Which Should You Choose: Recycling or Composting?
When it comes to single-use foodservice items like plates, bowls, forks, and take-out containers, there are many questions around the right disposal solution. Let’s examine recycling and composting more thoroughly below.
Recycling is an easy concept to teach—instead of throwing something away, put it in the recycle bin to be made into something that gets used again. But many don’t understand that when you throw something in the recycling bin it may not actually get recycled. The recycling of foodservice packaging is especially difficult. Let’s learn more about why.
When a recycling facility accepts items that are food soiled (plates, bowls, clamshells) or that are partially filled with liquids (cups), recycling becomes a challenge. Food in the recycling stream can contaminate other materials, namely paper. Paper is a critical material stream that still has good value for a material recovery facility (MRF), and thus must be protected.
If you’ve ever been to a MRF, you know that it can be a struggle to sort small or flat items such as utensils, straws, and lids because they are so small and are thus difficult to recover. Not only do these items fall through the screens and not get sorted, but they can end up other streams and thus degrade the value of those materials.
Often made of low value material
Some packaging items that are designed to be recycled are made of low value material that lacks robust end markets, such as polypropylene (PP) and polystyrene (PS). Without a financial incentive or purchasers looking to buy the recycled product, many recyclers will choose to devote their facilities’ recycling time to other activities.
Limited recycling infrastructure
Costs to build and manage facilities as well as purchase the technology to sort materials automatically is expensive. Therefore, many recyclers or facilities can only process the highest value material types. This makes setting up widely utilized curbside collection programs difficult and capital intensive. Additionally, when there is limited value for sorting, plastics will just remain mixed, especially low value plastics that will most likely get exported or landfilled.
As a result of the challenges listed above, recycling requirements remain inconsistent across the country. Recyclability is based on local facility capacity and their ability to collect, sort, and market different materials. This presents a challenge both to consumers and businesses as comprehending what can and can’t be accepted can be confusing. This confusion can lead many to become uninterested or frustrated, ultimately throwing the product into the trash or the incorrect bin.
Is composting a better alternative to recycling for foodservice items? Unlike recycling, food contamination is not an issue with composting, in fact it’s precisely the point! Food scraps are a valuable resource as they break down into a nutrient rich product that we call compost. Also, a compost facility cares a lot less about product format, so small items likes straws, utensils, and lids, which cannot be properly sorted in recycling, will break down fine in a compost pile.
But there are some challenges with composting too, which we will review below.
Limited Composting Infrastructure
This is a challenge heard consistently. Starting up a compost site requires lots of work—significant funding, long lead times for permit approval and expensive equipment purchases. While it is true access today might be difficult, we know this is changing rapidly. Many new sites are getting permitted or transitioning from yard waste only to full acceptance of food waste and compostable items. Resources exist to find a facility near you. Continue to check as the list is updated frequently.
- Find a composter: https://findacomposter.com/
- Sustainable Packaging Coalition Composting Infrastructure: https://sustainablepackaging.org/compostmaps/
- If you can’t find what you’re looking for, reach out to us
Traditional plastics are everywhere and therefore sometimes find their way into the compost pile by mistake. Plastic contamination is a serious issue for composters and often one of key reasons why these facility operators are hesitant to accept compostable foodservice packaging. However, through good policy at the state and local level, this is changing in several jurisdictions (e.g. San Francisco, Seattle, Minneapolis, Boulder, Austin). Further, clear and proper labeling on packaging is key in helping determine a package’s proper disposal destination. The How2Recycle/How2Compost and Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI) logos are good examples of industry groups moving labeling to the forefront, though there is still work to be done here.
Another option to control contamination is what Eco-Products calls the Zero Waste Systems Solution. If you control what goes in, you can control what goes out. In other words, if procurement only buys certified and field-tested compostable packaging, then collection and recovery is simpler; guests and staff find it easier as everything (other than common recyclables like bottles and cans) goes right in the compost collection bin.
Is recycling or composting better for foodservice packaging? The answer is it depends. It depends on the goals of the organization and what is easily accessible. At times it can seem overwhelming, so don’t be afraid to ask for help.