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Dive Brief:

  • A1 Organics, Colorado’s largest composter, is changing its accepted materials list to be more restrictive. The goal is to reduce the growing amount — currently 10% — of material it receives that is too contaminated to effectively process while maintaining final compost product quality standards. 
  • Only food scraps and yard and plant trimmings will be accepted starting April 1. Traditionally accepted fiber materials like paper towels and coffee filters no longer will be accepted, and neither will packaging or service ware — even if it is labeled “compostable.” The only food and yard scrap collection bags that will be allowed are three gallon versions certified by the Compost Manufacturing Alliance.
  • Nonprofit recycler Eco-Cycle is among the organics haulers and municipalities that are working with A1 Organics to educate customers about which items to put in curbside compost bins to prevent contaminated loads from being sent to landfill.

Dive Insight:

As curbside organics programs have expanded across the U.S., so too has contamination. Bits of glass, plastic and metal are commonly cited contaminants. A1 Organics says that these fragments in the final compost product affect resale quality, and contaminated compost can’t be sold to certified organic farmers. And debate grows over whether or not compostable packaging does, in fact, break down or if it is a contaminant.

“Contamination is a serious problem,” said Rhodes Yepsen, executive director at the Biodegradable Products Institute, via email. “It’s about keeping the wrong items out of compost bins like glass and conventional plastics, all of which BPI supports through its labeling requirements, consumer testing, and a national public policy program.”

Last summer, A1 Organics began inspecting all incoming truckloads and rejecting those with unacceptable levels of contamination. It said in last week’s material change announcement that contaminants can’t effectively be removed from a mixed load, so the presence of contamination requires the entire load to be rejected.

Colorado nonprofit recycler Eco-Cycle cautioned in a newsletter last week that haulers who see unacceptable items in customers’ curbside carts may choose to not collect them. “We share your concern with this strict new standard. We also fully support it as a means for A1 Organics to create a high-quality compost product made from clean compost materials,” it stated.

More organics program operators are questioning the viability of continuing to collect commonly accepted fiber and “compostable” products. The University of Wisconsin-Madison had a composting program since 2009 that was canceled in 2021. The organics processing equipment for years struggled with non-organic items, as well as paper items that slowed down the system. And in 2019, Oregon composter Rexius stopped accepting compostable packaging due to its inability to effectively handle the resulting contamination.

Although one objective of compostable packaging is to reduce contamination from other types of packaging in compost, A1 Organics says not all of these items break down fully or as quickly as needed — even those labeled as “certified” compostable. The company’s material change announcement states that traditional certification standards “measure compostability based on laboratory conditions, not actual field conditions. Meaning some ‘compostable’ items don’t fully compost with our technology.”

BPI provides third-party certification for compostable products, and Yepsen says the product certification is sound. 

“BPI certified products have been used successfully in composting programs across North America for decades, breaking down completely, boosting food scrap diversion rates, and even reducing contamination,” he said. “The US Composting Council has resources for composters to navigate the decision to accept compostable products, looking at operating conditions, equipment, market needs, economics, etc., but the science of compostability and validity of BPI’s certification are not in question.”

Organics companies and municipalities are investing in new processing equipment to produce a cleaner compost product. Phoenix Public Works installed a “depackager” at its composting facility last fall to separate food and beverages from their packaging, which eliminates manual sorting. And Teton County Integrated Solid Waste and Recycling in Wyoming recently received $300,000 in grants to pilot an air knife density separator, which separates small, light, unpickable items like stickers.

The cities of Boulder and Denver are helping to spread the word to residents about the changes to the region’s composting programs. Last fall, Denver voters approved an ordinance that expands the city’s composting program and requires that apartment complexes and a variety of food waste-producing businesses begin offering composting options. Last year, an extended producer responsibility law for packaging passed in Colorado; it included clauses related to composting, including clarifying funding to support contamination reduction in composting and to support the processing of compostable packaging.

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