January 21, 2021
The SPC’s recently published guide, Understanding the Role of Compostable Packaging in North America, aims to help companies understand where and how compostable packaging can fit into their sustainable packaging portfolio.
Why is compostable packaging worth exploring? Compostable packaging is increasingly part of global sustainable packaging commitments, but its full potential has not yet been realized. When used in the right settings, compostable packaging can create a simplified consumer dining experience, a cleaner recycling stream, and serve as a solution for non-recyclable packaging. More broadly, compostable packaging can be part of healthy biological loops in the circular economy, diverting food waste from landfills and contributing to compost that helps soil serve as a carbon sink.
To fully take advantage of the opportunities offered by compostable packaging, companies will need to understand the broader ecosystem of composting and collection. This new guide offers considerations for appropriate use cases, insights into composting infrastructure and municipal collection programs, and perspectives on composter and consumer engagement. It clarifies the recovery ecosystem surrounding compostable packaging today, for the benefit of brands, retailers, municipalities, consumers, and other stakeholders.
Here are key highlights and findings from the new guide:
Collection: Insights into Composting Infrastructure and Access
How likely is it that a compostable package will be collected for composting? The predominant narrative regarding composting infrastructure and programs in the United States and Canada is that these programs are largely absent, insubstantial, or incapable of handling packaging. Yet this narrative does not fully stand up to our research examining the current state of composting infrastructure in North America.
While access to composting programs is not universal, free, or widespread, according to the SPC’s research, at least 11% of the US population has access to composting programs that accept some form of compostable packaging in addition to food waste. Understanding residential access to composting programs is an important first step in beginning to understand whether packaging will actually be composted, but the full story is yet to be written.
Composters: Understanding Technologies and End Markets
Composters are an essential part of the compostable packaging ecosystem – without them, compostable packaging will not get composted. Typically, a facility’s ability to process compostable packaging will depend on its willingness to work with the material and the amount of time that materials are given to break down in the active composting phase. The guide reviews various composting technologies and end markets for finished compost and outlines how composters manage contamination.
Consumer Engagement: Communicating Compostability to Consumers
Consumers play an important role in pushing for compostable packaging and being the ones to actually put packaging into the compost bin. While many are motivated to seek out compostable packaging, consumers need better ways to distinguish it from conventional plastic packaging. The guide reviews consumer perceptions of compostability, outlines the various consumer-facing certifications available for compostable packaging, and offers suggestions for how companies can engage consumers around composting more broadly.
Design: Starting with the Right Applications
Compostable packaging should not be a blanket solution for all packaging. Rather, it should be used in applications where it helps divert food waste out of landfills and into compost bins, reduce food scrap contamination of recyclable materials, or replace non-recyclable packaging. The guide helps brands prevent problems down the road by evaluating which applications are the best fit for compostable packaging. It offers a checklist for compostability, suggestions for navigating certain “gray areas” where compostable packaging may or may not make sense, and guidance for which packaging shouldn’t be designed to be compostable.
The Future of Compostable Packaging
What might compostable packaging look like in the next decade? And more importantly, what will the ecosystem of collection, access, and consumer engagement surrounding compostable packaging be? The guide offers a glimpse into what the future of compostable packaging can look like if stakeholders work together to actively address today’s challenges. This includes the shifts we’ll need in packaging design, municipal collection, composting processes, and consumer engagement for compostable packaging to meet its full potential.
The Understanding the Role of Compostable Packaging in North America guide ultimately aims to help companies gain a newfound understanding of the right approach to compostable packaging. With this resource in hand, companies can use compostable packaging to meet their sustainability goals and sustain the biological loops of the circular economy.