Food waste mandates are only the halfway mark

Unlike a decade ago, when food waste mandates were few and far between, there is a flurry of activity these days focused on diverting food waste and other residential/commercial biodegradables from landfills and incineration.

From the U.S. to Italy to northern India, the movement toward more sustainable management of organic waste from households and businesses is real and gaining momentum.

But while laudable, there’s a big piece missing from some of these programs — mandated compost use. Just making compost isn’t recycling. The product must be used – returned to the soil – to be recycled. That’s what makes the system “sustainable.”

Landfilling organics isn’t sustainable because they’re buried. Any thermal or other waste-to-energy (WTE) technology that destroys organics isn’t sustainable, either, no matter how hard technology providers try to paint them as such. The feedstock – municipal waste – may be considered a sustainable source, but the management system is not.

A possible exception is biochar, a carbon-rich, charcoal waste material produced by pyrolysis that is sometimes used as a soil amendment. However, not all biochar is right for this type of reuse. It doesn’t offer as many benefits as compost, and — since the use of biochar is relatively new — there is a lack of research related to its long-term use. While pure biochar is made from organics, of specific concern is contamination resulting from WTE biochar processes that use unsorted municipal solid waste as a feedstock.

But whether biochar or compost, the truth bears repeating — recycled organics must be used to feed the soil for a sustainable system to exist. This is the only way to close the recycling loop for organics.

Going the distance with food waste mandates

Football players don’t move the ball to the 50-yard line and then stand around waiting for the pigskin to get itself into the end zone.

Establishing a curbside or drop-off program for source-separated organics is a good first step … but it’s only half the distance to the goal.

The finish line for organics recycling is compost use. Anything a community can do to encourage that use is important. But sometimes, it takes more than education and outreach to get the ball rolling.

When governmental entities write ordinances and project specifications requiring compost use, good things happen. By creating early markets for quality compost products, everyone from green industry pros to stormwater managers to homeowners can clearly see the benefits of amending soil.

This demonstration leads to voluntary compost use through the manufacture of quality products and product sales to high-value markets. Product sales, not giveaway programs, is what will keep composting facilities – public or private – economically sound.

Any community considering organics recycling needs to think about the end game. To ignore the ultimate goal is to win the battle, but lose the war for organics recycling.

READ: Food waste diversion — it’s time to pursue alternatives that make environmental and economic sense