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Sunday, April 19, 2015

Compostable F&B Packaging: integral to zero waste programs and soil rebuilding

During the early Zero Waste Zones (ZWZ) days, in 2009 | 2010, Atlanta foodservice pioneers led the nation in the commercial collection of food waste for compost. 

ZWZ Chair Laura Turner Seydel
@ ZWZ Two-Yr Anniversary Event
Immediately following the renowned February 2009 ZWZ launch press conference at the Georgia World Congress Center (GWCC), then ZWZ director Holly Elmore made a monumental announcement at the Meeting Planners International conference closing luncheon: 
All food related to this 1200-person luncheon was consumed, donated to the Atlanta Community Food Bank or collected for food waste compost! 
The ZWZ food waste collection focus was back-of-the-house where employees were responsible for separating food from recyclables and trash. Before long, quotes were abundant with the message: This is easy, why would an operator NOT separate food waste for compost?

In 2011, Elemental Impact formed the Sustainable Food Court Initiative (SFCI) to address the much more challenging collection of front-of-the-house food waste. Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (ATL) joined as the SFCI - Airport Pilot in 2011, followed by the Georgia Dome as the SFCI - Event Venue Pilot in 2012.

By its nature, front-of-the-house food waste collection requires operators to address their food and beverage (f&b) packaging. Within current technology, reusables or compostable f&b service ware are the options for successful programs. Recyclable service ware is not recommended due to food contamination.

Typical Georgia Dome suite
foodservice set-up
At the Georgia Dome, Levy Restaurants opted to use reusable f&b serviceware in the suites with great success. Though the reusables brought the suites foodservice to near zero waste, the impetus was cost-savings for Levy. Added value: an enhanced fan experience with china, stainless flatware and glass beverage service accompanied with cloth napkins in the suites!

ATL committed to compostable f&b packaging with a provision in the 2011 concessionaire contract requiring food vendors to use compostable consumer-facing packaging & flatware. The ZWA Blog article, Atlanta Airport’s Leadership Role in Compostable Packaging, gives a brief history of the contract provision along with an update on implementing the provision at the busiest airport in the world.

Ready to expand their recycling practices to the next dimension, GWCC Director of Sustainability Tim Trefzer requested the Ei SMAT - Sustainable Materials ACTION Team - to present a comprehensive Compostable F&B Packaging Education Session to Levy Restaurants' downtown campus. Foodservice operations are contracted with Levy at the GWCC, Georgia Dome, Centennial Olympic Park, Phillips Arena and the New Falcons Stadium.

Doug & Tim after session
Under the direction of SFCI Co-Chair Doug Kunnemann with Natureworks, SMAT crafted a powerful two-hour session that included ample time for Q&A and discussion throughout the presentations. On April 8 the SMAT members converged on Atlanta for the Levy education session. 

Tim welcomed the Levy associates from the downtown Atlanta campus as well as Spencer Treadwell, Atlanta Falcons director of logistics and facilities, with an emphasis on the GWCC's sustainability commitment. Ei founder Holly Elmore followed with an Ei overview flavored with the long-term Ei | GWCC relationship.

In her presentation, Holly reminded the audience of the challenges inherent within food courts, specifically event venue operations. Holly's closing comments delineated the three-step approach: 1> establish baselines 2> create a game plan and 3> implement in stages. A final reminder: Baby Steps, lots of baby steps, are Key to Success! 

Rick explaining role compostable
bag play in food waste separation
Rick Lombardo of Natur-Bag gave the core presentation establishing the important role compostable packaging plays in zero waste programs. Within his slides, Rick educated on bio-plastics and their integral relationship with most compostable foodservice products. Importantly, Rick explained the difference between fragmentation and decomposition along with the impact of contamination on compost and soils. Several examples of "greenwashing" in the market place were given. 

Finishing on a high note, Rick included several prominent examples where compostable packaging was standard within corporate operations.

Following Rick, Doug introduced the importance of independent, third-party certification when choosing f&b packaging products. BPI Compostable Certified is the industry standard recognized by food waste destination facilities. The slides included the certification parameters & what they mean, benefits of certification, and where to find certified products. Doug concluded his informative presentation with Levy successes at stadiums and facilities across the nation.

Ken during his presentation
Ken Fraser with Eco-Products was next on the agenda to showcase success stories. Along with listing program stats at Safeco Field, University of Colorado and Red Rocks Amphitheater, Ken included a pictorial page of compostable products used. The visuals demonstrated products may be branded to serve as consumer-facing marketing vehicles.

Closing the formal program, Sarah Martell of Innovia Films presented on the ramifications of contamination along with suggestions for prevention, especially within the back-of-the house. Sarah emphasized the technology is available for a shift to compostable packaging for challenging items, including snack packaging. Several samples of retail products were on-hand to emphasize the point.

Suppliers have solutions - it is important for the foodservice operator to set new packaging standards and communicate the standards to their distributors. The power of consumer demand is necessary to evolve industry packaging practices. Sarah encouraged Levy to use their consumer voice for a shift to compostable packaging for their pre-packaged items sold in concessions.

Sarah presenting on contamination
Holly moderated a vibrant Q&A session that meandered through many pertinent topics. As part of an answer, Holly spoke about the critical state of our soils and the imperative role food waste collection for compost plays in rebuilding the Earth's soils. The ZWA Blog article, Urban Ag: vital on many fronts, includes an introduction to the state of our soils.

After the formal program conclusion, many of the Levy associates stayed to continue the dialogue. Tim was most pleased with the session.

With a substantial industry resource validated in a successful event, the Compostable F&B Packaging Education Session is available upon request for local governments, trade associations and large groups. An abbreviated presentation PPT is available on the SMAT page. Contact Holly with inquiries.

SMAT before lunch
In true Ei-style, the SMAT members convened for a lovely lunch at McCormick & Schmick's Seafood & Steaks located around the corner in the CNN Center. Lunch was an excellent opportunity to regroup on session success and suggestions for improvement.

Later in the evening SMAT members gathered at Ecco - Georgia's first dumpster-free restaurant - for a lovely dinner. Tim along with Liza Milagro, ATL senior sustainability planner, and Michael Smith, ATL deputy general manager, joined SMAT for the festive, productive dinner.

The Ei FB album, 04-08-15 Compostable F&B Packaging Education Session, gives a pictorial recap of the GWCC | Levy session.

Dinner at Ecco
Compostable f&b packaging is integral to zero waste programs where foodservice is involved. With many options available and abundant greenwashing, education is key to creating programs grounded within integrity. 

It is time for the foodservice industry to step to the plate, take responsibility for food waste generated in their operations, send their food waste in a contaminant-free, beneficial stream to composting or other state-permitted facilities, and use their power of consumer demand to evolve packaging standards and establish ample permitted food waste destinations. Several years ago industry pioneers launched effective food waste programs; a path to follow is well-established.

The Compostable F&B Packaging Education Session is a valuable industry resource and an easy first step. 

Our soils, the foundation for our food system, require immediate rebuilding to sustain an ever-growing population. Compost is food for the soil's microbial community and essential to rebuilding our soils. Food waste is a key compost recipe ingredient and nearly all is destined for landfill in most communities.The time for action is NOW!


  1. I am so glad to read about organizations which cares about the environment. Thank you a lot for sharing this inspiring article! Regards!

  2. Holly, at Slow Food International's Terra Madre Salone del Gusto, there were several booths dedicated to World Soil Day.

  3. Such and incredible article and the last sentence, just wow. This is for everybody that want to make something for our environment right NOW. Seek and observe, people, start doing!!

  4. This whole idea about rebuilding the system to sustain an ever-growing population is incredible. Glad to see organizations prosper in the good of our environment and well-being.

  5. Flattered to see how the organization is taking big steps and is targeting at the exact problem for food wastage. We should all contribute to this, not only in the bigger countries like The Stated or UK, but all over the globe. Be conscious.