- August 17, 2011, By Christine Pietryla, Contributing Editor
As a society we have experienced a perpetual struggle with garbage. The root of our challenges with garbage and waste always comes down to one question: Where are we going to put it? Since the 1980s, population growth and advances in material and packaging technology have put more pressure on companies and communities to answer this question.
On the consumer side, municipal programs have started making it easier to recycle and compost in an effort to limit the amount of garbage going into landfills every year. For converters and manufacturers, it is not as simple. Steve Mojo, executive director of the New York-based Biodegradable Products Inst. (BPI), says the poor economic situation we are experiencing generates a hesitancy to adopt more progressive programs at the commercial level.
“Frankly, the economics of collection often takes top of mind, and that’s where the fear begins,” he says.
There is a real hesitancy to invest in a concept without a measurable payoff, particularly in light of the fact that many efforts already have been made to make packaging recyclable and, therefore, more environmentally friendly. Some suggest that industry groups push to keep the standards loose in an effort to prevent the introduction of stricter standards that threaten materials suppliers.
More practically, for converters that work with many different kinds of customers all over the country and, in some cases the world, it can be challenging to find a common denominator that will be beneficial to all of their customers. A common problem is that some, but not all, customers can properly dispose of biodegradable materials. Further, there is a lack of manpower, financial resources, implements, and machinery to manage municipal solid waste management (MSWM) programs.
But Mojo and others agree the outlook is better now that more municipalities are creating legislation and commercial incentives to adopt and maintain both source-separated and on-site waste programs, which in turn is making the switch at the production level more popular.
Leading the way— after recycling—is composting as a means of limiting what ends up in a landfill. Composting is the process by which organic matter, usually food, is separated from other kinds of waste in an effort to allow it to break down naturally. The resulting compost is used by farmers and in other agriculture applications to return nutrients to the soil and aid in erosion control, reclamation activities, and wetland construction. It is a growing solution to waste management. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) the amount of waste that has been diverted away from landfills since 1990 has quadrupled, owed mostly to recycling and composting activities.
Mojo says the movement toward composting activities and the interest in biodegradable materials is growing fastest in institutional and food service situations. “These are the programs most of us never see, but many communities on the West Coast, starting from San Francisco running north to Seattle and Vancouver, have significant collection programs, most of which are in the commercial or institutional sector, so things like college cafeterias, food courts, and the like. Seattle and San Francisco also have residential collection, which adds to the appeal of similar programs on the commercial side.”
He says there is proven economic savings. “There are many laws, but there is often an economic incentive. Nearly 80 percent of what is coming from a food service application is food scraps. There is savings associated with diverting it from a landfill to a composting facility.”
Demand for Biodegradables
Introducing the economic rationale for communities and taxpayers is translating into buy-side demand that is hard for converters and packaging manufacturers to ignore. As a result, more are switching to sustainable practices that offer products suitable for meeting the needs of this new demand for biodegradables.
One example is Wausau Paper, Mosinee, WI. Because of its adjustments to its processing capabilities, Wausau Paper’s line of EcoSelect Pan Liners offers food service applications a product that provides needed grease- and oil-barrier properties with fewer chemicals. Additionally, Wausau Paper has the ability to produce products certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), Minneapolis, MN.
Bob Frazier, director of Food Service Sector at Wausau Paper, says the company’s commitment to sustainability is not new. “We have always looked for ways to be environmentally friendly. For example, our in-bound and out-bound transportation participates in the Smart Way US EPA Program, and in our part of the business, our mills are FSC-certified. We feel that is important because our goal is that 100 percent of the pulp we buy be from controlled wood, meaning harvesting practices balance key social and environmental issues. Of course, we are also doing things internally to reduce our energy usage, and when we can, we make adjustments and reduce our waste as well.”
Frazier says increased demand for products that met the D6400-04 or D6868 certifications from ASTM Intl., West Conshohocken, PA—which means that a product will biodegrade completely, quickly, and safely—led to Wausau Paper seeking the certification. “What we were seeing was a lot of conversation out in the marketplace about composting and waste management.”
Frazier explains that the pan liner products were one of the most compatible of its products with this standard because the food residue left behind after use often renders it unable to be recycled. Wausau Paper sells rolls of the pan liner to converters who sheet it, put it in boxes, and then sell it into the distribution channel, which delivers it to bakeries, grocery stores, or other end-users. Typically, this is a product that gets used once and then tossed away. “So, users either have to throw it out or compost it, which we felt was a good place to start by offering a product that enabled the choice to compost.”
Wausau Paper approached a BPI-certified lab to test its product. “We felt that it was better to have test data when we enter a discussion with folks about the product’s capabilities, and we do feel that the certification serves as a point of differentiation in the marketplace.”
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Steve Mojo from BPI agrees that this certification is going to become more powerful when it comes to sales to converters and packagers under increasing pressure to offer products that allow businesses to take advantage of emerging incentives to participate in the source separated collection of food scraps.
“We are seeing this trend succeed in other parts of the world. For example, Canadians are doing a terrific job setting up residential collection all across the provinces. According to my statistics, anywhere from 25 to 30 percent of the households have residential collection available to them, which in turn has prompted the government’s doing a better job of [motivating] municipalities to generate support for source-separated collection of waste.”
Here in the US, programs are popping up attached to legislation designed to encourage composting. Jennifer Wagner, marketing manager at BioBag, a Palm Harbor, FL-based provider of certified compostable bags and films, says a large majority of their sales help customers meet new legislative standards.
“Our product is meant to be composted. It’s not meant for the landfill at all. Our company promotes landfill diversion. Our product is specifically designed to help cities, residents, and businesses collect their natural, organic waste and send it to a facility or to their backyards to be composted.
“We use our film mainly to create bags. Our main consumers are residents of areas like San Francisco, Seattle, Portland, and cities in Colorado that have compost initiatives in their towns. The largest market for composting is in California, specifically the Bay Area of San Francisco, where they mandate that waste be source-separated.”
These kinds of laws and consumer demand for eco-friendly products are making companies like BioBag stand out as alternatives to traditional plastic products, and the trend is growing in states outside California. Wagner says residents in Minnesota, Texas, and Washington also include municipalities that have strict rules about source-separated waste, and BioBag provides lawn and leaf, pet, shopping, and kitchen bags that help them easily meet their community’s requirements.
As more kinds of certified biodegradable plastics emerge that couple the durability of plastic with the ability to biodegrade appropriately in a compost facility, these plastics easily can be comingled with other organic wastes lessening the need for cost prohibitive cleaning and recycling strategies. Then, commercial composting for all mixed organics becomes even more viable.
Industrial-scale composting is taking place in most western countries, with Germany, the Netherlands, and Switzerland leading the way. The US and UK are gaining ground but are still behind other countries in firming-up standards for composting—the US is one of the last countries to distinguish between green-source compost and sludge-source compost, the latter descriptively named and often accused of adding metals and greenhouse gasses to composting efforts. China began a source-separated composting program in 2000 throughout nine of its major cities, which determined that an integrated MSWM program was urgently needed to keep up with the increasing volume of waste. It also was recommended that legislation be designed to encourage participation in other cities.
Both Mojo and Wagner agree that the demand for converters to work with products that meet emerging ASTM standards is increasing, and Mojo also insists, “Eventually it will become more commonplace for companies to have to use certified biodegradable products to stay competitive.”
Christine Pietryla is a Chicago-based consultant and freelance contributor who has more than 12 years of experience writing about packaging and manufacturing. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Biodegradable Products Inst. | www.bpiworld.org
US Environmental Protection Agency | www.epa.gov
Wausau Paper | www.wausaupaper.com
Forest Stewardship Council | www.fscus.org
ASTM Intl. | www.astm.org
BioBag | www.biobagusa.com
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Joint Project Results in First Compostable Confectionery Package
A compostable confectionery wrapper has been produced in Germany in the technology center of the DFTA (an association for flexo printing in Stuttgart). Ludwigshafen-based BASF SE provided Epotal ECO, a newly developed and fully compostable lamination adhesive, which is certified by DIN Certco in Berlin. UK-based Innovia Films supplied its compostable NatureFlex films.
Printing inks and plates came from Flint Group in Stuttgart, They include the nyloflex ACE Digital flexo plate and FlexiPrint MV ink, which is heavy metal-free and suitable for composting.
The partners report the new confectionery packaging has been distributed with great success at various events.