The first week in May saw “International Composting Awareness Week.” Friday, May 29 was “National Learn About Composting Day.” The focus on composting as an end-of-use solution for food waste as well as packaging is increasing so much so that the buds of May in 2015 were most likely cultivated with compost.

Composting and compostable packaging is a hot topic on social media, and the subject is prominent on the conference circuit as well such as at SUSTPACK 2015 in April, where a session was devoted to the “State of the Composting Industry as it Relates to Sustainable Packaging.” Today, June 5, is World Environment Day, a perfect time to talk about compostable packaging.

Milk jugs are recycled but will they ever be compostable?

While one can track the rise of and interest in composting as an end-of-use solution for packaging, the relationship between dairy packaging and composting is not that obvious as much dairy packaging currently involves plastics (rigid as well as flexible) which are currently not compostable.

While rigid plastic packaging for dairy such as milk jugs or cartons can be, and are, collected, sorted and separated for recycling, the highly source reduced nature of flexible packaging, e.g. the pouches and flexible films that are used for cheese, yogurt and ice cream packaging, makes traditional recycling solutions difficult.

This difficulty makes the possibility of recycling and recovering flexible dairy and other packaging through composting attractive, particularly if the flexible packaging could be included with food waste going to either industrial composting facilities, or eventually, even be able to be composted at home.

While not every dairy package will be suitable for composting, those packages that involve the use of carton/compostable film laminates e.g. for liquid dairy products such as milk, or compostable flexible films for cheese, yogurt or ice cream, will most likely be the first dairy packages that can be used for composting.

The Sustainable Packaging Coalition is working to overcome hurdles

According to a recent publication, “Packaging has a prominent yet precarious place in the world of composting.” While it makes sense to send packaging material with food waste to the composter along with the desired food nutrients, there is often confusion both with the public as well as composters regarding exactly which packages are certified compostable, and the variations in types of processing required also creates a challenge for designers and planners.

The Sustainable Packaging Coalition is currently working with a number of stakeholders on initiatives designed to help alleviate some of this confusion, as well as expand the awareness and availability of composting as a viable waste solution.

Terminology around composting can also be confusing. According to Steve Mojo, the executive director of the Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI), the difference between the terms biodegradable and compostable is that, “Composting is a managed process, in which conditions and feedstocks are optimized to promote rapid biodegradation of food scraps, yard trimmings and other compostable materials. Composting takes place in small 'backyard' sites or in large professionally managed facilities. The BPI certification covers the latter. 'Biodegradable' is a vague term that has neither a location nor time frame, and does not indicate whether the product will completely or partially biodegraded. In fact, California has severely limited the use of the term biodegradable on all foodservice items, in order to deal with consumer confusion.”

Where to learn more about compostable packaging for dairy foods

This July the food and packaging conference epicenter moves to Chicago. Compostable packaging will figure strongly both with exhibitors as well as with speakers at the IFT Annual Meeting as well at the Global Food & Beverage Packaging Summit.

According to Daphna Nissenbaum the CEO of TIPA, who is a speaker at the Global Food & Beverage Packaging Summit, "As more municipalities develop a food waste collection infrastructure for composting, or as cities like New York encourage consumers to take food waste for composting to drop off sites as a part of the NYC Recycles program, the possibility of including compostable flexible packaging with food waste will have a major impact in diverting this type of packaging from landfill."

For brand owners and companies interested in composting the US Composting Council (follow on Twitter @USCompostingCou), offers useful fact sheets and free reports as does the Michigan State Extension (@MSUExtension) and GreenBlue (@GreenBlueorg), an environmental nonprofit dedicated to the sustainable use of materials in society.

The City of New York (@NYCgov), through the NYC Department of Sanitation (@NYCRecycles), oversees NYC’s waste prevention, recycling and composting programs, and offers drop-off sites throughout the five city boroughs as well as a Master Composter Course.