The global symbol for recycling — that three-arrowed triangle — was inspired by Earth Day 1970. USC student Gary Anderson won a contest with his simple visual that featured the three steps of the recycling process: collection, manufacturing, and purchase of the new product. The symbol’s meanings have proliferated, with numbers and variants, but all with the same end-goals: to teach us how to meaningfully sort our trash and to help haulers produce clean ‘feedstocks’ for Materials Recovery Facilities.
National Sword: The U.S. Consumer is Left Holding the “Bag”
For decades, China has been buying up U.S. waste and recyclables, processing what they can for reuse as exportable products. Not anymore. China’s 2018 National Sword edict brought our attention, at long last, to the sheer volume of plastic and other single-use waste we create.
(To understand more about why China stopped accepting our recycling exports, we recommend the film Plastic China by director Wang Jilang.)
Your average householder is left at a loss for what to do — in 2016, each U.S. citizen created 4.4 pounds of waste a day and recycled or composted only 1.5 pounds of that. The remaining 2.9 pounds of waste per day per person goes to landfill.
From Recycling to Upcycling
One thing made clear in Plastic China — and the almost daily coverage of plastic pollution overflow on land and in water — is that recycling is not sufficient to address packaging waste. Why? Primarily, this is because of a breakdown of the system at the design stage. Truly recyclable materials must:
- Be manufactured from a single material, or materials with the same recycling quality and designation
- Be clean: food and other contaminants make recycling impossible
- Be pure: free of toxic inks, glues, coatings, and additives, and protected from UV light, which erodes recyclability. Even amongst packaging design professionals, these tenets are, for the most part, either not known or not followed.
Compostable packaging presents a solution that embodies a new idea and approach to packaging. Similar to recyclable packaging, compostable packaging must be designed from the get-go to have a valuable second life. This means that at the very outset, biochemists must determine that the molecular composition of a compostable material is both non-toxic and biologically available and attractive to the millions of microorganisms that live in healthy soil.
Compostable packaging is designed to function as packaging and then, after use, transform into soil. To prevent compostable packaging from transforming into soil too early, quality compostable packaging material is designed to remain stable and hold its form until coming into contact with the three triggers necessary to cause anything biological to break down into soil: microorganisms, heat, and moisture.
A Toxic Love Story
Certified compostable packaging must be non-toxic. Despite studies from 2008 demonstrating over-the-limit leaching of antimony, a known contaminant detrimental to human health, from #1 recyclable PET water bottles into the drinking water they held, plastic water bottles are ubiquitous in 2019.
Plastics, recyclable or not, are not required show sustained non-toxicity under a variety of conditions. Further, recycled papers and plastics, after being subjected to bleaching and processing to destroy contaminants, inks, glues, and additives, are of lower quality than virgin papers and plastics. Compostable packaging, on the other hand, is subjected to extreme heat, moisture, contact with foods and other biological elements, and bacteria during the certification process. After all this, the resulting soil, water, and air are tested for toxins.
To be certified, compostable packaging must make highly nutritive non-toxic soil in the testing environment.
In the Circular Economy, Waste Equals Food
By designing products and packaging that can become of equal or greater value after service, the circular economic model aims to render the concept of waste obsolete. This regenerative approach challenges the traditional linear model of production, which follows a “take, make, dispose” structure. Hence the term “upcycling.” Upcycling is a cornerstone principle of the circular economy and requires participants to design next-life value into products at the conception stage.
Transparency and certification are necessary components of this model. Certification verifies that materials and products will function as-needed in their current form, and also transform as promised. They provide marks and symbols that not only educate the consumer but make it possible for Material Recovery Facilities to process these products beneficially. Certification breeds simplicity, uniformity, and trust, all of which allow for a transparent and successful product lifecycle.
What is Valuable About Compost?
Compost is organic material that, through a process of controlled decomposition, becomes nutrient-rich soil conditioner. When spread on fields, compost helps farmland retain moisture and reduces the need for chemical fertilizers.
Commercial composting facilities accept yard trimmings, food waste, and certified compostable packaging waste. The waste is ground into evenly sized pieces, sorted for contaminants (plastic, glass, metal) and then mixed to achieve a balance of “green” (grass, food, manure) and “brown” (dry leaves, branches, compostable packaging) organic matter, the green providing nitrogen and the brown providing necessary carbon. The mix is carefully hydrated and, if properly prepared, microbial activity will heat the pile to optimal temperatures within several days. The pile is turned to allow air circulation and cooling, so that the organisms busy eating and breaking down the compost pile can break and don’t overheat. Water runoff is captured and re-used to hydrate the next batch. In 60-90 days, the resulting pile can be moved, sifted, and bagged or sold directly to farms, contractors, and individuals as critical soil amendment.
Also increasingly popular, anaerobic composting facilities use organisms designed to operate in low-oxygen environments to break down food, yard trimmings, animal waste, and compostable materials. These facilities sell not only the resulting composted soil, but also trap the resulting biomethane gas to provide natural gas to businesses and consumers.
Third-Party Compostable Certification Process
For products in Europe and Asia, TUV certification symbols represent the highest levels of scrutiny of material quality from the compound formulation stage to final processed product. Compounds are put through the complete 90 composting process and all byproducts are tested for completion of decay to soil and absence of toxins. The processed material must go through the same process again, to ensure that the product maintains inherent compostability and non-toxicity. Once passed, the processed material is certified ASTM D6400 compliant (U.S. compliance regulations) and EN 13432 compliant (European regulations).
The Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI)is the most well-known certification symbol in the U.S. BPI requires a complete furnishment of all ASTM D6400 and EN 13432 compliance testing results, formulae, and final product submission to assess that not only are the base materials legitimate, but any added inks, labels, and glues are also certified non-toxic and compostable. Once this process is complete, BPI furnishes the applicant with a symbol and unique ID number.
Commercial vs Home Composting
Industrial and household composting processes are the same; however, it is much harder for a home compost pile to achieve the temperatures required to break down biological materials in three months or less. If you have ever tried to compost an avocado peel, you know what I mean. Compostable packaging, meat bones, avocado, and banana peels all require high temperatures to break down quickly. For this reason, only some biologically based packaging is certified home compostable.
Composting is in Your Future
According to the EPA, food composting rose from 1.84 million tons in 2013 to 2.1 million tons in 2015. A 2017 study conducted by BioCycle determined that there were 4,713 compost facilities in the United States. Ohio led with 419, followed by New York with 347. Compost pickups have been introduced in New York City and are legislated to be available across California by 2020. San Francisco, Portland, and many states along the East Coast have achieved across the board compliance. Composting is coming your way.