Restaurants, institutions and commercial venues are increasingly seeking improvement in materials management through recycling and composting. Understanding the role compostable foodservice packaging can play to streamline consumer handling of food scraps and divert more high-value scraps to composting is a high priority. Some composters may hesitate to accept post-consumer food scraps from foodservice venues due to the potential for contamination of the material stream with non-compostable packaging and other non-organic materials.

The Foodservice Packaging Institute (FPI) and partners have released the CompostAble Chicago study report, which examines several existing programs, the materials they recover, and the operating conditions that contribute to successful programs. The first research objective is to evaluate the correlation between use of compostable foodservice packaging, implemented under certain operating conditions that have been identified to be success factors, and increased capture of front-of-house (FOH) food scraps. The second research objective is to evaluate how these operating conditions result in minimized contamination.

The CompostAble Chicago study is sponsored by FPI in collaboration with Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI), Eco-Products, Illinois Food Scrap Coalition(IFSC), Plant Based Products Council (PBPC) and Sustainable Packaging Coalition (SPC). Research and waste sorts were conducted by Resource Recycling Systems (RRS) and Bright Beat. The study looked at four foodservice venues in the Chicago area — a full-service restaurant, a museum quick-serve café, a school cafeteria and a university quick-serve café — collecting data on operating conditions and waste streams.

Venues in the study were given ratings based on the likely success factors, including the supply of certified compostable packaging, the level of knowledge and engagement by staff, presence of instructional materials (i.e., messaging, labels, signage), and levels of turnover for both patrons and staff. Waste sorts were also conducted to quantify the amount of foodservice packaging and food scraps in each stream.

The study’s findings suggest venues that adopt compostable foodservice packaging, under favorable operating conditions, should be expected to collect more food scraps in FOH compost streams. In addition, contamination levels were also seen to trend lower with stronger adoption of compostable items.

“Using an all-compostable suite of foodservice items like plates, trays and cutlery, creates a simpler sorting experience for consumers in front-of-house situations,” said Olga Kachook, Director of Bioeconomy and Reuse Initiatives at the Sustainable Packaging Coalition. “This translates to less consumer confusion about what goes where and leads to more food scraps going into the compost stream instead of the landfill.”

In addition to researching the relationship of compostable foodservice packaging and food scrap recovery, the study also developed methodologies for venue-to-operator evaluation and continued, expanded research. The published materials also include a guide and template for collecting data from additional venues to grow the body of data for analysis.

“The CompostAble Chicago study developed an organized framework to evaluate the effectiveness of waste diversion at foodservice venues,” said Ian Jacobson, President of Eco-Products.  “Understanding best practices at the operator and their impact on levels of contamination is valuable to the relationship between venues, haulers and compost manufacturers. The overall goal is to reduce contamination and get more food scraps and compostable foodservice items to the composter—ultimately keeping these items out of the landfill.”

“It’s important to be able to determine the value proposition of using compostable products,” explains Rhodes Yepsen, Executive Director of BPI. “While numerous waste audits have been done in the past, it can be challenging to get meaningful data, so this collaborative effort focused on what’s important to measure, and how we can use that data to build composting programs that are successful.”

“The CompostAble Chicago study is a first of its kind partnership and provides a replicable methodology to further the research on compostable packaging and food scrap capture,” said Natha Dempsey, president of the Foodservice Packaging Institute. “As additional data is gathered, we will be able to better correlate how the right operating conditions, collaboration between the operator and composter, and packaging selection will result in more food and packaging composted via clean front-of-house composting streams.”

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