This April, Choicelunch debuted a compostable tray for our hot entrees. What may appear as a simple packaging change is actually the culmination of a decade long search littered with frustration, learning, and ultimately, success.The irony here is this isn’t the first time we’ve made this announcement. In 2005, we first began our search for a compostable meal tray. At that time, we were using a lightweight polystyrene tray that was fairly common in the industry. It held its structure well in our mobile transport ovens, and retained heat well with the film seal on top. There was just one problem – it wasn’t recyclable or compostable.
I should clarify here – almost anything is theoretically recyclable. Our polystyrene tray was theoretically recyclable, meaning if there was enough of a dedicated waste stream for these trays and if they were properly sanitized prior to recycling, we may have been able to find a converter that would have turned the trays to a truck bed liner or something. There were rumors of this happening in the Southwest with similar trays, but I was never able to get enough specifics on it to operationalize that as a concept. I also wasn’t thrilled about using our food delivery trucks for backhauling dirty, single-use lunch trays and then having to deal with sanitizing and drying the trays, only to have to figure out how to repackage them for shipment to an (alleged) operation in New Mexico or Arizona that would process them. The whole idea seemed far too resource intensive to make good sense from a sustainability perspective. With green waste pickups increasing at our schools, compostable trays seemed to be the logical conclusion.
If there’s anything that 13 years in school lunch as taught me though, it’s that the successful implementation of what seems to be a logical conclusion is often wildly elusive. (Who’d have thought buttered noodles would be one of the most difficult entrees to serve in a food delivery business? That’s a story for another day though.) I thought finding a compostable meal tray would be as easy as a Google search and a couple phone calls. I was dead wrong. It turned out that simple compostable tray I’d envisioned in my mind didn’t exist.
After over a year of searching, I was ready to give up. I’d talked to everyone I could dig up who might know where I could find my unicorn of a tray, only to come up with continual dead ends. Right when I thought the search was totally pointless, I connected with a packaging broker, Patrick, who happened to live right in my community. I met with him reluctantly, fearing our conversation was going to be another spectacular waste of time. I figured it couldn’t hurt to meet with a local contact though, as you never know where conversations could lead.
Patrick turned out to be incredibly knowledgable on the subject, and once again a hope was ignited in me. He represented a small company out of the Pacific Northwest, Biodegradable Foodservice, that was exploding on the scene with their “Taterware” product – a compostable line of foodservice utensils and dinnerware made from potato starch. They didn’t make a tray from school lunch, but the materials showed tremendous promise. With Patrick’s help, we began the almost year long project of developing a custom compostable school lunch tray – an industry first.
The process of developing a custom solution in anything is complex, but developing a custom meal tray from an innovative new material proved especially difficult. The biggest challenge wasn’t getting the mold made to process the tray in the proper shape. The most significant challenge ended up being finding the right “lidding film” to seal the top of the container. Most trays in the marketplace were either paperboard or plastic, and all of the lidding films in the market were specifically designed for those materials. It took a few months, but we eventually found a film that worked to seal to the Taterware tray.
Once we’d identified and tested the right film, we thought we had a full circle solution. Our green teams in Menlo Park had gotten positive reception from their waste management company, and were told that our trays were being composted. We celebrated, thinking we had crossed the finish line.
A few years after the launch of the tray though, we started to hear grumblings about it not properly breaking down in composting. Some parents and even our own employees had buried a few trays in their home compost and weren’t seeing results, which didn’t really mean much, as the trays are designed to compost only in a more rigorous commercial composting environment. We then started getting some pushback from a couple of the waste management companies responsible for composting in the counties where we served. We hoped it was just because they were unfamiliar with the material and they’d never seen a tray like ours. We had the ASTM-D6400 composting certification, which meant that we were good to go for composting, right?
By this time, we were so excited about the material that we’d even abandoned the tray sealer and designed a custom “hinged lid” design from the material. The thought was that even though we were preparing our meals fresh in our kitchens, the film seal on the container made the lunch look institutional and “like airplane food”. (Remember when airplanes served food?) We were preparing by hand, and the thinking was the black hinged lid container would look “more artisan” and convey the care that goes into making our lunches.
There were other problems that arose from the hinged lid design, but it soon came to light that hinged lid or sealed tray, the Taterware tray was not, in fact, composting. It is unclear to me exactly how this came about, and how a product with an ASTM-D6400 certification wasn’t actually compostable. I’d heard complaints from the manufacturer that the composting standard in California was more strict than in other states, and that the tray was considered compostable in 49 other states, just not ours. It didn’t really matter why though – all that really mattered was that we thought we had a compostable tray and it wasn’t breaking down.
Taterware changed their positioning on the tray from “compostable” to “biobased”. The tray still had the benefit of being made from renewable, plant-based materials (potato starch), but without end-of-life erosion from the materials in a compost environment, our goal was left unmet.
The next few years were met with frustration as we searched for alternatives and came up empty. The Taterware tray was still our best alternative in it’s renewable material composition, and while new materials were coming on the market, we couldn’t seem to find one that could both retain heat AND compost. The heat retention was a non-negotiable requirement. In food, temperature is critical, and whatever tray we sourced had to allow for heat retention in our entrees. We tried countless new materials and with lids, most made for a takeout environment. We even started using a bagasse (wheat straw) fiber tray for our chicken tenders and flautas. We hoped to migrate all of our entrees to the wheat straw tray with a lid, but without a tight seal on the lid, the heat was escaping too readily in the entrees and causing them to fall below acceptable temperatures. It seemed that at every promising turn, we met a dead end.
In the last couple of years, the availability of new materials increased. We couldn’t seem to find anything perfect off the shelf, and most of the promising materials we found were “lined” with a film layer that allowed the material to hold its shape and preserve the quality of the food, but prevented composting – or so we thought.
The turning point in our journey was over the summer of 2015. One of our schools in the Bay Area had setup a meeting with their local composter, and asked me to attend. The meeting actually started off fairly contentious, and it’s easy to see why. One one side you had a compost facility manager, Peter, who’s been dealing with countless products coming into his waste stream for years claiming “compostable” and not breaking down. On the other you had a business owner who thought he had a compostable tray for years, and was the source of some of the offending product coming in for years. In the middle you had the school, who just wanted a “yes/no” on what was compostable and what wasn’t. I couldn’t hold it against Peter or the school that they were frustrated with where we were, and they quickly learned that I was equally as frustrated in not being able to identify the right solution.
It became evident over the course of the meeting that we all had the same goal – find a solution that was actually going to compost. The old adage “begin with the end in mind” couldn’t be more apropos for what came next, as we decided we’d start with testing promising materials FIRST in a compost test bed at the composting facility. Those materials that showed positive results in the test bed would be explored by our team for fit in our kitchen operation, and if that looked viable, the final step of the process would be putting two cases of product through the full compost process and in the actual wind rows where the local green waste comes to rest. Tests like these were going to take time, but if successful, we’d know exactly which trays were going to close the loop for us.
After months of testing, much of which was just waiting for microbes to do their thing, we finally landed on two trays that worked for us. Our shallow tray, primarily used for our elementary-sized entrees, is a bagasse material made from sugar cane, while the deep tray (primarily for larger middle school-sized meals) is a wheatgrass-based bagasse.
The real irony in all of this is that the two materials we landed on were previously discounted because I didn’t believe them to be compostable. While the base of the tray is bagasse, both trays have a non-compostable liner. The liner is necessary to prevent the food from sticking to the tray fibers, and allowing for moisture retention in entree with more of a liquid base. The liner allows the tray to maintain the structural integrity and rigidity all the way to the lunch counter, and ensures that sauces and juices don’t soak into the tray.
Since the liner wasn’t compostable, I didn’t think it was going to work. While working with Peter, we realized that the tray was only lined on one side, and “naked” on the other. In the composting process, we found that the microbes were able to attack the structure from the naked side, leaving only the remnants of the liner at the end of the composting process. I also learned that in most composting processes, this isn’t a problem since the compost is sifted at the end of 90-days to separate the clean compost from everything that didn’t break down. It turns out that 93% of compost is actually yard waste, and even some thicker branches and more sturdy organic materials may not break down in 90-days, so the sifting process is necessary to separate the compost from the remnants, which are then either re-run through the full composting process (for stubborn organic materials), or diverted to the landfill.
Walking the wind rows, I saw everything from water bottles to shoes mixed amongst the compost. Turns out it’s impossible to sort out all non-compostable materials prior to heaping all together for composting, so anything that makes it into your green bin at home is going to make it into the pile. Peter estimated that even with the liner and non-compostable film seal, moving to the bagasse tray with a compostable base would result in 90%+ of all of the waste from the Choicelunch program diverted to compost. The really beauty of the diversion is not only the tray itself, but the sorting process that happens at our schools. With the tray going straight to green waste, any food remains still in the tray will go to compost as well. Bones from the Herb Roasted Chicken, the last ounce of brown rice from the Tikka Masala that goes uneaten, the leftover peas and carrots that may have been pushed to the side – it’s all fodder for the compost pile now in a vastly simplified sorting process for our schools.
As excited as we are to make this change, we know that this marks the beginning of a long road ahead. One of the complexities of commercial composting is that every composter may have different requirements on what they’ll allow. Some of this is driven by a different compost process, and someone is driven by a lack of awareness on whether something is compostable or an overall skepticism similar to what I encountered in the first meeting over the summer. The road ahead is going to involve education not only with school green teams and in the lunchroom, but with the waste management companies and composters who are unfamiliar with our products and the rigor we’ve put into our journey.
After walking this path for over a decade, we haven’t arrived at our destination yet. But we’re one big step closer to zero waste school lunch.