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Saturday, August 18, 2012

Role Compostable Packaging Plays in Food Waste Systems

When Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport included a groundbreaking provision in their new concessionaire contract requiring food vendors to use compostable packaging, the catalyst was set in motion for a major shift in foodservice packaging. The ZWA Blog post, Atlanta Airport Makes Bold Statement, gives an overview of the contract provision at the world's largest airport.  The foodservice industry is at the cusp of a new era in packaging where compostable and|or recyclable products are the norm.

To ensure integrity within the new packaging era, the BPI Compostible Packaging Certification program and Seattle-based composter Cedar Grove set strict standards to ensure compostable packaging  breaks down within the ASTM D6400 Standard in traditional windrow or covered-aerated-static pile systems. Yet many municipalities and companies are exploring other technologies for handling food waste.These systems range from in-vessel composting to on-site digesters to anaerobic digesters. Industry experts are addressing how compostable products work in these food waste systems.

With strong European success, anaerobic digestion for commercial and residential food waste is gaining momentum in the U.S.The technology has solid  U.S. traction at municipal water treatment facilities and on-farm, yet is a frontier for food waste.  

Predominately enclosed in a facility, anaerobic digestion systems tend to make the permitting process easier where citizens are concerned about smells generated at traditional composting operations. A challenge is if the state regulations do not contain anaerobic digestion provisions, leaving regulators perplexed as to the permitting process.
anaerobic digestion facility
picture from CleanTech solutions site

In layman's terms, anaerobic digesters decompose organic material in a closed anaerobic (without air) environment where the methane gas produced is captured for energy use.  Each system has its own "recipe," including food waste, yard trimmings, FOG (fats, oils & grease from kitchen operations) and other organic material.  After the energy is extracted from the organic material, digestate remains as the system by-product.  With further "curing" the digestate is often used as a soil amendment.

windrows are turned to
incorporate air into the process
Traditional windrow composting uses an aerobic (with air) system where the piles are turned, thus not producing methane gas.  The energy component inherent within food waste remains within the compost, providing nutrients for the soil's microbial community.
With the pending shift in foodservice disposable items to compostable products coupled with zero waste programs, the food waste feedstock may soon include a significant portion of man-made products.  What is the impact of these compostable products on the sensitive anaerobic digester recipes?  Will the products contribute to the energy generated in the system?  Are the products a contaminant?  Will the products hinder the system's energy generation? Are the products benign, flowing through the system without impact?  If so, is there reduced energy generated due to the recipe change?

At the October 15 -17 Biopolymers Symposium in San Antonio, TX, the half-day Anaerobic Digestion Forum on Monday, October 15 will answer the above questions along with providing a wealth of information on the role biopolymers (compostable plastics) play in the process.  

With stellar speakers from the public, private and consulting sectors, the forum is staged for informative presentations and lively dialogue.  According to the Forum Co-Chair Debra Darby of Darby Marketing,  "There is an increasing interest in anaerobic digestion as a growing part of urban or municipal integrated waste management. The key is to involve commercial stakeholders and educate the public about organics diversion programs as both a sustainability effort and an economic driver," 

As a Biopolymers Symposium speaker, Elemental Impact founder and Sustainable Food Courts Initiative director Holly Elmore is excited to attend the forum.  A supporter of the Atlanta Airport's compostable packaging provision and proponent of zero waste programs, Ei will explore the implications of compostable packaging on the various food waste technologies.  

The Anaerobic Digestion Forum is an excellent venue to meet the industry experts, learn from powerful presentations and ask pertinent questions to those with answers. 


  1. I am so excited at the game-changing attitude Atlanta's airport has to raise the sustainability bar for all others to really should be prominently should the tireless work of Holly Elmore, my super-green hero for the environment.

    1. Thanks Aaron! It is the unwavering support of folks like you that keep me inspired and Elemental Impact in action mode. With Hugs, Holly

    2. These are big, important questions and I'm glad to see you grappling with them. Too often, the green world does not ask enough about the how, ending up with systems that don't perform as planned, waste stream products that have nowhere to go, etc. Over the next few years, we as a society need to develop those answers and put them into place, so all of us may live on a green planet.
      --Shel Horowitz, green marketing consultant and primary author of Guerrilla Marketing Goes Green

    3. Thanks Shel for your comment. Elemental Impact is committed to holographic integrity and understanding the far reaching impacts of new systems implemented. I grew up excited to see the "smog trucks" in my neighborhood thinking they were cool and I could play without mosquitoes bothering me. The DDT implications of something based in good intentions keeps me motivated, knowing there is not time for another DDT mistake. Have a lovely week! Holly

  2. From anaerobic composting to plasma gasification, Holly Elmore's Elemental Impact members and sponsors of the Sustainable Food Courd Initiative are swiftly evaluating how best to divert our nation's 6 billion pounds of organic wastes to useful ends.

    1. ... and our important work is under the direction of our fearless, amazing leader Scott Seydel, Ei Chair!!!

  3. Hi Holly I am replying to your post from Dublin in Ireland where we are looking at a huge need for both Anaerobic Digester's and In Vessel waste food treatment centres. This is due to our Government Minister for the Environment Mr Phil Hogan T.D. finalising this year the National Waste Policy document, acknowledging Domestic Food waste as a national resource with a unique nutrient value to tillage farmers,reducing the use of damaging petro chemical derived Nitrates, and not to be viewed as waste.
    This is major mile stone in the diversion of Food waste away from Landfill, reduction in costs to households by using Bio Bins, and in construction and facility jobs that will come on line to build and manage the centres needed to treat the Waste Food feed stock.
    The U.K has circa 70 Anaerobic facilities while the European leader Germany has circa 7000 units, and the E.U.has called on the European partners to come up with plans to reduce Food waste PRODUCTION in each member state. European Ministers have called for 2014 to be known as 'Europe against food waste' year and a good time for the US to twin with Europe on this platform. In your post you wrote "With strong European success, anaerobic digestion for commercial and residential food waste is gaining momentum in the U.S.The technology has solid U.S. traction at municipal water treatment facilities and on-farm, yet is a frontier for food waste." and so the U.S. while only composting 2% of its food waste compared to 60% of its paper, has to secure just as we have a Government commitment to see food waste as a resource and put the necessary funding and incentives in place to harvest it USA wide, creating much needed employment in the process.
    I through my small company played a part in securing the positive outcome of the report by lobbying the minister to recognise the unique value of food waste, and to lessen the financial burden on households Nationwide by providing them with an alternative to landfill destined bins.
    Keep up the pressure Holly and bring the people with you.
    Denis Lawlor.

    1. Hi Denis! Thanks for in-depth comment and enthusiasm to keep food waste out of the landfill and sent to end uses where all benefit. My hope is we as Earth Citizens remember the importance of our soil and choose to send our valuable food waste in significant portions to uses that provide excellent nutrition for the soil microbial community. Remember food comes directly or indirectly from our soil & water. Humans lived for thousands of years without electricity yet must have food to survive. OK, off my soap box. Holly

  4. Food packaging has often focused on two primary consumer aspects; convenience and preserving the quality of the food.

  5. Hi Holly being catching your comments on Linked In so your sop box is alive and well and delighted you are continuing to use it.
    Would you mind Liking my face Book business page its www, as all help with establishing status with face book, and any of your environmental friends too if you can. Appreciate it. I will have my revamped web site up on line next week so will contact you to review it and hopefully use some of its really good content for your own use, and help any environmentally curious kids you may come in contact with in your busy day.

  6. Food packaging for food like fish, poultry, cheese meat and other for retail, fresh and frozen foods, and confectionary products is very essential and its required high barrier packaging for the preservation. which can be obtain by plastic and folding cartons.

    1. Zoey, I am looking forward to learning more about the new compostable barrier coatings at the Biopolymers Conference. So much progress has been made in the past few years. Thanks for your comment