The Hidden Challenges of Compostable Containers

During the pandemic, those of us who are able have been supporting our local restaurants by ordering takeout (even as restrictions against in-person dining are being lifted). And many of us have noticed how much our recycling bins have ballooned with packaging materials. According to David Biderman of the Solid Waste Foundation of North America, residential trash increased about 25% during COVID. Thankfully many restaurants are using compostable to-go packaging, so that is a better solution—right?

Well, the real answer is that it depends.

 

Access to Composting Services

Here in the San Francisco Bay Area, many of us are spoiled by our color-coded bins that we place at the curb each week, including our big, blue recycling bin and our even larger green composting bin. But nationwide, it’s estimated that only 2 - 4 % of households have access to municipal composting services. According to the 2019 U.S. PIRG Compost Report (the latest year for which figures are available), just 326 towns and cities out of more than 19,000 across the nation offer curbside food waste collection. While more cities have drop-off options, the overall numbers are still small.

But the downside doesn’t end there. Even fewer sites accept the new “compostable” food containers that are made out of bioplastics, materials made from cornstarch or other plant sugars. The nearly ubiquitous pressed fiber bowls also have issues that limit their compostability. While these types of containers are quickly gaining popularity because they often provide a better experience for customers vs. paper-based to-go containers, their true “compostability” (or lack thereof) isn’t broadly understood.

Compostable to-go containers

PLA and pressed fiber containers

While this reality can be disappointing for eco-minded consumers when they learn the facts, it can be devastating for companies with published sustainability goals.

 

How Composting Supports Corporate Sustainability Goals

Take the restaurant chain sweetgreen. According to the Los Angeles Times, the restaurant displayed messages indicating that nothing from the store would go to landfill as far back as 2010. After several hiccups with compostable options, including a 2017 incident where they learned that a supplier of compostable salad bowls had actually added petrochemicals to its formula, the chain has begun a pilot of a closed-loop process for collecting PLA-based items like cups and salad lids. They collect and truck these items to a dedicated facility where they‘re recycled into new utensils which sweetgreen then purchases.

If you’re not a restaurant or food business, you may think the issue isn’t relevant, but there are important facts to understand.

 

The Implications for Companies as Employees Return to Work

With small portions of workers returning to work at many companies, facilities managers and sustainability leaders need to be aware that those employees will likely be bringing their to-go containers along with them. And if these businesses serve food on their campuses, it’s guaranteed that their employee diners will be getting those meals in take-away containers to provide for safe eating conditions. While your food services or catering manager is likely on top of this situation sourcing containers to use for service, has your facilities staff considered the implications for your waste removal operations?

We’ve heard from companies that they have been surprised by the changes, struggling to deal with large increases in both recycling and waste quantities. In some locales, this has caused waste removal fines to kick in when a company’s waste volume increases beyond levels set pre-pandemic. We’ve also heard from LEED-certified businesses that they are concerned they could lose this status due to these increased waste volumes.

If you are thinking of compostable containers to meet new or existing sustainability goals, be sure that you understand the details:

  • Does your waste services provider offer composting services?
  • Does the composting program accept all containers marked as compostable, or just paper-based items?
  • What types of sorting will your staff need to ensure?
  • Are there limits to how much waste (of any type) that you can generate, or should you be planning for higher fees?

As with many items post-pandemic, the right answers for your business are nuanced and complex. Be sure to understand the benefits and limitations of choosing compostable food containers.

 

If you’re interested in learning more about Dishcraft’s Reusable Container service, contact us at hello@dishcraft.com.

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