The complexities of composting

This article is adapted from GreenBiz’s weekly newsletter, Circular Weekly, running Fridays. Subscribe here.

These days, recycling gets all the attention. Yet while the world scoffs at global recycling rates and panics at plastic pollution, I often wonder when a similar wave of public outrage will arrive for recycling’s biological counterpart: the humble world of compost. 

In the United States, only about 5 percent of households have access to curbside food waste collection, compared to about 50 percent of U.S. homes (PDF) with automatic curbside recycling available. Looking at municipal solid waste in the U.S., only 2.6 millions tons of the food waste generated in 2017 were composted — just 6.3 percent of the 40.7 million tons of total food waste generated, according to an EPA estimate

Access to curbside organics recycling is just one piece of the broader challenge that cities face when it comes to capturing, transporting, breaking down and selling compost at scale. 

For starters, there’s contamination. The presence of PFAS in some compostable and biodegradable packaging has threatened agricultural end markets, particularly for organic agriculture. (If food is grown in PFAS-contaminated compost, it’s not organic — and possibly harmful.) 

Then there’s confusion. Given that compostable cups, plates and utensils look identical to their non-compostable counterparts, even consumers with access to composting don’t always know (or consider) the appropriate bin. Organizations such as the Biodegradable Products Institute are working to certify and standardize compostability claims, but there’s currently no legal standard. And once these materials reach a processing facility, there’s no chance operators can tell if these servicewares are compostable once jumbled among a stream of food waste and other organics. 

Let’s not forget about quality. Not all “certified” compostable items actually will break down as quickly or fully as facilities need them to. This has led some composters, including those serving the state of Oregon (PDF), to stop accepting compostable packaging and serviceware altogether. 

Taking a step back, it’s important to remember what the purpose of compost actually is. This nutrient-rich material is meant to enhance soil to grow better food. Accordingly, it’s not surprising that farmers seeking to procure high-quality compost for crops would avoid a product made from a lower-quality, lower-nutrient medley of materials laden with fragments of packaging.

Finally, there’s a small, but growing, emphasis on accountability. Take Sweetgreen, the fast-casual restaurant known for seasonal salads and hexagonal bowls: despite the proud proclamation “nothing from inside Sweetgreen goes to the landfill” on in-store signage since 2010, the company recently learned that, in fact, the claim was untrue. This recent Los Angeles Times article tells Sweetgreen’s still-unfolding story of navigating composting’s complexities and chronicles its latest efforts to uphold waste claims and establish truly closed-loop systems. I highly recommend the article for its compelling narrative and comprehensive exploration of the topic, through the lens of a company working to make the “right” choices. 

Indeed, a number of small-but-mighty groups are working hard to make compost the new plastic in the public eye. Organizations such as ReFED, whose analysis builds an economic case for solutions across the value chain that will cut food waste; the US Composting Council, whose just-launched Corporate Compost Leadership Group will focus on scaling tools and strategies to grow U.S. composting capacity; and LA Compost, a nonprofit working to establish community-scale composting in Los Angeles, have made great strides in diverting organics from landfills and scaling composting infrastructure. 

Still, there’s a lot more to chew on. Establishing an effective organics recycling system at scale requires a broader look at food loss and waste from farms to factories and distribution centers to dining room tables. It’s a systemic challenge that needs holistic solutions, and applying a circular lens is just one piece of the puzzle.