Compostable packaging breaks down at composting facilities, study says

Overall, compostable packaging successfully breaks down at composting facilities that meet reasonable operational parameters, according to a report by Composting Consortium. The consortium, an industry collaboration led by the Center for the Circular Economy at Closed Loop Partners, said its report fills a critical data gap for the U.S. composting industry—how well does certified, food-contact compostable packaging actually break down in real-world composting facilities?

The report, “Breaking It Down: The Realities of Compostable Packaging Disintegration in Composting Systems,” shares findings from an 18-month study—the largest known field test of certified, food-contact compostable packaging conducted in North America—revealing the realities of compostable plastic and fiber disintegration in diverse in-field composting conditions.

In total, the study tested more than 23,000 units of certified food-contact compostable packaging within large-scale industrial composting environments. This encompassed 31 types of fiber packaging and products, and compostable plastic packaging and products—such as polylactic acid (PLA) and polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHA)—across 10 diverse composting facilities across the U.S., the consortium said.

The organization said the data is released at a critical time, as compostable packaging grows as an alternative to conventional plastics amidst an urgent waste crisis. Roughly one-third of the world’s food is wasted each year—a loss estimated at $230 billion, the consortium said, adding that almost 60% of the uncontrolled methane emissions from municipal landfills are caused by discarded food, highlighting its significant impact on the environment.

To address the urgent food waste and climate challenge, demand for organics circularity is rising, and with it, the volume of food-contact compostable packaging—a market poised to grow 16% annually in the U.S. until 2032, four times faster than traditional plastic packaging.

“Today, the U.S. composting industry is in an early stage of transformation to accept and process more food waste—[about] 70% of the composters who process food also accept and process some format of food-contact compostable packaging, with the understanding that accepting these materials helps bring in more food waste to their facilities,” the consortium said.

For compostable packaging to reach its full potential as a circular packaging solution, disintegration at end-of-life is critical, in tandem with consistent labeling and design that differentiates compostable and non-compostable packaging further upstream, as well as policies that incentivize robust composting infrastructure to process these materials. In this new study, the Composting Consortium focuses on how compostable packaging breaks down. Previously, scant information was publicly available on the disintegration of compostable packaging, particularly on the compost environments in which they disintegrate.

The study found that overall, compostable packaging breaks down successfully at composting facilities that meet reasonable operational parameters such as pile temperatures, moisture, oxygen and pH. While the study did not assess disintegration with the intention to pass or fail any specific compostable packaging or product, notably, the average compostable plastic and fiber packaging in-field performance in this study met disintegration thresholds used by industry groups:

  • compostable plastic packaging and products broke down successfully across five composting methods and all 10 facilities’ varying processing timeframes and operating conditions, achieving 98% disintegration on average by surface area, which exceeds industry thresholds to achieve a 90% or higher disintegration.
  • compostable fiber packaging and products achieved 83% disintegration on average by surface area, meeting industry thresholds to achieve an 80% or higher disintegration. Findings showed that certain operating conditions, like turning, agitation and consistent moisture levels above 50%, support increased disintegration of fiber packaging and products.

The findings point to the viability of certified food-contact compostable packaging as an alternative packaging solution to single-use conventional plastic packaging, the consortium said. It also highlights the importance of ensuring that these materials align with available recovery infrastructure and the importance of expanding robust recovery pathways to divert compostable packaging and the food scraps they carry, from landfills.

The consortium said that it, in collaboration with its brand and industry partners, the U.S. Composting Council (USCC) and the Compost Research and Education Foundation (CREF), of Raleigh, North Carolina, and other groups, will leverage these findings to help inform policymaking around compostable packaging, update best management practices for composting facilities and shape a field test standard for evaluating compostable packaging disintegration at composting facilities. Data from the study will be donated to CREF’s Compostable Field Testing Program (CFTP), which will later launch an open-source database on the disintegration of compostable packaging.

Additionally, ASTM International, West Conshohocken, Pennsylvania, is currently developing an in-field test method for assessing disintegration of compostable items at composting facilities, and data from this study will be used to inform the draft field testing method.

As the consortium moves into its next phase of work, the results of the study will shape its engagement and education efforts with composters, municipalities, regulators, brands and packaging manufacturers, the consortium said.

“Field testing for disintegration has been ongoing for three decades and the Composting Consortium’s work across the value chain has significantly advanced insights for the industry,” Diane Hazard, executive director of CREF. “The collaborative approach and open-source data from this project both advances field testing methods and equips compost manufacturers and brands with the knowledge to better understand the variability of disintegration across different systems, all major steps towards successfully processing compostable packaging.”

The study brought together the consortium’s corporate brand partners, including:

  • PepsiCo.;
  • the NextGen Consortium;
  • Colgate-Palmolive;
  • Community Impact at Danaher;
  • Eastman;
  • The Kraft Heinz Co.;
  • Mars Inc. and Target Corp..

It also included technical partners USCC, Resource Recycling Systems, CFTP and the Biodegradable Products Institute and a cohort of compost partners including:

  • Atlas Organics, New York;
  • Napa Recycling & Waste Services, Napa, California;
  • Specialized Environmental Technologies, Minnetrista, Minnesota;
  • Windham Solid Waste Management, Brattleboro, Vermont;
  • Black Earth Compost, Gloucester, Massachusetts;
  • Ag Choice Organics Recycling, Andover, New Jersey;
  • Happy Trash Can Compost, Bozeman, Montana;
  • Veteran Compost, Aberdeen, Maryland; and
  • Dayton Foodbank, Dayton, Ohio.

Advisory partners included:

  • 5 Gyres, Santa Monica, California;
  • Foodservice Packaging Institute, Falls Church, Virginia;
  • ReFED, Long Island City, New York;
  • the Compost Research and Education Foundation (CREF);
  • the Sustainable Packaging Coalition, Stamford, Connecticut;
  • Compost Manufacturing Alliance, Port Orchard, Washington;
  • Eco-Cycle, Boulder, Colorado;
  • University College London;
  • Western Michigan University;
  • University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point; and
  • World Wildlife Fund, Gland, Vaud, Switzerland.

“Brands and manufacturers must prioritize material selection and design and labeling for compostable packaging to achieve optimal performance in composting environments, which can then incentivize composters to accept food-contact compostable packaging materials at their facilities,” said Frank Franciosi, executive director, USCC. “As feedstock for composters becomes diversified and more complex, it’s important for all entities within the supply chain to support consumer education on source separation of organics and reevaluate best management practices to support those composters who choose to accept compostable packaging, and this study is another tool for our industry to be able to start that process.”



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