Webinar Explores Compostable and Hard-to-Recycle Packaging Issues

Webinar Explores Compostable and Hard-to-Recycle Packaging Issues
Digital Exclusive

As compostable and hard-to-recycle packaging such as flexible packaging become more prevalent in the United States, extended producer responsibility (EPR) programs will have to ensure a fair and equitable process. That was one takeaway from an online seminar held by AMERIPEN—the American Institute for Packaging and the Environment on May 17 called “Considering Compostable and Hard to Recycle Materials.”

So far, four states have passed a version of EPR, with Oregon among the states establishing a producer responsibility organization (PRO). PROs are designed to engage packaging producers in the design and investment of recovery systems for their packaging. One advantage of a PRO—as opposed to a system fully run by the government—is that a PRO can adjust to market conditions and propose new ways to deal with unforeseen problems, says David Allaway, a webinar panelist who is senior policy analyst with the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality.

Adjusting Processes

For example, Allaway notes that a study by the Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI) showed that most of the contamination in compostable waste streams was caused by non-compostables. That finding informed a proposal for a fee that the PRO would pay to mitigate the cost of handling the contamination.

“The law in Oregon says that products should pay their own way,” Allaway said during the webinar. “So, the fee should have been assessed back to the producers of the non-compostable items, which were contributing to the contamination—not the compostables—so I actually think we now have pretty good alignment there.”

Contamination is a major concern for composters, says panelist Rhodes Yepsen, executive director of BPI. The overall goal is to keep food out of landfills, which means reducing food waste to begin with. But inedible food inevitably finds its way into the waste stream, along with non-compostable packaging that causes contamination in the composting process. EPR programs administered by PROs can provide a funding source that will incentivize composters to handle the contamination, he says.

“It’s not going to fix it all. We need a lot of other tools in our toolbox besides EPR to be able to make these systems make sense—to fix how we address packaging in the world more broadly outside of reuse, recycling, and composting—but it does start to chip away at some of those problems, including for contamination,” Yepsen said.

Seeking Fairness

Panelist Alison Keane, who is president and CEO of the Flexible Packaging Association (FPA), says fee structures on packaging assigned in an EPR program need to be fair so that dedicated funding streams directly address the dedicated purposes of those products, including the harder to recycle materials and compostables.

Yepsen notes that compostable products are a small portion of the waste stream, and the idea of one segment subsidizing another segment “goes both ways.” In other countries with EPR programs, compostables are assessed fees like other packaging products, but the fees go into general funds and not just toward compostable infrastructure.

“It is going to be hard to figure out,” he said. For example, compostable items are organic and shouldn’t be going into consumer recycling bins, Yepsen points out. “So, this idea of cross-subsidization is really important for us to get our heads around to make sure we are not paying each other’s bills.”

Some of the laws are getting that right while others will have to be worked out during the rule-making process, Yepsen adds.

Oregon is set up so that cross-subsidization isn’t the rule: “Paper pays for paper and plastic pays for plastic, etc.,” Allaway said. However, there is room for exceptions that require minor subsidization, he adds.

Keane points out that flexible packaging is the fastest-growing segment of packaging—second to corrugated cardboard. Policymakers need to make sure they recognize how flexible packaging extends shelf life, reduces food waste, and offers the necessary barriers to protect contents. “First and foremost is product protection,” Keane says.

Despite its value, end-of-life issues for flexible packaging remain a challenge, which is why EPR systems must be developed to also handle flexible packaging versus banning or excluding them, Keane says. Most consumers don’t know the difference between store drop-off, not recyclable, or compostable, so coordination and harmonization among packaging formats will be critical to achieving circularity goals, Keane adds.

More on Webinar Series

The presentation was the fourth in a six-part AMERIPEN series that started in February with the premise of Packaging EPR Has Arrived in the U.S. — Now What? The first segment looked at EPR generally, followed by a presentation in March on the states’ perspectives on implementation and then a closer look at PROs in April.

Here is the rest of the schedule:

  • June 14, 12 p.m. EST: “Role of Market Development in Packaging Producer Responsibility”
  • July 12, 12 p.m. EST: “Influencing Packaging Design through Eco-modulation”

Registration details and more information can be found at www.ameripen.org/page/eprwebinarseries.

Thomas A. Barstow is senior editor of FlexPack VOICE®.