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A better understanding of compostables

Susan Thoman, managing director, Compost Manufacturing Alliance (CMA), discusses steps retailers can take when procuring a store brand compostable line of products.

Cultural, legislative and consumer-driven initiatives are increasing interest in more sustainable single-use packaging at retail. Food scraps make up as much as 40% of landfill waste, and with a growing number of states adopting plastic reduction pacts, compostables and curbside compost collection interest is on the rise.

Oh, the thrill of tossing onion skins, rib bones, stale chips, and compostable plates and forks into a bucket, taking it to the curb, and making compost out of it to grow your own food — that’s as good as it gets! Even better, the compost made from the effort, when applied, minimizes chemical usage, saves water, and sequesters carbon in the soil to fight climate change.

Composting programs are community built, where soil amendments made from gathering yard clippings, coffee grounds, and compostable ware supports job growth, circular economy practices, and a better environment. When retailers offer compostable single-use packaging, they promote higher food scrap recovery while providing greener options for consumers looking for better alternatives to landfill bound plates, cups, and forks.

When procuring a compostable line of products, it is crucial to understand the importance of purchasing only certified products (CMA or BPI) to comply with emerging labelling legislation, while also considering the challenges compost manufacturers often face in accepting them.

The Compost Manufacturing Alliance is the only third-party certifier of compostable products made up of a network of compost facilities throughout North America. CMA was formed to ensure that products marked “compostable” meet established laboratory standards for compostables (ASTM D6400/D6868), that they break down adequately in the facilities they are destined for, and that they do not contain PFAS (chemicals of concern in foodservice products that are subject to growing legislative bans along with media and public concern).

Certification on products ensures compostables will biodegrade naturally in the environment and do not contain metals or harmful chemicals. In addition to certification, some compostable labelling legislation encourages markings and color systems that address issues with sorting and identification at the compost facility. When loads come into facilities, being able to identify what is compostable means it meets the “ten foot rule” so that the workers on loading equipment can identify accepted compostables through colors, patterns, or markings.

In some states, the use of the word “biodegradable” is not allowed on retail items sold and intended for industrial composting systems. The reason? Many things are biodegradable, while compostable materials must break down within an active composting cycle timeframe so that they are not left to be screened out as a contaminant and landfilled at the end of the process. When that happens, the products take a long and expensive ride to the landfill, at both the consumer’s and compost facility’s expense. In addition, retailers are at risk of receiving fines and negative press if products sold are not compliant with growing regulations and Federal Trade Commission guidelines.

CMA’s growing network of compost manufacturers take a systems approach with retailers, distributors, hauling companies and compost manufacturers to provide vital education and feedback on the complexities, laws, and importance of procuring only certified products. In circular economy systems, all parties must engage in collaborating to create the most environmentally and economically viable systems. Retailers play an important role in expanding and improving composting growth through thoughtful procurement policies. When local grocers are connected to the local composter by working with CMA, the connection between the buying consumer and the compost producer is complete.

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Susan Thoman is the managing director of the Compost Manufacturing Alliance, and to learn more about the organization, visit CMA’s website at

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