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News, Recycling & Composting

New Research Highlights The Success Of South Australia’s Composting Industry

Team Compost Connect, 22 May 2024
New Research Highlights The Success Of South Australia’s Composting Industry

A new research study highlights how South Australia is successfully composting their food waste and compostable packaging via council provided kerbside FOGO bins – a viable and effective waste management solution.

South Australia and the City of Adelaide are often celebrated as leaders in the composting space. From Rundle Mall’s green bin trial to council bins that accept compostable packaging, South Australia is proving that sustainable waste management practices are both viable and essential. 

But despite these impressive efforts, there has been very limited research into the impact of compostable packaging on improving food waste and packaging diversions. Until now. 

By partnering with Edge Impact and BioPak, Compost Connect set out to better understand the role compostable packaging plays in organic waste recovery. And the results are promising. 

Amongst many key takeaways, the research found that South Australia’s existing organic recovery system is both successful and capable of ramping up its volume, and that certified compostable packaging has had no documented negative effects on the quality of the end product – compost. Good news for the organics recycling sector in South Australia and beyond. 

Dr Thava Palanisami, Associate Professor from the University of Newcastle, stated that “this report is an excellent step in the right direction, showcasing that composting food waste and compostable packaging is a viable option.”

This article will summarise the research report, including:

  • The key objectives 
  • Research methodology
  • The key insights and findings
  • How compostable packaging can lead to organic waste recovery

About The Compostable Packaging Research

After recognising the need to research compostable packaging, it became abundantly clear that South Australia was the place to do it. Compared with the rest of Australia, South Australia has the most established systems, policies and infrastructure in dealing with food organics and garden organics (FOGO).

The primary objective of the project was to understand compostable packaging recovery outcomes, success factors, and the impact of compostable packaging on improving food waste and packaging diversion. 

We had three key objectives.

  1. The impact of compostable packaging – how does compostable packaging contribute to sustainable waste management and resource recovery? 
  2. Barriers and enablers to organic waste recovery – are there any barriers to achieving successful organic recovery outcomes?
  3. Key factors influencing outcomes what are the key factors that influence these recovery outcomes – like standards, certification and education? 
Compostable cups, plate and cutlery in green compostable bin liner with food waste

Research Methodology

To complete this study, we used a combination of quantitative and qualitative research across three phases.

  • Phase 1: Desktop Research – we gathered all publicly available data, like contamination methods in FOGO bins and tonnage of compostable packaging versus food waste.
  • Phase 2: Engagement & Further Investigation – we spoke with leading stakeholders, like the Australian Packaging Covenant Organisation (APCO), Australian Bioplastics Association (ABA) and Green Industries South Australia. 
  • Phase 3: Insight Summary & Reporting – we analysed the qualitative and quantitative data and identified key findings and insights. 

Key Findings: South Australia Is Sucessfully Composting Their Food Waste and Compostable Packaging

The key findings of this research were overwhelmingly positive – not only is South Australia’s existing organic recovery system successful and capable of ramping up its volume, but certified compostable packaging has had no documented negative effects on the quality of the end product – compost. 

Here are 7 key takeaways.

  • South Australia’s Organics Recovery System Is a Success – The high organics recycling rate shows that the existing organics recovery system is a shining success. So much so, the current infrastructure could support greater volumes – including compostable packaging.
  • Government-Led Initiatives and Policy Are Effective – South Australia’s success in organic recycling is largely influenced by state initiatives, including the uniform rollout of FOGO programs and landfill levies (a higher levy than other states). 
  • Enforcement and Industry Collaboration Prevents Contamination – Compliance with Australian Standards for compostables (AS4736 and AS5810) and processed compost (AS4454) is rigorously enforced, ensuring a low risk of contamination in the finished product – compost. 
  • Compostable Packaging Has No Documented Negative Effects – Overall, certified compostable packaging (AS4736 and AS5810) has had a marginal impact on South Australia’s current organics recovery systems and has had no documented negative effects on the quality of the end product – compost.
  • Public Education on Composting Technology – For effective organic waste recovery, we need a combination of commercial composting infrastructure (like open windrow and static pile composting) combined with public education programs, particularly campaigns to boost knowledge and prevent contamination. 
  • There Are Challenges in Compostable Packaging Identification – Distinguishing and separating certified compostable packaging from other uncertified or waste materials remains an ongoing challenge – this leads to compost contamination (not to mention, gives a bad name to all the compostable packaging companies doing the right thing and getting certified). 
  • Contamination and Technology Challenges – The study found that there’s a 2% contamination rate of kerbside FOGO. While this is a seemingly small percentage, it still presents a significant challenge to achieving efficient resource recovery outcomes.

Our Takeaway: Where To From Here?

While the findings are overwhelmingly positive, they’re not without their challenges. 

There’s still work to be done to reduce contamination and ensure organic waste and packaging end up in the right place. What’s more, other Australian states and territories ought to look to South Australia as a source of inspiration for large-scale composting initiatives. 

Here are some of the ways we can instigate widespread change and ensure successful composting initiatives. 

Public Education

As individuals, we need to become clear on the Certified Compostable Logos so we can support businesses doing the right thing and combat greenwashing. Public education campaigns, like the “Which Bin?”  campaign, can help to prevent contamination and promote sustainable waste management. 

Legislation and Policy

We also need action from a government level. Perhaps one of the main reasons why South Australia’s composting initiatives have been so successful is because they have large-scale state initiatives, like the uniform rollout of FOGO. Not only that, South Australia enforces compliance with Australian Standards for compostables (AS4736 and AS5810), leading to a lower risk of contamination.

Separation Technologies

Some South Australian organics processors have advanced separation technologies, and this can play a major role in reducing contamination. But unfortunately, they require a significant investment and are not capable of fully decontaminating loads. In the meantime, SA has adopted a consultative approach between industry and regulators to help determine the best way to address PFAS/PFOS contamination, while avoiding blanket bans on all compostable packaging. Something other states and territories can learn from.

Birds eye view of Jeffries composting facility

The Final Word: How Can Compostable Packaging Improve Organic Waste Recovery?

Certified compostable packaging is typically made from rapidly renewable, reclaimed, plant-based raw materials, allowing it to break down in a composting environment. 

If the foodservice industry adopted certified compostable packaging, it would make organic waste collection easier as both food scraps and used packaging could go into one single bin. The organics bin. 

So not only does compostable packaging act as a vehicle to curb food waste (a colossal environmental problem) but this study also suggests that it has no negative effects on the final product – compost. 

Therefore, by enforcing compostable packaging standards and educating the public on organic waste disposal – we can effectively divert food waste from landfill and instead turn it into an incredible useful, nutrient-rich product: compost.

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