Elements IQ Composting Complexities

Episode Transcript – December 2019

Audra Pagano: Hello, I’m Audra Pagano. Welcome to Elements® IQ. Elements is Georgia-Pacific’s sustainability platform designed to make sustainability easy to understand and implement. An important part of our Elements platform is the Elements® IQ podcast series. This series provides insights and perspectives that will help audiences better understand and navigate sustainability’s complexities.

In this first episode we’re going to have a conversation about composting. It’s a topic that is a lot more complex than it sounds. How is it done and what are the differences in the composting you may do at home versus how it’s done on an industrial scale. You’ve undoubtedly seen a variety of compostability claims on packaging and products in the marketplace, but what do they all mean? Well to help answer some of the questions about composting’s complexities I’d like to introduce our two guests.

First I have Peggy Hoks. She’s a research scientist with GP and serves as GP representative on the board of biodegradable products institute. BPI for short, which is a certifier of compostable products and packaging. Welcome, Peggy.

Peggy Hoks: Hi, Audra.

Audra: Also I have John Salvador with us. John is the Director of Sustainability Strategy for GP PRO. Welcome, John.

John Salvador: Thank you for having me.

Audra: Today we will cover the most commonly asked questions regarding compostability. But first let’s start with the broader question of why are we hearing and seeing the word compostable more than ever before?

John:   Well composting is becoming more mainstream. It is growing in importance to customers and consumers. The short answer is that the world is quickly realizing that the combination of increased population, the broader adoption of consumerism, and the convenience-based lifestyles are all leading to significant environmental challenges such as ocean plastics and landfill problems. While there’s differences in opinions on solutions, there’s an increasing alignment that these problems…they need to be addressed.

Audra: Just how big is the problem?

John:   Well, the numbers are concerning. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, about 16 billion pounds of plastic ends up in the ocean each year, mostly due to increased usage and inadequate waste infrastructure. With regards to landfill in the US, the EPA reports that 140 million tons of municipal solid waste goes to the landfill each year. Now this takes up space, it generates adverse greenhouse gas emissions and has other adverse environmental impacts as well. And about 35% of that waste is food and paper waste. And according to BPI, which is the Biodegradable Products Institute, they say that landfills are the nation’s number three largest source of methane gas emissions. So customers, consumers, regulators and others, they’re increasingly looking for ways to divert materials away from landfills and waterways.

Audra: Those are some shocking statistics, John, with pretty big implications. So how can composting help?

John:   Well, composting helps to divert waste from landfills and it also creates soil improvement materials.

Audra: I know a common question is what’s the difference between biodegradable and compostable? What is confusing to customers is compostable and biodegradable are often used interchangeably. It doesn’t help that compostable products can be considered biodegradable, but not everything which is biodegradable is compostable. Both terms are important to sustainability. But, Peggy, can you explain what is meant by them?

Peggy: Sure. But before we dive into the differences between biodegradable and compostable, I really think we need to note that the Federal Trade Commission, FTC Green Guide, requires claims to be supported with scientific evidence that materials will break down in a safe and timely manner. So GP just can’t say a product is compostable, or biodegradable, without test data and must use qualifying language. Unfortunately, some companies may hide behind vague biodegradable references which confuses consumers, but the FTC Green Guide requirements and regulators are increasingly limiting or prohibiting the use of the term to protect consumers.

Audra: I see. So the FTC Green Guide helps put formal guidelines around the use of the term for commercial purposes.

Peggy: Yes, you’re correct. So back to your original question about the terms, biodegradation is an umbrella term for a natural process where bacteria and fungi decompose materials into carbon dioxide, water and humus, without defined conditions or time. So, for example, a leaf in the forest will eventually biodegrade over many seasons. Composting is biodegradation but it’s done under specific conditions and timeframe because a commercial compost facility wants finished compost to be readily available for sale as quickly as possible. GP uses certain ASTM tests and standards to prove a compostable product maybe safely disintegrate within 90 days and biodegrade within 180 days under, again, specific conditions. This may help a commercial compost facility know the product may decompose within that facility’s process and transform the waste into nutrient rich compost which has commercial value and when it actually is sold as a soil amendment.

Audra: That’s immensely helpful information. Thank you, Peggy. Now, let’s address a question regarding GP PRO products. Considering most of our products are made from paper, aren’t they automatically compostable?

John:   Well, uncoated paper such as bath tissues, towels, and certain napkins would likely be compostable. However many food service paper packaging, well, they have non-compostable plastic coatings, glues, maybe adhesives, too much ink or an ingredient that might affect the product and whether it can be compostable or not. Here at GP we’re actively exploring new ways to develop paper based food service packaging with ingredients and coatings, glues and adhesives, all to meet compostable product standards and certification requirements.

Audra: So it seems pretty clear compostable products can help our customers with their sustainability efforts but does that mean compostable is always the right answer?

Peggy: No, not always. In a perfect world compostable materials are collected to be used at a commercial compost facility. However, many areas of the country lack either the necessary collection infrastructure or they just don’t have enough composting facilities. In a perfect world, products would be home compostable and can be turned into compost in one’s backyard. So it’s not enough to stamp compostable on a product and expect good things to happen without compost collection most products end up in landfills where it doesn’t matter if they're commercially compostable. Even if a compostable item does slightly deteriorate anaerobically in a landfill, it produces methane gas which is a greenhouse gas considered significantly more potent than carbon dioxide. But in the end, a compostable product will likely not biodegrade in a landfill because landfills aren’t designed for a compost conditions. There’s no oxygen, no heat, no moisture.

Audra: Wow. I guess composting at a scale that can support businesses is a bit more complex than most people think. Sounds like there’s a ways to go before it’s a simple choice.

John:   That’s correct. For now many customers are choosing recyclable options and that’s because where a recycling infrastructure exists, valuable fibers from paper waste can be reused to make new paper which may create more value. Before investing in compostable products though, we recommend that you evaluate the composite and recycling infrastructures within your communities. And it’s important to note that the market is extremely dynamic, so customers and consumers should periodically check with their municipalities to get updates on any kind of changes.

Audra: So just because the option doesn’t currently exist in a particular community, that may change in the future. Good to know. Thank you, John. One final question, which will ultimately win out? Composting or recycling?

John:   Well the answer will ultimately vary based upon a combination of the business segments, their geography, regulations and other factors. Today you can see customers placing their bets on a lot of different horses. For example, Taco Time, which is a regional QSR in the Pacific Northwest, they’ve transitioned all of their units to 100% compostable products with all food and packaging waste going to a compost facility. Right now it appears to be working. Now will this strategy be scalable for larger, national QSRs? Only time will tell. Others believe that recycling will be the answer and they’re investing to improve that infrastructure and the recyclability of various other paper products.

Audra: OK. Well since sustainability can be such a complex issue, how can we help customers determine the right solution for them?

Peggy: Well, Audra, as this will continue to play out over the next few decades, we believe the best way to help customers explore the potential for compostable products in the near term is to, one, encourage them to assess composting infrastructure in their areas of operation. Two, where infrastructure exists, help them transition to the compostable products we offer. And three, where composting infrastructure does not exist, use GP solutions to help them advance sustainability.

Audra: There it is, three steps we can take to help customers get closer to achieving their sustainability goals by understanding more about compostability and the support it has in their community. Peggy and John, thank you so much for joining me today and answering these very important questions. And thank you to our listeners for listening. 
If you need more information regarding GP PRO’s sustainability efforts, please visit and click on the ‘Solutions’ tab”.

This sustainability podcast is presented by Georgia-Pacific through its EcoSmart™ IQ
educational series.