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Using a compostable cup, plate or spoon? Starting Jan. 1, this Vt. facility says leave it out of the compost bin

A photo showing trash mixed in with light green plastic bags.
Dan Goossen
Chittenden Solid Waste District, Courtesy
This photo shows the non-compostable trash that routinely comes to the Chittenden Solid Waste District with food scraps from businesses and institutions. It is commonly collected in and consequently “hidden” inside compostable bags.

You may be ultra-diligent when it comes to putting food scraps and compostable products into your compost since the Vermont law went into effect in July 2020.

But that compostable foodware — the cups, plates and utensils that hold your take-out and to-go orders — are only meant to be the vehicle for getting your food scraps into the compost bin.

Having too much compostable foodware in the food scrap stream mucks up the works, as it allows other look-alike products — those that are not compostable — into the mix. Those items do not break down and have to be removed manually from the compost.

The state's largest commercial compost facility — the Organics Diversion Facility at Chittenden Solid Waste District — accepts more than 5,000 tons of food scraps per year from schools, businesses and homes, then transforms it into compost and other soil amendments to be used on gardens. And beginning Jan. 1, the compostable foodware will no longer be allowed in the mix.

VPR's Mary Engisch spoke with CSWD marketing director Michele Morris about the decision to ban compostable foodware. Their conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mary Engisch: So Michele, I understand that the composting facility in Chittenden County, that's where you receive food scraps and compostable foodware, it all kind of gets melded in together. And it's supposed to break down and create rich compost and soil, but you've hit a snag with the foodware itself. So can you tell us what's happening?

Michele Morris: We have been literally inundated with all kinds of materials that frankly should never come to a compost facility at all. And it can be quite confusing. So I do want to be clear that legitimately certified compostable products foodware, such as cups, clam shells, bags and that sort of thing — they do break down in commercial facilities.

The problem is they open the door and invite all kinds of non-compostable trash. You know, the great news is our community has been wonderfully embracing the statewide Act 148 requirement to keep food scraps out of the trash. So we've seen a big jump in food scraps brought in for composting, which is terrific. And we should all be very proud of that.

Unfortunately, along with that, we've also seen a big jump in trash coming in with that. And we have to filter and screen out all those materials. And it's just overwhelming. So we made the really difficult decision to join the vast majority of other complex facilities across the country that don't accept these products.

Yeah, in a recent blog post, you called the decision to make this change a difficult one. Can you talk more about that?

This industry just really has exploded for these compostable products. And so we've said to our community, you know, this is a way you can comply with Act 148. Help your customers, your attendees, your staff, keep this stuff out of the landfill, and not worry about the separation. So that's why we originally started accepting it.

And at first, it wasn't that big a problem. But over time, we've just seen the problem grow. And Mary, what it really comes down to is when you're out, you might look in a bin where people are putting food scraps, and then you see a cup in there. Well, then you think whatever cup you have in your hand also belongs in that bin. And that cup may or may not be a compostable cup.

And unless you're a geek like me, or somebody who works in this industry, you can't tell visually, which ones are legitimately compostable, and which ones are trash and have to go to the landfill.

And so it's often an honest mistake that the public makes by just chucking it all in the same bin, and then we end up at the end of the pipeline having to deal with it.

More from VPR: Vermonters Are Complying With Composting Law, Which Means ... A Lot Of Food Scraps

And since the pandemic, local restaurants have been offering more takeout options, more deliveries, we're using a lot more, you know, plastics and things like that for those sorts of deliveries. Is that causing the increase in compostable foodware in the compost as well?

What it has done for us is really highlight how dependent our society has become on single-use disposable products, there are a lot of reasons why that's not great.

You know, we want people to take a step back and think, "Is there something durable and reusable I could be using in place of this? Or do I even need a product, do I need a straw?"

Everything, every product we create has impacts and another factor for this decision was that we have learned along with many others, that many of these compostable products are impregnated with PFAS to make them greaseproof or liquid impermeable.

That's going to be phased out. But it's going to be a while — it's going to be a couple of years before those are phased out of compostable products. So that was another factor.

And also for folks who want to feel like they're making strides and not just doing these performative actions toward curbing waste: What should we be doing? What should we be doing differently, if anything?

What we're trying to encourage folks to do, like I mentioned before, is, instead of thinking about single-use disposable items, think about how you can reduce your waste in the front in the first place.

If people choose to continue using compostable products, they just need to make sure they're kept free from food scraps.

You know, all our facility was designed to turn food scraps, leaves and yard trimmings into rich, high-quality soil amendments.

Compostable products do not add value to that. They were always intended as a vehicle to make it easy to capture more food.

After the change goes into effect on Jan. 1, CSWD will continue to accept clearly-marked, certified compostable liner bags. 

Have questions, comments or tips?Send us a message or tweet us@vprnet.

Mary Williams Engisch is a local host on All Things Considered.
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