Capacity, contamination and consumers complicate compostable packaging

  • Da Louangkhoth, left, and Yaowaluck Vorachak serve food at the Thai BBQ stand at the Lebanon Farmers Market at Colburn Park in downtown Lebanon on Thursday. Food vendors at the farmers market use compostable and recyclable containers vetted by the Lebanon Solid Waste Division. Alex Driehaus / Valley News / Report For America

  • Mary Desharnais adds a paper straw to a cup of lemonade at the Howl’n Good Kettle Corn stand at the Lebanon Farmers Market. The paper straws and other compostable wares can be disposed of in compost bins stationed around the park.

  • Tanner Gary, 2, of Lebanon, drinks lemonade through a paper straw, one of many compostable goods in use at the Lebanon Farmers Market at Colburn Park on Thursday. The paper straws and other compostable wares can be disposed of in compost bins stationed around the park. Valley News / Report For America — Alex Driehaus

Valley News
Published: 8/15/2021 6:00:19 PM

Companies with eco-friendly branding have flooded the market with compostable packaging, like plates, cups, straws and containers in recent years, but whether that green marketing actually reduces the amount of waste in a landfill depends on where it ends up.

Many facilities reject compostable food wares entirely because they contaminate compost and cost both time and money, but area waste facilities continue to look for ways to divert as much waste as they can from landfills.

Bob Sandberg, a farmer who owns the Corinth-based Cookeville Compost, collects food scraps from Upper Valley businesses including the Coop Food Stores in Hanover and Lebanon and transfer stations in towns including Hanover, Strafford and Corinth.

“My major problem is contamination – some places it’s not bad, and other places I have to keep reminding people,” Sandberg said. “There’s too much plastic getting thrown in there. Especially with the pandemic, they’re using plastic utensils.”

He said that while some of the food packaging that he picks out are labeled “compostable,” they take a long time to break down in his piles. In his experience, bamboo utensils are more environmentally friendly because they break down easily.

“I pick it out by hand. I’m constantly picking out the PLU stickers,” he said, referring to price look-up stickers found on produce. “I can’t stand it. I’m constantly stooped over picking up little pieces of plastic.”

He said that the level of contamination varies dramatically between towns; some deliver clean compost while others consistently have high levels of contaminants.

Every week, he delivers a garbage can full of plastic bags, trash, PLU stickers and products that were marketed as biodegradable to a landfill.

“I am not a fan of compostable ware because I think there’s a lot of greenwashing involved in it,” said Ham Gillett, program and outreach coordinator for the Greater Upper Valley Solid Waste Management District.

He said that a backyard compost pile never builds enough heat to break down most biodegradable utensils and plates.

Even large facilities whose compost piles reach high temperatures struggle to break down many compostable products.

The Chittenden Solid Waste District’s Organics Diversion Facility, Vermont’s largest commercial compost site, will no longer allow any compostable wares in its facility starting Jan. 1.

Communications director Alise Certa explained that even certified compostable items often do not break down in their piles. Moreover, they attract “look-alikes” made from plastic and other non-compostable materials.

Eventually the Chittenden facility’s food scraps become Green Mountain brand compost and topsoil, returning nutrients to land and gardens. Contaminants reduce the quality of the product that keeps the facility viable.

In recent years, CSWD saw an exponential increase in the amount of contaminants it needed to filter out as it made compost. Before Vermont’s universal composting law went into effect in July 2020, the facility had only one screen to filter the waste stream.

“With the increase in contaminants, we had to bring in a second screener. This, too, was not enough to bring us up to the standard we need. At that point, we did have staff hand-picking contaminants, which you can imagine is very time-consuming and not sustainable,” Certa said.

The facility will still accept certified compostable bags for compost, paper coffee filters and tea bags, newspapers, paper bags, paper towels, wooden utensils and all food scraps.

Finding a way to sustainably compost food wares

Grow Compost, a large company with a facility in North Hartland, relies on education outreach to customers to ensure that contaminants don’t reach high levels in its waste stream.

“We do a lot of education with all the customers we service. We have to be very selective,” general manager Brent Lehouiller said. “It’s very specific what’s considered certified biodegradable.”

He said that they have to keep the amount of certified compostable food packaging in their compost below 3%.

Compostable products often have chemicals that would interfere with farms’ organic certification in high amounts, Lehouiller said.

During the pandemic, ski resorts in both Vermont and New Hampshire switched from durables to compostables, putting pressure on Grow Compost’s waste stream. Lehouiller said that since May, more and more businesses are transitioning back to reusable dishes and utensils.

In Lebanon, restaurants and residents can work with Lebanon Solid Waste to divert eligible utensils and similar products from landfills.

Each year, the facility at Lebanon’s landfill produces 5,000 yards of compost. Solid Waste Manager Marc Morgan said that picking out stickers and plastic by hand is not an option at such a large facility.

However, the facility’s compost primarily is used to prevent erosion at the landfill, so its operators don’t have to worry as much about contaminants as facilities directing compost to farms and gardens.

“People are still focused on agricultural use,” Morgan said. “The unfortunate part is because of the strict guidelines for those end products, you can’t compost those utensils. I’m not concerned about our compost growing tomatoes – it just needs to grow grass. If there’s a chunk of a compostable fork in there, that’s OK.”

Lebanon’s landfill can accept compostable items as long as they are certified by the Biodegradable Products Institute. The nonprofit’s certification label indicates that a product has met a scientific standard for “end-of-life opportunity” that ensures it will break down with food waste and will not contaminate a pile with toxic chemicals.

Some paper and compressed fiber food ware is treated with PFAS to make it resistant to moisture and grease. PFAS, however, are persistent in the environment and proven to negatively affect human health.

“Unfortunately, people look at what’s least expensive. What’s least expensive can have other funky chemicals along with it,” Morgan said.

Certified food wares cost more, but they are also better for the environment.

Morgan and his colleagues work with Upper Valley businesses to ensure they are buying compostable products that will break down in the solid waste facilities’ piles.

Every Thursday, the Lebanon Farmers Market shows the program’s success: Vendors at the market buy compostable wares that have been vetted by the Lebanon Solid Waste Division, and then residents drop them in the compost bins at Colburn Park.

By the end of a busy day at the market, they’re overflowing.

Claire Potter is a Report for America corps member. She can be reached at cpotter@vnews.com or 603-727- 3242.


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