Even as more U.S. cities and states launch compost programs, there is still too much waste that could be composted, including food and packaging. With this, we are throwing away one of the best ways to mitigate climate change.

Daphna Nissenbaum, CEO & Co-founder

February 20, 2024

4 Min Read
Keith Leighton / Alamy Stock Photo

About one-third of all food in the United States is thrown away; much of this goes into landfills, where it produces large amounts of planet-warming methane. If this were composted instead, these emissions would shrink, and the process would produce compost material that farmers could use on fields, helping to increase crop yields, reduce irrigation needs and absorb carbon from the atmosphere. Plastic and other packaging is also rapidly filling landfills, as well as ending up in the environment, where it breaks down into microplastics, posing a growing threat to environmental and human health. 

If more of this packaging, including alternative plastics, were designed to be compostable, and made its way to composting facilities, that would immediately offer a zero-waste solution. In addition, through composting, alternative plastics and other packaging would nourish the earth instead of damaging it. Making this vision a reality requires cooperation, innovation and other efforts from both the private and public sectors.

More composters need to accept packaging

To start with, more composting facilities need to accept a wider variety of items that can be added to organic waste processing, including compostable packaging, rather than just food and garden scraps. There is progress on this front, with 71 percent of industrial-scale food waste composters reporting they accept at least some types of packaging, up from 58 percent in 2018.

Municipalities and other government agencies should work with composters to ensure that this trend will grow. In addition to more industrial composters accepting packaging, the process also needs to ensure that it is easy for consumers to participate. This means clear guidelines and labeling for compostable packaging as well as curbside pickup and other programs that integrate composting into waste collection. This can happen through providing grants, public-private partnerships, tax incentives and other incentives. 

Brands have a powerful role to play

Consumer-facing companies have an important role in further popularizing compostable products and composting into mainstream consumer consciousness. More brands, especially those producing food, should embrace compostable packaging that meets standards, and is accepted at facilities their consumers can access. With numerous studies showing that many customers prefer and will even pay more for products in sustainable packaging, embracing compostable packaging is a smart business and marketing decision. 

With advances in technology and design, the availability of compostable plastic is growing, yielding many of the benefits and characteristics of traditional plastic, including transparency and the ability to keep products clean and safe. This means that brands can choose sustainable packaging without sacrificing on form or function. When food brands use compostable packaging, it can be easily tossed into a composting bin along with leftovers or other food scraps, increasing convenience for consumers.

Meanwhile, brands should advocate for a larger role for composting in the growing number of extended producer-responsibility programs, which now focus mainly on recycling. These programs, often put in place by state laws, require companies to bear some of the cost for the end-of-life of their packaging. By investing in programs or infrastructure that support composting, brands will play a key role in increasing this underutilized and less developed sector of waste management.

Education is Key

Finally, local school districts, municipalities and other community organizations need to increase education about composting. Education has played an important role in the rise of recycling since the 1960s. The U.S. government continues to invest millions of dollars a year in these efforts. But recycling does not help food waste, and is not a viable solution for all plastic waste, especially flexible packaging, which is difficult to recycle for both economic and practical reasons. In fact, only 9 percent of the world’s plastic is actually recycled. That is why it is essential to use education to help drive more of this waste toward composting.

There is undoubtedly reason for optimism when it comes to increasing composting. Efforts are only growing, and several pieces of national legislation, including the Zero Food Waste Act, are directing more dollars and policies toward embracing composting. Now is the time for more policymakers, brands and consumers to embrace the rise of composting. It is one of the few sustainable solutions that can truly transform our world.

About the Author(s)

Daphna Nissenbaum

CEO & Co-founder, TIPA

Daphna Nissenbaum is the CEO & Co-founder of TIPA.

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