• Gary Robinson

Playing in the Dirt// Composting and Packaging Innovation

Updated: Nov 21, 2018

Blog by, Gary Robinson, SYNAPTIC Packaging

February 9, 2018

Composting - does the word make you say ‘yuck’?

The idea of food scraps sitting in a pile might sound kind of gross, right? Well read on, you might be surprised. There is much to learn about composting. Today, some of the most advanced and innovative minds are out in the back yard playing in the dirt. Composting is quickly becoming very high tech, very innovative, and yes - very cool!


So, why compost?

What is the purpose and the benefit? Well, to start with compost is a natural process of breaking down organic materials in aerobic conditions. In the presence of heat, oxygen, moisture, and microbes, the organic material will naturally break down, or decompose. In the process additional heat

is generated which sanitizes the compost. The core nutrients are preserved and transferred back to the soil. The end result is a highly nutrient rich soil, a

super soil if you will. This soil has amazing eco-benefits for our cities (yes cities), our farms, our food, and our world. Check out this animated video from Kiss The Ground(1) for some fun facts presented in a manner that is easily shared with a non-technical community. Video Link: https://kisstheground.com/thecompoststory


The Benefits of composting(2)

  • Improves soil porosity - makes soil more spongy so it can hold more water

  • Provides necessary nutrients to plants for healthy growth

  • Improves and stabilizes the pH levels in soil

  • The density of compost helps to hold roots better in plants, providing more stability

  • The compost soil porosity helps cities manage storm water run off

  • Compost helps prevent soil erosion

  • By holding more water, compost improves irrigation

  • Composting may even suppress plant pathogens


How is composting different than a landfill?

Waste sent to a landfill has very little degradation. It is, in essence, entombed. With the lack of available oxygen in a landfill, any decomposition that takes place is under anaerobic conditions. This anaerobic decomposition produces highly concentrated methane gas. Per the US EPA, “Pound for pound, the comparative impact of CH4 (Methane) is more than 25 times greater than CO2 over a 100-year period.”(3)


The big question… does composting stink?

A properly managed composting system does not stink. It smells like a walk through a moist forest with a very warm, and slightly sweet earth smell. The key to managing odors with a compost is the collection and handling of the food waste. Obviously, you don’t want to leave food scraps outside of a compost for long. When setting up a local, or regional compost system it is important to have timely and efficient collection systems.


So, what does all this have to do with packaging?

In the previous blog I asked a challenging question… ‘Built to Last - But Really, Should Your Packaging Last Forever?’. In that discussion I highlighted compost as an emerging technology in packaging that we are bullish on at Synaptic Packaging, and for good reason.


According to the EPA’s 2014 report on Municipal Solid Waste (MSW)(4), the United States generated 258 million tons of MSW a year. 14.9% of that MSW, or apx. 38 million tons, of that is food waste. An additional 19.5%, or 69 million tons is yard trimmings and wood (also a good compost source).

In total, we estimate 34.4%, or 88.7 million tons/ year of material in our MSW are candidates for composting.


An adjacent trend for consideration is that recycling rates for plastics over the last five years remain flat. The two most recycled plastics are HDPE and PET. Each of these materials are showing recycle rates of apx. 30 to 34%(5). Despite our best efforts, we are seeing over 66% of plastic bottles not being recycled.


At Synaptic Packaging, we seek to identify and align adjacencies to drive novel innovation towards a sustainable future. We see opportunities for sustainable innovation where packaging system can be a delivery vehicle for the collection of food waste and proper diversion to composting. As a matter of prioritization, we feel this is initially a driving opportunity for the food service industry, with shelf-stable food packaging following, and aligned to targeted consumer demographics.


Perhaps one of the best case studies for composting that we have found is the example set by Mr. Scott Jenkins drive to Zero Waste at the Seattle Seahawk’s stadium. In a stadium environment, they have an outstanding opportunity to conduct controlled experimentations to test sustainability theories and demonstrate scale-ability. According to Mr. Jenkins, the Seattle Seahawk’s stadium was able to capture apx. 38% of the food waste from the ‘Back-of-the-House’ restaurant operations, or the non customer facing waste stream.

Upon activation of the “Front-of-the-House”, or customer facing, they saw their food waste collection metrics jump from 38% to 70% and continue on above 90%. The packaging was the key to success. The packaging was the delivery vehicle for the food scraps. The adjacent chart is an excerpt from Mr. Jenkins’ presentation at the US Compost Council, in Atlanta, GA on January 23, 2018.


In a similar study, Robert Weatherbe of Recycling Alternative, analyzed a shopping mall food court in Toronto for composting. In Robert’s study, he reports the mall food court generated over 550,000 lbs of food waste per year. For a localized environment, that is a considerable amount organics that can be diverted away from a landfill and to a healthy end-of-life compost.


So, if composting is so great, why aren’t more people composting today?

By observation at this year’s Composting Council meeting, the momentum on composting appears to be very strong and growing. From my perspective, the industry is undergoing transformation. The two biggest challenges facing the compost industry are 1) Localized regulatory and permitting restrictions, and 2)Packaging contamination.


Yes, our beloved packaging industry is not only an enabler to collect food waste, it is also one of the top problems for the composter.


The cause of contamination is varied. One primary driver is that the consumer is terribly confused. Relying on the consumer to decide what is and what is not compostable can be incredibly difficult. Clear communication, education, and a properly engineered compost system will be necessary for success and scale.


There are many groups seeking to address improved communication, labeling, and education. Most notably is the leadership we are seeing from trade groups such as The Sustainable Packaging Coalition, the Biodegradable Products Institute, the US Compost Council, and the Federal Trade Commission for enforcing the ‘Green Guides’ for truth in advertising. This enforcement has helped address some troubling issues with ‘Greenwashing’, or false and deceptive marketing.


Still, even with good labeling, compost solutions need to be constructed with a systematic approach. Consumer engagement is always an art and a science. To achieve your Sustainabilty goals, you will need to engage & influence the consumer behavior - both directly, and indirectly in a very discrete and smart fashion.


Synaptic Packaging, Moving Forward//

As previously discussed, we are very bullish on the growth of composting and the role packaging can play to enable this wonderful, healthy, end-of-life solution. Here is a peek at some of the innovations we are supporting at Synaptic Packaging…

  • Natural Renewable Materials - There is tremendous innovation happening in novel raw materials that are grown and not produced from oil. These novel materials tend to be excellent feedstocks for composting and can provide value-add nutrients back to the soil. There is much work to be done to validate, commercialize, and scale these novel technologies.

  • Barrier Development - Barrier and composting are divergent attributes. Think about it. A barrier is intended to help protect a product from the surrounding environment, to persevere the quality of it’s content from degradation. Composting is intended to allow the environment to break-down your package. Economically - the faster the package breaks down, the better. Divergent objectives can lead to some of the most challenging of innovation solutions.

  • Innovation to Address Consumer Behaviors - In the world of six sigma there is a term called Poka-Yoke. Poka-Yoke is when you engineer a solution that ensures success independent of the operator. We believe to make composting successful and scaleable, we are going to need to build systems that are robust and can accommodate the dynamics of human behavior.

  • Micro and Macro Composting: Composting is in a stage of transition. We see a trend for small scale composting lead by the composting purists in this space. We also see the emergence of large scale industrial composting. We believe there is room and opportunity for both.


// How can Synaptic Packaging help your company drive sustainable innovation? Contact us at www.SynapticPackaging.com



References:

  1. Kiss-The-Ground, “The Compost Story“, May 8, 2017, Finian Makepeace, Illustrated by Michelle Uyeda, Edited by Elevate Films, Co-written by Don Smith, Contributing Editors: Calla Rose, https://youtu.be/bqDQD8cvO5Y

  2. The US Compost Council, “USCC Factsheet: Compost and It’s Benefits”, 2008

  3. US Environmental Protection Agency, “Greenhouse Gas Emissions”, 2015 https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/overview-greenhouse-gases#methane)

  4. US Environmental Protection Agency, “SMM Fact Sheet”, 2014, https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2016-11/documents/2014_smmfactsheet_508.pdf

  5. American Chemistry Council and The Association of Plastic Recyclers, “United States National Post-consumer Plastic Bottle Recycling Report”, 2015 https://plastics.americanchemistry.com/2015-United-States-National-Postconsumer-Plastic-Bottle-Recycling-Report.pdf