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Recycling & Composting

Contamination in Composts

Team Compost Connect, 15 November 2023
Contamination in Composts

The Growing Problem of FOGO Contamination (And What You Can Do About It)

Food Organics and Garden Organics (FOGO) bins are becoming increasingly popular around Australia, with a national goal for all metro cities to recycle their food waste by 2030. 

But there’s one problem that keeps coming up. Contamination. 

As the FOGO rollout continues, organic waste processors (also known as commercial compost facilities) are concerned about the level of contamination – mostly from plastics and chemicals.

For the FOGO rollout to be successful (which can ultimately take the pressure off landfills, reduce food waste and lower carbon emissions) we need the public to get on board and start doing their bit. That includes learning what can (and can’t) go in your FOGO bin. 

So, let’s look a little closer at the FOGO rollout and how to avoid contamination in the future.

Sorting Plastic Waste at Recycling Centers for Environmental Preservation and Resource Recovery

What Is FOGO?

FOGO (Food Organics and Garden Organics) is a council collection service that recycles organic waste and turns it into nutrient-rich compost. It’s a new residential bin that’s earned its place next to your landfill and recycling bins. 

Many Australian and New Zealand councils recognised that sending organic waste to landfill can have harmful effects on the environment – organic waste emits methane a greenhouse gas that’s on average 28 times more potent than carbon dioxide (source). 

Thankfully, composting is a viable, cost-effective and sustainable alternative to organic waste going to landfills, which is why many councils have begun trialling a FOGO collection service connecting households to commercial compost facilities.

A line up of bins in a local Australian council, there’s a green lid, purple lid, yellow lid and red lid.

Which Councils Offer FOGO?

Around 25% of councils offer FOGO as a part of their residential waste collection (based on our 2021 survey). 

Check out our Australian Councils Composting page for information on councils offering FOGO collection, as well as whether or not they accept food scraps and compostable packaging. 

If you can’t find your local council on the list, send an email to your local MP or sign our petition to encourage your council to start composting.

Why We Need More Councils To Start Composting

It’s simple – organic waste in landfill is harmful to the environment, yet turning it into compost is incredibly beneficial!

That’s because when organic waste winds up in landfill it emits methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Methane plays a significant role in warming the planet, further decreasing air quality and driving climate change.

Not only that, decaying food waste in an anaerobic environment can create ‘leachate’ – a harmful liquid that leaches from landfills. If leachate is not properly collected and managed, it can leak into the groundwater and cause contamination.

Learn more about what happens to food waste in landfills.

A person lifting the lid of their FOGO bin. Inside, there’s organic waste and compostable packaging.

What Can Go in a FOGO Bin?

It varies depending on your council (and you can check with them directly for more information). 

Some councils only accept garden waste, while others accept garden waste, food scraps and compostable packaging. Here’s an example of what falls into each of these categories:

A bin with garden waste overflowing out of it

Garden Waste

Things like leaves, weeds, lawn clippings, dead plants, branches, sticks, dead flowers,  and small shrubs – basically anything that comes from your garden. Check with your local council for more information.

A close up of pile of organic waste, including fruits and vegetables, in landfill

Food Scraps

Things like fruits, vegetables, old leftovers, bread, baked goods, coffee grinds, tea leaves, avocado pits, rice, pasta, meat and bones. Check with your local council for more information.

Two pieces of fibre-based compostable packaging, including a bowl and burger box

Fibre-Based Compostable Packaging

This includes things like cardboard, paperboard, sugarcane and bamboo. Anything fibre-based that’s not lined with plastic. Always check with your local council AND for the Certified Compostable Logo.

Two PLA plastic cups

PLA Compostable Packaging

This includes certified compostable PLA bioplastic cold clear cups and certified compostable coffee cups and lids. Always check with your local council AND for the Certified Compostable Logo.

Why Is Contamination a Problem?

Many organic waste processors put contamination down to people not knowing what they can add to their bins – which is often due to a lack of education, a lack of clear information, variations between councils and greenwashing. 

Lack of Education

Many residents just don’t know what they can and can’t put in their FOGO bin. A recent article reported some shocking findings in FOGO collections, including ammunition, lawn mower parts and gas bottles. But these are the exceptions – most of the contamination comes from plastics. 

The reason? Many people don’t know what to put in their FOGO bin because there’s a lack of clear available information out there. There are also different rules for different councils (for example, one council may accept compostable packaging while another may not).

As individuals, it’s our responsibility to find the information and start doing the right thing. This will show councils and governments that composting is a viable solution, now and into the future. 

By sending incorrect and harmful materials to commercial compost facilities, we’re:

  • Reducing the ability of these facilities to create nutrient-rich fertiliser for gardens and agriculture.
  • Impacting residents who have done the right thing (if one load is particularly bad, the whole thing can be dumped in landfill).
  • Sending a message to councils and governments that composting isn’t a good solution (when in actual fact, if it’s done correctly, it’s incredibly viable, cost-effective and sustainable).

PFAS and Chemicals

PFAS are ‘forever chemicals’ that don’t biodegrade and persist in the environment with potential adverse effects. Unfortunately, PFAS are also found everywhere – including in many sustainable packaging products. This means some councils are reluctant to accept anything other than food and garden waste in FOGO bins due to contamination concerns. 

In saying that, no direct link between PFAS contamination in compost and packaging has been formally identified.  There are many other sources of PFAS contamination in compost, like biosolids, house dust or industrial waste. Further research is needed to quantify the potential impact of each material type.

Greenwashing or ‘Look-Alikes’

In recent years, there’s been a growing number of compostable packaging companies popping up. At first, this sounds great. But unfortunately, some companies and products claim they’re ‘compostable’ or ‘biodegradable’ without the proper certifications to prove it. This is greenwashing. Some organic processors refer to these products as ‘look-alikes’ because they resemble compostable packaging, but they can’t actually be composted.

What’s worse, these products will not degrade, contaminate compost, and give a bad name to all the compostable packaging companies that are doing the right thing. Some facilities have even stopped accepting compostable packaging altogether (even those that are certified). 

In Australia, there are two types of compostable standards under the Australasian Bioplastic Association (ABA): Home (AS5810) and Industrial (AS4736). This is the only source of truth and the only two logos you should look for. 

To check if a product is certified, look for one of these two logos AND the company’s sub-licence number stated underneath.

The industrially compostable logo to Australian standards (AS4736). It is a green circular logo with a seedling with two leaves. There is also a spot where the company’s licence number should go.

Industrially compostable logo (AS4736)

Products with this logo are certified industrially compostable to Australian standards. This means they can be sent to a commercial composting facility to rapidly biodegrade. Check if your local council accepts products with this logo.

Image of the home compostable logo – illustrating the certification type (Home Compostable AS5810) and the spot where the company’s specific license number should go.

Home compostable logo (AS5810)

Products with this logo are certified home compostable to Australian standards. This means they can be thrown into your backyard compost along with food scraps, grass clippings, leaves and other organic matter.

What You Can Do To Avoid Compost Contamination

As residents, we all have to work together to make sure the FOGO rollout is successful and show councils it’s a viable solution to the food waste crisis. Here’s what you can do, as an individual, to help avoid compost contamination and divert food waste from landfills:
  • Check if your council has a FOGO collection
  • Check with your local council what you can (and can’t) put in your FOGO bin
  • If your council doesn’t have a FOGO collection, sign our petition to let them know it’s important
  • Learn about composting certifications and how to spot greenwashing

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