Without better labeling, compostable packaging will struggle

By Olga Kachook in Sustainable Packaging on October 31, 2019

San Francisco is often the poster child of compostable packaging. Polystyrene is banned, and restaurants are required to use compostable or recyclable containers and utensils. With supportive regulations, savvy consumers and access to composting infrastructure, compostable packaging should be a slam dunk, right?

Yet a recent interview with the San Francisco Examiner, a representative from Recology, the city’s recycling and composting service provider, confirmed that many compostable plastics were being pulled out by sorters and landfilled. Why? The problem is how these products are labeled. 

Most compostable items, especially compostable plastics, look exactly like their non-compostable counterparts. Clamshell containers, lids and utensils are simply embossed, often on the bottom of the item, to identify them as compostable while claims on the products themselves vary widely, from “Compostable” to “Biodegradable” to statements about sourcing like “Made from corn.” Green or brown stripes may be added to larger items, but non-compostable items can also be marked with green or brown symbols. 

Currently, compostable bags are the only category with best practices starting to take hold, like the use of green tinting, the words “Certified Compostable” in prominent text (1-inch or larger), and certification logos like BPI and OK Home Compost. For other product categories, especially clamshells and utensils, whether it’s actually compostable is anybody’s guess. 


New laws push labeling of more products

New bills aim to address this confusion head-on. Washington’s HB 1569 (effective July 2020) and California’s proposed (but recently tabled) SB 54 outline labeling requirements for all compostable products, including product packaging, food serviceware and bags. Washington’s bill requires that all compostable products be labeled in a way that is “easily and readily identifiable” and include a certification logo or the word “Compostable.” 


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These two new bills build on earlier versions of compostable labeling laws, which only address compostable bags. For instance, Maryland’s HB 1349, effective since October 2017, sets strict requirements for the use of certification logos, wording and green tinting on bags but not on other compostable plastics or compostable products. Ultimately, both types of laws aim to eliminate greenwashing, reduce consumer confusion and aid composters in identifying which products coming into their facility are actually compostable. 


In the absence of clear labels, composters err on the side of caution

At Recology’s composting facility and at facilities across the country, sorters pull out unmarked, plastic-looking items to avoid contamination. Even compostable paper coffee cups are likely to be removed for fear they’re conventional paper cups lined with plastic. A compostable plastic may be embossed with a certification logo or the words “Certified Compostable,” but no sorter is going to be able to spot this subtle labeling. 

Washington’s bill adds “processing facilities” to the list of stakeholders who need to be able to identify compostable products. This further limits what is considered “easily identifiable”—a consumer disposing of a cup may spot the green stripe, but composters and sorters trying to identify materials in a truck or within a pile will require the largest and most obvious labeling, far beyond what most products have today. 


Consumers are increasingly frustrated with compostability claims 

Consumers (as well as non-profits and media) are starting to put compostability in quotations—as in, “These bowls are ‘compostable’ but are actually landfilled.” More than a punctuation preference, this indicates that for many people, the claim (even when supported by third-party certification) doesn’t mean much unless the item actually gets composted.

The first and largest barrier to composting is the lack of widespread industrial facilities and curbside collection programs. But even in regions with composting infrastructure, like the Bay Area, consumers are frustrated that compostable packaging isn’t getting composted. If composters can’t identify what’s compostable and are pulling these items out of their trucks and composting piles, then it’s not truly compostable in the eyes of many consumers. Larger, more standardized product labeling is essential for identification, and by extension, consumer buy-in. 


Compostable products need standardized labeling 

Labeling laws will continue to evolve in the direction of requiring clear labeling for all products. Washington’s law is the first evidence of this. And if California passes a similar bill, manufacturers will need to tackle labeling in a key geographic market.

It’s not just food serviceware—CPG brands venturing into compostability for categories like compostable wrappers should pay close attention, learning from the pitfalls of compostable plastics and designing packaging a composter can quickly and easily spot. 

Proposed and passed labeling bills refer to “industry standards” for labeling, which don’t yet exist—there’s no standard color to represent compostability, for instance. Manufacturers should collaborate pre-competitively to develop these standards, since better labeling benefits everyone. It eliminates bad actors making unverified compostability claims, and it allows consumers and composters alike to spot and sort compostable products more quickly and easily, increasing the chance these products will actually be composted.



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Olga Kachook

Olga Kachook is a project manager at GreenBlue, where she leads the Essentials of Sustainable Packaging courses and the Composting Collaborative for the organization’s Sustainable Packaging Coalition. Her background includes expertise in compostable materials and packaging, zero waste facility certification, life cycle analysis, and sustainable materials management. Prior to joining GreenBlue, Kachook led corporate sustainability and waste initiatives at World Centric, Etsy, Cascade Designs and Cascadia Consulting. She has a Master of Environmental Management from Yale University’s School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, and a Bachelor of Arts in Business Administration from the University of Washington. She is certified as a LEED Green Associate and a TRUE Zero Waste Advisor.

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it's not only clear labeling for compostables, but if the composted mulch is used for agriculture, the "forever" toxins in some compostables such as PFAS need to be removed
Compostable can have 3 meanings; Home, Commercial or Municipal. Most of it goes to Municipal Waste Facilities. They require items to compost in 8-12 weeks. Only very thin plastics will meet that timeline. BPI and OK Compost refer to ASTM D6400, developed in the 1990's and it allows 25 weeks. There is no distinction on the thickness. A 1.0 mil film may meet the MWF's requirement but a 5 mil or 10 mil item will not even meet the D6400. Consumers see "Compostable" and it all goes in the Green Bin
Thank you- I complain about this all the time. I live in WA and will look at helping HB 1569
We sell Co-op compostable carrier bags here in the UK, carefully labelled and coloured, and with a large seedling logo (for the European certification), so that the food waste collection crews can readily recognise them. Recognition in the food waste system is arguably more important than recognition by consumers. I firmly believe that a logo alone won't be sufficient; what is needed is a marking system that makes it easy to spot compostable packaging in sea of food waste. Iain Ferguson.