Waste-watchers Diners at Slows Bar BQ in Detroit, The Clarkston Union Bar & Kitchen, and the Om Café in Ferndale take their leftovers home in brown boxes instead of Styrofoam clamshells. That’s because these restaurants and a growing number of other eateries, businesses, hospitals, and universities have begun offering compostable “doggy bags.”

Such packaging is gaining popularity among consumers as the world moves toward a “reduce, re-use, recycle” mindset. It can be made from paper and cardboard, wood and bamboo, molded fiber and pulp, or even compostable plastic. In addition to food-service materials, it’s starting to be used for retail consumer packaging.

While the producers of compostable packaging waste are gung-ho about its use, there are unresolved issues for those who haul and receive it. One of the biggest is the limited composting infrastructure — haulers and compost facilities — across the country, the Sustainable Packaging Coalition reports.

When the Coalition surveyed 40 food-composting facilities in the United States for its 2010 report, 82.5 percent of them said they want a more universally recognizable label of compostability. Composters may refuse a load if labeling on packaging in it is questionable.

The answer to this problem is creating a standardized, universal-labeling system similar to the now-familiar three arrows that indicate a product is recyclable. Those in the industry are working on such a system.

Other complications include how to produce materials that decompose in a timely and non-toxic manner. Compostable plastic cutlery, for example, is a problem, because it often degrades only to large chunks. Plastic film and bags blow around and create litter. The packaging has to be consistent with strict rules for compost to be used in organic agriculture. Ironically, there are concerns about compostable plastic contaminating conventional plastic recycling streams.

The Michigan State University School of Packaging is helping to address some of these challenges, Susan Selke, professor and associate director of the school, says. Among other work, it has validated a certifying organization’s testing, studied the shelf life of food in compostable packaging, and evaluated traits such as the strength of some compostable materials. — Ilene Wolff

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