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Navigating the Compostable Packaging Landscape: Insights from BPI Executive Director Rhodes Yepsen

Which applications are best for compostable packaging? How can labeling help eliminate consumer confusion over proper disposal? What role will EPR play in facilitating composting? BPI Executive Director Rhodes Yepsen shares his thoughts.

Compostable Packaging
Rhodes Yepsen, Executive Director, Biodegradable Products Institute

With recent industry reports indicating compostable packaging is poised to grow at double-digit rates over the next decade and in light of a new report from the Biodegradable Products Institute and the Closed Loop Partners Composting Consortium  bringing to light the considerable consumer challenges related to composting, Packaging World sat down with BPI Executive Director Rhodes Yepsen to learn how the association is guiding the industry forward.

Packaging World:

You probably get this question ad nauseum, but in order to level set, could you define biodegradable, compostable, and bio-based and explain how these characteristics sometimes overlap and how they differ?

Rhodes Yepsen:

Sure. So really these terms describe either the front of life or the end of life of products and materials. And as you indicated, sometimes they can have both of these attributes, and sometimes they are distinct. So starting with bio-based, bio-based refers to the origin of the raw material, meaning it was made with renewable feedstocks. This does not dictate whether the item is biodegradable, compostable, or even recyclable. Biodegradability and compostability, on the other hand, refer to the ability of the product or material to be processed through a biological pathway. Compostability is a specific environment, instead of conditions, in which biodegradation can occur. Composting is a controlled process and is one that we talk about a lot because that’s where we have a parallel to end of life with something like recycling, with organized collection and processing.

Compostable PackagingChart courtesy of Closed Loop Partners’ Composting Consortium

Biodegradation can also happen in uncontrolled environments if a product is leaked into the environment where there’s going to be a lot more variability in the rate of biodegradation. Because of that variability, because it’s not controlled, and we don’t want products leaking into the environment, that’s why you see laws popping up around the U.S., Canada, and Europe restricting the term biodegradable, because we don’t want consumers to be confused and think they can litter an item. So yes, it’s really the front-of-life benefits, whether the item was made with a renewable feedstock or not, and then on the other side, the end of life, which, along with compostability or biodegradability, also includes recyclability, for instance, or reusability.

What are the main activities of the Biodegradable Products Institute?

We are a member-based association, and our core activities are around certification and claims, marketing and education, and policy. And through those different activities, we’re working to promote the production, use, and appropriate end of life for materials that can break down in these biologically active environments. Today that is primarily composting. That’s where the core of our history has been—working on materials and products, qualifying them for compostability, and making sure they’re designed with factors in mind to get them successfully collected and composted. We work with the raw material producers, the packaging converters, brands, retailers, municipalities, haulers, composters—everyone in the value chain is represented in our membership and our board of directors.

When it comes to policy, are you a lobbying group, or do you just report on policy for your members?

We do both. So we are a 501(c)(6) association, which allows us more latitude to be directly engaged in policy work than a 501(c)(3). Part of that involves informing members of things that are going on, with bill tracking and updates and status on things. But then we’re also engaged with amendments and meetings and direct outreach to influence policy. A lot of that is focused on the success of compostability claims, the things that are reinforced in our other work around labeling and standards, making sure claims are based on standards, and working on funding for infrastructure and composting. We’re very supportive of things such as extended producer responsibility and are trying to make sure it’s inclusive of composting and not just focused on recycling. That’s been a big focus of ours—making sure that as policies evolve, they’re not calling for a blind replacement of all plastics with bioplastics on the one hand, but on the other hand, not wanting compostable products to be boxed out in the shadow of the bigger efforts around recycling.

The 2023 Packaging Compass report, from PMMI – The Association for Packaging and Processing Technologies and AMERIPEN, forecasts that compostable packaging will grow by a CAGR of 15% to 16% by 2027. To what do you attribute this growth?

Last year, McKinsey did a survey of countries around the world and looked at the most sustainable attributes in consumers’ minds for packaging. Compostability was at the top in the majority of countries, followed by things like plant-based. So for sure, companies listen to consumer demands and read those reports as well. But it’s a combination of factors. Consumers want more options. They’re frustrated by all the reports of low recycling rates and the difficulties we’ve collectively had around the world with recycling, and they’re hungry for more options that will work. They’re also concerned about other factors such as chemicals in plastics and products. Certified compostable products don’t include things like PFAS with forever chemical

Compostable packagingImage courtesy of PMMI and AMERIPEN from the "2024 Packaging Compass" report
A lot of it is also being driven by corporate commitments and policy. Companies are making public commitments to do better in the face of the difficulties with packaging, and they’re setting targets to have all of their packaging be reusable, recyclable, or compostable. Similarly, policies around the world are trying to figure out where to reduce unnecessary packaging and how to collectively design packaging for recovery in a better way. For things like non-recyclable food-contact packaging, compostability has a great value proposition.

So I think it’s a combination of those things: Consumers being frustrated with the current options with things they’re getting off the shelf, companies wanting to do better and making these public commitments, and then policies tying that all up and saying, “Well, we’re going to hold you to it.”

Despite the fact that compostable packaging is set to grow at such a rapid pace, it’s not the best packaging material for every application. From what I understand, foodservice packaging is one of the best uses because it delivers the nitrogen-rich food waste that composters need for their compost products. Does BPI consider the packaging application when certifying a compostable product?

That’s a great question and one that BPI has really taken a firm stance on over the years. So unlike some certifiers that are just certifying to a scientific standard, which is the core requirement, the tests that go into things to make sure they will successfully compost, not create microplastics, not be toxic to plants in the soil, all of those are also in our certification. But we’ve added in these other layers to get help companies decide whether compostability is the right pathway for their item, rather than just saying, “Oh, well, consumers just want it to magically disappear.” That’s not how composting works. It’s not magic. It doesn’t disappear. And so we built in other criteria to our certification years ago that said, you have to pass these other criteria or design of the end applications.

Once we get to that finished package phase when somebody’s applying, they have to demonstrate that the product will be associated with desirable feedstocks that a composter is accepting. So making sure that the package is designed for the circular economy and the systems that will go to composting or anaerobic digestion. It can’t be a better fit for recycling, which is a difficult one to assess. In the public sector, that means items like beverage bottles, since that’s a really highly desirable recycling stream. And, it can’t require disassembly either, because we don’t want the risk of contamination if somebody isn’t taking the time to actually disassemble the package to get it composted.

It’s that first one that’s probably the hardest threshold to cut through. And what that means is things typically associated with food, so foodservice packaging, to-go items, bags to help people collect food scraps in the kitchen, both at home and in [commercial] kitchens, flexible food packaging, those multilayer packages around a snack bar or chips or other things like that. And then also common contaminants in the compost stream, things like a produce stickers, which are not recyclable, tend not to be pulled off with fruit and go to the composting facility and is a tricky thing to screen out.

Do you discourage the use of compostable packaging for non-food applications for something like an electronics package, for example?

Well, it’s not the logical fit. I try to be cautious with saying something is never a good fit. It’s not a good fit for the general public for things that are going to be put into the curbside bin. So we do allow things not associated with food to get certified in specific scenarios where it’s maybe a closed-loop venue or they have a take-back program. So if you think about something like electronics or pharmaceuticals or apparel, all these industries are knocking on the door of compostability saying, “Why not? Why can’t we do it too?” And we say, “You can’t do it for the general public in something that’s going to go in the curbside bin, at least today, the way that those bins are set up. Maybe in the future, if the infrastructure is different, it could go into a curbside bin.”

   Watch this related video, "How Compostable Packaging Fits into the Circular Economy"

Today, if a brand really wants to be involved in compostability, we say, “You just have to think this through. Is there a system to take those materials back? Is it packaging that’s business-to-business transport packaging where the facility can hold onto it, consolidate it, and bring it to a composter themselves? Then maybe compostability could still fit.” So it’s like we typically say, compostable packaging must be associated with desirable organic wastes for composters, with a little asterisk saying, except for these small instances where companies do have a system for take-back or a closed system.

As it exists today, the composting infrastructure is not really prepared for the kind of growth that’s expected for compostable packaging. Traditionally, who is investing in a composting facility? Is it a private company? Is it a government or municipality? How does that typically work?

There’s frequently a focus on there not being enough infrastructure to handle the compostable packaging. I’d say that’s the wrong question. The right question is around, do we have enough infrastructure for the primary feedstocks that need to be composted? So food is the number-one material going into landfills, and we don’t have enough infrastructure to handle all the food waste. First, we need to reduce the food waste, which organizations like ReFED are pioneering, but we’re still going to have a lot of food scraps and food waste that we’re not recovering. We’re barely scratching the surface of being able to capture that. And that’s where all the methane emissions are, that’s where all the nutrients we need to return to the soil for soil health come in.

And so the first question is, where’s the funding for the compost infrastructure for food, because that’s the bulk of the material that exists today, not the future growth in those projections for compostable packaging. It’s [food waste] here now, and it’s been going into landfills for a long time. That funding is coming from a variety of means—private investment, grants, and loans. We need more things like the Compost Act, which we helped put together with a group of other associations. If it goes through, it would provide $2 billion over the next 10 years for grants and loans to private and public entities to increase access for food-scrap collection and composting. There are also some states that do cap and trade money to go to composters to help them with food scraps.

That’s probably where the biggest bulk of the money and change in infrastructure needs to happen, and then the packaging is the add-on, right? I think funding to handle the packaging is also becoming available now too with EPR bills. BPI successfully lobbied to change and modify the bills in Colorado and California so it would be baked in that funding go to composters to help them with the extra cost of handling packaging and contamination. I think there also are grants available specific to packaging, too.

Are you seeing growth in the composting infrastructure in the U.S.?

Yes, there is growth. The US Compost Council, which is one of our key partners, has just exploded. I want to say it’s doubled in size over the last few years. Over a thousand people go to their conference every year. It’s become a real hub showcasing all the different levels where composting is happening.

The organization that tracks the growth in facilities the most is BioCycle. They recently put out a report that looks at large-scale facilities taking food scraps. The study is a bit tricky. It covers a number of facilities that reported, but I’d say there are probably more facilities than those that reported in the survey.

   Read this related article, “Portland Trail Blazers Offer Fans Compostable Packaging”

We’re seeing so many of these  small, community composters pop up, that’s how they start. Sometimes they’re called bucket slingers, they start with bicycles and pickup trucks. And then within a few years, they’re not really community-scale composters anymore, now they’re mid-scale. And then the mid-scale ones, you talk to them later, they’re like, “Oh, no, I cover the majority the state of Michigan.” You’re like, okay, well that’s not really small or mid-scale. It’s one of those things that’s changing and growing so rapidly, it’s hard to keep track of.

There’s not really a lot of robust data out there, so another thing we’ve been pushing at the federal level is the Recycling and Composting Accountability Act. And I had the honor to be able to testify to the Senate in support of that bill two years ago. The bill has languished, but we think the government needs to be helping with this. We need better data. It’s great that BioCycle has been tracking this for years. It’s great that we have organizations polling composters and recyclers, but it’s insane that we don’t have better recycling and composting data at the federal level. Why aren’t states required to report some baseline information about materials that are collected or not collected for recycling and composting and what their infrastructure for those materials are? So yes, composting is growing, but can we show exactly how it has grown? That gets a little bit trickier.

What surprised you most about the results from the recent study BPI conducted with the Closed Loop Composting Consortium on how consumers perceive different compostable packaging labels and designs?

While I expected consumers to not be able to sort out all of the variety of green marketing claims, I was surprised by the level of confusion that consumers have and just the massive level of education and policy work that’s going to be needed to sort out that confusion. Just the size and scale and gravity of that need was surprising.

The joint study between BPI and the Composting Consortium offered ‘first-of-its-kind,’ publicly available data on U.S. consumer perceptions of compostable packaging.The joint study between BPI and the Composting Consortium offered ‘first-of-its-kind,’ publicly available data on U.S. consumer perceptions of compostable packaging.

What are some of the biggest challenges facing the compostable packaging industry that were identified by the report?

The study found consumers are confused about accurate identification and proper disposal of packaging. Ambiguous phrases and lack of consumer awareness contribute to compostable packaging being incorrectly placed in recycling bins, and vice versa, leading to contamination. While progress is being made on policies for compostable packaging, we need all non-compostable packaging to be identifiable too.

This is an area where more public policy is needed to help clarify how items are marketed and labeled. We’ve seen a big surge in interest, probably because associations like ours are willing to make changes to compostable packaging. So part of that is on the compostable packaging itself. What are the elements needed to make an item readily identifiable for compostability? And the results focus on three basic elements that need to be there. These are a third-party certification mark, a prominent compostability claim— that word or it has to be big enough—and some element of color. That solves that core focus of where BPI is, but we also need public policy that addresses other types of packaging.

You can do all you want to change how compostable packaging is labeled and identified, but if conventional packaging doesn’t also have some rules, then consumers are still going to be confused because you’ll have these other leaf designs and green claims. The classic example we give is a drinking straw. If you tint that green because it’s compostable, but you also tint it green when it’s not compostable, how is a consumer ever going to know? So we need to be able to have sufficient claims and criteria for non-compostable items as well.

What are some of the actions the BPI/Closed Loop report suggests to address labeling challenges? What role can BPI play in these initiatives?

To address the challenges outlined in the report, one potential solution is for brands to clearly indicate compostability on their packaging using two to three design elements, such as, coloring, text size, etc., for better consumer understanding. Another solution is for municipalities to collaborate with various stakeholders to educate the public on proper disposal in recycling and organics bins, which is crucial for clean material streams. Implementing home composting certification standards would also help consumers identify items suitable for home composting.

   Read related article on compostable packaging from Clemson University’s FRESH 2023 conference, “Compostable Packaging: ‘A Solution, Not Every Solution’”

Policymakers, brands, and retailers should collaborate to harmonize policies and regulations for packaging nationally, ensuring consistency across sectors and packaging types.

For a company that wants to certify its packaging as compostable, how do they work with you? What’s required? What gravitas does your certification carry?

Before certifying compostable products with BPI, a company must determine if their product is eligible for certification by visiting THIS page. Besides meeting ASTM standards for compostability, BPI has outlined Certification Mark usage requirements and eligibility criteria, where the final application must be associated with desirable organic wastes, cannot be a redesign of commonly recyclable items, and cannot require disassembly for composting. The process takes around 60 days once testing is complete, but when considering testing time frames, companies should plan for six months to a year depending on the tests required.

BPI certification is highly regarded as it ensures that products meet strict standards for compostability, demonstrating that the items will break down in industrial composting facilities and not negatively impact the quality of the finished compost. For over 20 years, the BPI Certification Mark has been the defining symbol of compostability for audiences across the value chain and signifies a commitment to environmental sustainability and responsible waste management practices.  PW

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