While waste does not exist in natural systems, it certainly does in the built environment in which we live! One increasingly popular initiative to decrease the amount of matter sent to the landfill is composting. Composting is nature’s way of recycling, where food waste, manure, yard trimmings, paper, and more are turned back into soil or organic matter to be used as fertilizer and replenish the earth with nutrients.

Many compost facilities and waste haulers in Massachusetts are no longer accepting Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI) certified compostable products. This shift has thrown a proverbial wrench into waste diversion programs developed by institutions given their use of BPI-certified compostable products. This article explores various factors that could be playing a role in this shift and proposes solutions for creating a cohesive and enduring organics diversion program. In speaking with representatives from BioCycle, The Compost Plant, RecyclingWorks, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), Earth Care Farm, and Vanguard Renewables, and from conversations held during a Northeast Campus Sustainability Consortium (NECSC) meeting, Coalesce has learned about the complexity and multifaceted nature of changes underway, and poses key questions for institutions and the public to consider as waste diversion programs are implemented and expanded.

A brief background on composting in Massachusetts

In October 2014, the Massachusetts Commercial Food Waste Disposal Ban went into effect. It requires that institutions producing more than one  ton of organic waste per week must divert organics from the landfill. Hospitals, prisons, supermarkets, schools, and other institutions exceeding this threshold are mandated to  remove  food from the waste stream; The Center for EcoTechnology (CET) reports that the 54 businesses and institutions supported by RecyclingWorks have diverted approximately 5,020 tons of food scraps from landfills, a five-fold increase from the prior year. It is clear that food waste diversion has increased significantly as a result of this Food Waste Ban. With regards to processing organic waste, most of the compost facilities in the State use aerobic composting, meaning that food waste, yard trimmings, and compostable single use products are turned into soil through windrow or in-vessel systems. BPI certified products have traditionally been accepted by these facilities from institutions for the past several years. Below are several insights that may be informing this shift away from accepting BPI certified products at compost facilities in the region.

Factors Shaping the Composting Landscape

Claims that BPI Certified Products May Not Be Breaking Down as Prescribed: Some have expressed concern that BPI certified products do not break down as prescribed. However, with proper operating procedures and equipment, it is shown that BPI certified products do in fact break down. Jayne Merner Senecal, Manager of Earth Care Farm notes that bioplastics fully decompose in their facility in less than one month under the right temperature. For more information on proper practices, please reference this article from BioCycle.

Synthetic Matter in Compost Is Not Permitted for Use on Certified Organic Farms: While compost itself does not receive organic certification, farmers that wish to obtain or maintain organic certification may not apply compost or fertilizer that contains synthetic matter. At this time, according to the National Organic Program (NOP) of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), disposable compostable products constitute synthetic matter. Farmers or others can send a petition to the National Organic Standards Board. Based on the current standards of the NOP, if a compost facility wants to produce a product that organic farmers can use on their land, the facility cannot accept BPI-certified products. This is a reason that Earth Care Farm in Rhode Island made the decision to stop accepting BPI certified products. According to Jayne, “we have stopped accepting Bio Plastics solely because of…the rules on allowable feedstocks. If they were allowed we would accept them again”.

Anaerobic Digestion (AD): A new trend quickly gathering steam in the State and northeast region is anaerobic digestion (AD). Anaerobic digestion (see Additional Resources at the end of the document for more information on AD) is the biological decomposition of organic matter in the absence of oxygen. This process uses a biodigester, which accepts food waste (or wastewater) and manure as input, and produces two by-products: digestate and biogas. The liquid effluent and digestate solids produced from the biodigester can be spread on fields as fertilizer (BPI certified products are typically not accepted in AD facilities because the biodigester cannot process them, see additional resources below on dry fermentation vs. wet fermentation for more information). The AD process also generates biogas, which contains methane and carbon dioxide. The methane generates the energy when it is combusted in a combined heat and power (CHP) engine; heat from the engine can be used to heat the digester, and other facility operations. The electricity can be sold to the grid. The selling of the energy to the utility companies is the primary mechanism for generating revenue for AD companies, such as Vanguard Renewables. While the AD industry is growing in the state, it has not yet expanded to taking organics from higher education institutions given the high levels of contamination reported.

Contamination: Organics diversion programs began in kitchens (back end of dining halls, restaurants, and other dining facilities) collecting pre-consumer food waste, and have expanded to more high traffic areas to increase the collection of compostable material, such as student centers, cafeterias, and eateries. In these “front of the house locations” the public is left to correctly sort compostables, recyclables, and landfill matter. Compost facilities have experienced contamination from front of the house locations. When contamination occurs, this drastically impacts operating equipment, quality of the compost, and can lead to disposal costs incurred by the compost facility. One of the causes for this contamination, noted by Leo Pollock from The Compost Plant, is that “product design is ahead of behavior”. As the design of bioplastics increases, the line between what can and cannot be composted is blurred. Leo observes that from a young age, we are trained to recycle those items that appear to be plastic. This ingrained behavior is now coming into conflict when we are presented with products that look and feel like recyclable plastic but are in fact compostable. Such confusion leads to improper disposal of compostable products. Sometimes compostable products end up in recycling facilities, where they can be harmful to operating equipment and processes. Given the increased demand for compost facilities, these operations are now being more selective with the items they accept. Such confusion can be a result of inconsistent signage, bins, compostable products, communication, and engagement around composting and organics diversion.

What’s Next?

Many institutions have purchased BPI-certified compostable products in order to continue to use single-use items without increasing the amount of matter sent to the landfill. At the same time, contamination, anaerobic digestion, and the desire to create a product that can be used by organic farmers are just some of the many factors that seem to be behind the growing trend of compost facilities not accepting compostable disposable products that institutions have come to rely on. So what’s next? In order to minimize waste sent to the landfill, Coalesce has two suggestions:

  1. Switch to reusable products whenever possible!
  2. Create a cohesive and enduring organics diversion program. Form a Task Force consisting of Dining Staff, Facilities, faculty, staff, students or student groups, and your organics hauler. Examine current practices and products used and ensure consistency throughout all dining locations and determine an education strategy to ensure all stakeholders on campus understand how to dispose of the commonly used items. Consistency in signage and messaging is critical.

As we think through how to build effective organics diversion programs and advance sustainability on campus, several key questions come to mind:

  • How can institutions best educate and engage students, employees, and visitors to better understand how to properly sort and dispose organic matter and compostable single-use items to reduce contamination?
  • Given the high levels of contamination found in organic waste, how does an institution determine which BPI-certified / compostable single-use products to use? Where are the opportunities to limit the use of single-use products?
  • Is there potential for anaerobic biodigesters to expand to campuses and institutions as a waste diversion and energy generation mechanism?

Coalesce is eager to hear your thoughts and continue this conversation, and would like to thank all of those who took the time to share their insights with us. Please email Emily (emily@coalesce.earth) with your ideas, reactions, comments, and/or questions.

Additional Resources

Contributors:

  • Jayne Senecal, Earth Care Farm
  • Leo Pollock, The Compost Plant
  • RecyclingWorks
  • Nora Goldstein, BioCycle