May 19, 2020
What solutions can help eliminate packaging waste?
Although compostable packaging is a small part of today’s recovery puzzle, compostable packaging plays a critical role in brands’ future packaging goals. Companies like Campbell’s, PepsiCo, and ALDI are already exploring ways to make their packaging circular through composting. And as the world works to reverse climate change by reducing food waste, composting will become a key tool for managing materials sustainably.
Today, the missing link for the success of compostable packaging is composting infrastructure, which is not yet widespread across the U.S. To better understand the challenges and opportunities for composting, we at GreenBlue have developed several interactive maps and charts of composting infrastructure and supportive legislation in the United States, available on Tableau Public. This data has been collected from state databases of permitted waste facilities and individual facility websites. Information about community composting operations was supported by CompostNOW’s directory.
So what can we learn from maps of the United States’ composting infrastructure?
1. Composting facilities that accept compostable packaging aren’t nonexistent
While 56% of the verified facilities accept only green waste, facilities that accept food waste and some combination of other compostable materials are not insignificant — about 44% of the facilities identified accept these feedstocks. Specifically, about 29% accept food waste, and about 15% accept packaging in addition to food waste. That’s probably higher than you expected, especially considering the “nonexistent” narrative that often accompanies discussions of compostable packaging.
We see that 96 facilities take compostable packaging, including bioplastics, from residential and commercial sources. Another 25 take fiber-based compostable packaging (no bioplastics), and another 13 take compostable packaging from residential sources only. In total, 134 composting locations are accepting some kind of compostable packaging.
2. Many densely populated counties have insufficient composting infrastructure
Even though composting may be more widespread than you think, it’s still largely insufficient. When we look at dense counties and their access to composting facilities, it’s clear that most of the US’s high-population areas do not currently have sufficient access to composting food waste or packaging. For example, Southern California’s high population areas like Los Angeles and San Diego have a handful of facilities in their respective counties, but these likely lack the scale and capacity needed to accept the large volumes generated.
The densely-populated tristate area (New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut) also appears to have insufficient capacity for the size of the population.
Clearly, we need more facilities that can handle food and compostable material, especially if we are going to actively address the problem of food waste generating methane in landfills.
3. Areas with composting facilities can consider enacting food waste legislation
Currently, a handful of cities, counties, and states have passed food waste legislation, which requires generators to compost food waste and other organic materials when feasible. These bans are mostly limited to Northeastern or coastal states and cities, with the exception of Minneapolis, Austin, and Boulder.
However, food waste legislation doesn’t have to be a coastal phenomenon. Additional cities and states across the country may be well-suited for this type of legislation because of their access to composting infrastructure. For example, Chicago is in close proximity to a number of composting facilities that accept food waste and, in some cases, packaging.
If municipalities with a reasonable number of composting facilities considered new food waste legislation, composters in these areas would receive a welcome boost in demand for their services. As facilities become comfortable accepting food waste and managing related contaminants, they may turn to accepting fiber compostable packaging or compostable bioplastics.
These maps provide insights into today’s compostable packaging story, highlighting which geographic markets are best suited for compostable packaging based on their current access to composting. But they can also be used to guide us towards a future with less packaging and food waste. Brands, composters, and legislators can use insights into regional composting access to advocate for new and expanded composting infrastructure, perhaps considering food waste legislation or direct investments in composters. With more infrastructure, we’ll be able to return more food-soiled packaging back to the soil.