By Steve Sherman, Steven Sherman Consulting, 03/12/19
Oregon compost facility operators are pushing back on the large and growing stream of challenging materials being sent to their facilities. Their joint statement, “A Message From Composters Serving Oregon: Why We Don’t Want Compostable Packaging and Serviceware”, emphasizes that such items “compromise our composting programs and limit many of the environmental benefits of successful composting.”
The statement lists nine reasons why they do not want “compostable” packaging and food serviceware delivered to their facilities:
- It does not always compost
- It introduces contamination
- It hurts re-sale quality
- The composters cannot sell to organic farmers
- It may impact human and environmental health
- It increases compost operators’ costs and makes our jobs harder
- Just because something can be composted does not mean that is necessarily better for the environment
- In some cases, the benefits of recycling surpass those of composting
- Good intentions are not being realized
The compost facility operators’ main point is: “We need to focus on recycling food and yard trimmings into high-quality compost products. Compostable packaging does not help us to achieve this goal.”
Signatories to this statement include some of Oregon’s leading compost facility operators, including independent, regional companies such as Rexius Compost and Organics, Dirt Hugger, Lane Forest Products, and Deschutes Compost Facility, as well as large, integrated companies such as Recology (Organics Oregon) and Republic Services (Pacific Region Compost).
It is not a National Sword policy in the making. Still, clearly there is growing tension, at least in Oregon – land of the first container deposit legislation in the country and consistently one of nation’s most eco-friendly states – over what to do with potentially compostable materials not yard trimmings or food scraps.
We can use this statement from Oregon to remind ourselves that composting is not a magic solution. Instead, the term “composting” represents a suite of technologies that operates within a generally thin-margin industry that must make saleable products of reasonable quality and consistency in order to survive.
In California, several processors are being challenged by borderline materials like plastic-lined milk cartons, other food-soiled paper, and whatever you want to call those plastics that we send to compost facilities in the hope that it will all work out well. “This material is a Trojan horse that brings in even more problematic material,” according to Jack Hoeck, VP Environmental Services Rexius Compost and Organics. “In Eugene, we’re going back to a ‘food only’ program for businesses,” he said.
We in Northern California may or may not be facing the same situation as Oregon. Then again, as SB1383 ramps up, as lower quality feedstocks make up a larger fraction of what is sent to compost facilities, who knows?
Feedstock quality counts. A business model that focuses on “pulling” in higher-quality feedstocks to produce valuable products for markets generally stands a reasonable chance of succeeding over the long run. Less certain of long-term success, however, is the more capital-intensive business model for organics processing that responds primarily to the “push” from well-meaning legislation and from municipalities’ need to get rid of stuff of questionability quality and utility.
Again, Northern California’s composting industry dynamics may differ from Oregon’s, but we should remain mindful about the importance of delivering higher-quality feedstocks to compost facilities that want them.
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