organics diversion programs as both a sustainability effort and an economic driver,"

As a Biopolymers Symposium speaker, Elemental Impact founder and Sustainable Food Courts Initiative director Holly Elmore is excited to attend the forum.  A supporter of the Atlanta Airport's compostable packaging provision and proponent of zero waste programs, Ei will explore the implications of compostable packaging on the various food waste technologies.

The Anaerobic Digestion Forum is an excellent venue to meet the industry experts, learn from powerful presentations and ask pertinent questions to those with answers.

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