Posts

Food waste collection: Thinking outside the trash can

Food waste collection can be a major hurdle for communities hoping to recycle curbside.  But might the real problem be not the what, but the how?  Is it time to think outside the trash can?

Let’s ponder this a minute.   

Waste 360 recently spotlighted grassroots recycling as a viable alternative to mainstream systems.  The article pointed out the actions of municipalities that, years ago, may have been too eager to turn successful, local recycling efforts over to “big waste haulers.”

The entrepreneurial efforts and business models of food waste collection outfits like CompostNowNOPE, and Compost Cab seem to be working in their respective service regions.  Instead of disrupting existing “Trash Day” collection systems and practices to include source-segregated food waste, these types of operations bypass the big trash truck with a service built on local-centric collection models that are meeting with success in multiple jurisdictions.   

Commercial composters, both large and small, have already demonstrated profitability in providing direct services to high- and low-volume waste generators, too. This success certainly proves that bypassing conventional collection systems is viable.

Looking at the world’s most successful bottle/container bills, we see return and recovery systems totally divorced from trash collection with capture rates approaching 100 percent.  While bottlers and other manufacturers of containerized products have been known to fight these types of programs, deposit and return systems do work. And they appear to work best when deposit amounts encourage those returns.

So, as the U.S. scrambles to rebuild and reshape its recycling infrastructure in the wake of the China debacle, could the long-abandoned local route to resource recovery of recyclables – residential food waste included – actually offer the better solution?  

Should food waste collection be a local thing?

Maybe, the decades-old struggle to integrate recycling within a system designed for mass disposal indicates the entire approach is flawed. Closely associating food waste, plastics, etcetera with trash as a first step to recovery means recyclables must be rescued from the waste stream before recovery can take place. Is this logical?  Is it efficient?  

Adding methane capture systems to landfills in an attempt to neutralize the damaging impacts of anaerobically-degrading organics just adds complications and expense for managing a material that shouldn’t be landfilled.  Similarly, for plastics and other recyclables, the better solution may lie in diversion at the source, not the transfer station.

Minus putrescibles/recyclables,  curbside collection of the real trash might be reduced to once a month (or less).  This disposal stream would be much, much smaller than current volumes … and clean.   With lower fill rates, existing landfills should last longer and cost less to manage, too.

When recyclables are funneled through and filtered by trash systems, does it make diversion more difficult than it needs to be?   Have we been going about recycling all wrong?

What are your ideas for getting recycling right?

food waste composting includes biodegradable plasticsHarvesting practices, processing systems,  grocery store discards, food prep,  and plate scrapings all contribute to food waste.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 2010 saw the generation of 34 million tons of food waste, almost 14 percent of the total municipal solid waste (MSW) stream.  Only 3 percent was recovered/recycled.  The remaining 33 million tons was wasted, the largest fraction of the total MSW stream to be landfilled or incinerated.

That same year, the U.S. composted about 20 million tons of waste. To compost all food waste currently landfilled or incinerated, we will need to more than double current capacity.  A commitment to zero waste for all organics pushes capacity requirements even higher.

But there is plenty of room at the composting table.  If the industry is to meet the challenges of zero waste, we need to fill those empty chairs.  Fortunately,  interest in collecting food waste from local restaurants, grocery stores and the like is on the rise.

In fact, every now and then, some hopeful composter will contact us.  They seek advice about getting into composting on the community level.

We always offer encouragement, and for some very good reasons.

The ‘greenest’ option may not be viable

Some of us have been environmental activists long before green became everyone’s favorite color.  We know —

  • collecting food waste from the neighborhood,
  • composting it in the neighborhood, and
  • using it to grow food on urban farms in the neighborhood

may be the most desirable option from an environmental standpoint.

But these types of micro-projects are not always practical or particularly viable. Recycling things like plastics, metals and glass is an expensive proposition.  So is recycling food waste – if you want to do it right.

The economics and/or logistics of composting sometimes prohibit action on the neighborhood level.  When that happens, a regional solution can be the best choice for crafting a disposal-to-reuse cycle that works.  Networking with proactive individuals and groups within communities presents opportunities for companies like McGill.

Voluntary collection requires route density

Most of our existing customers generate by-products and residuals by the ton.  But hauling services for low-volume commercial and residential generators are another matter.

Generally, volunteers don’t provide the volumes or route density needed to make the economics work for big tonnage haulers.  Curbside collection requires recycling mandates.

However, smaller companies and community groups are stepping up to the “plate” to fill this gap with curbside services.  They are collecting food waste and other organics by the bin or cart, transporting to permitted composting facilities like McGill.

National Organic Process Enterprises (NOPE) out of Richmond, Va., and Compost Now, based in Raleigh, N.C., are just two companies on our radar.  And there are many more popping up across the country.

It seems to be a successful model for enviropreneurs when the composting facility is located close to a metropolitan area.  No need for food waste transfer stations.

The homeowner or business is able to recycle food waste.  The collection entrepreneur builds a viable business.  We use the material to make compost.  The homeowner or community uses the compost to improve soil.  Everybody wins when we all work to lock the recycling loop for organics, including the environment.

Obviously, there is plenty of room at the composting table for operations of every size. From backyard to community to regional scale, each fills a specific niche.  All will be needed if we, as a nation, are going to stop wasting such a valuable resource.

Up next:  Food waste composting – not as easy as it sounds, not as hard as it seems.

art-pencil-apple-dividerWhen it comes to diverting food waste , there’s still a long row to hoe.

North Carolina released a 2012 study revealing an annual food waste generation rate of over a million tons in the state.  The volume represented at least 12 percent of NC’s municipal solid waste stream. It was slightly lower than the U.S. as a whole, which was around 14 percent in 2010.

As a nation, we’ve made solid progress in recycling some materials.  But food waste isn’t one of them.  The national food waste recovery/recycling rate is only around 3 percent.  What remains — 33 million tons — goes to landfills and incinerators.   North Carolina is doing a bit better than that.  It diverts about 60,000 of those 1 million-plus tons generated or about 6 percent.  But that still puts 94 percent into the disposal stream.

Scott Mouw, North Carolina’s recycling program director, calls food waste “the next frontier for reducing landfill dependence.”  We say it’s that and more.  Food waste, when composted and used as a soil amendment, is a key to reducing stormwater volumes and related pollution.  Its use cuts dependence on chemicals and foreign oil, saves water, and so much more.

Landfills and WTE — diverting food waste?

Burning and burying resources are wasteful and environmentally-unfriendly practices.  Plus, these types of disposal can be more expensive than recycling systems with composting as the core technology.

It’s time to abandon the exuberantly wasteful practices and technologies of the old century and get on with the new.  Building a modern waste management infrastructure is both environmentally and economically responsible.

In the early days of the movement, when meeting goals was a simple matter of personal choice,  sustainability was a lifestyle decision made by individuals and families with minimal influence on the larger community.  But today, decisions about sustainability result in big impacts, because the people making those decisions do so on behalf of cities, corporations and countries.

As a result,  sustainability is no longer about lifestyle choices – it’s about systems, the infrastructure upon which a sustainable society can anchor and grow.  Sustainability has become a very large composition made up of many technologies, services and policies.  Like the web of life, many of its components are interrelated and, sometimes, symbiotic.  If one component is faulty, undersized or missing, the entire system suffers.

Organics recycling is a subsystem of the larger whole.  Farmers, foresters and horticulturalists produce raw materials, turning the valve on a long and intricate supply line of goods and services flowing to consumers.  At every stop,  waste products are generated.  When collected and used as feedstocks in the manufacture of compost, those by-products and residuals transform into soil amendments, growing the next generation of raw materials, controlling stormwater, conserving drinking water and reducing chemical use.  This full circle is what makes it a recycling loop.

But even if the infrastructure does not yet exist for you to send your biodegradables to a community or regional composting facility, you can still make an important contribution to your region’s sustainability system.

How?  Develop a management plan which calls for the use of one cubic yard of compost in landscaping and turfgrass management for every ton of biodegradable waste generated at your facility — be it a municipality, a manufacturing plant or a military base – and you will balance the scales for your operation.  In so doing, markets for compost products expand, giving compost manufacturers competitive advantages in waste procurement.  This allows natural market forces – not laws, taxes and sustainability mandates – to do the heavy lifting,  and is almost always the faster, less painful path to progress.

Big names in the corporate world source-separate food waste for composting. Each time it happens, food waste diversion can claim a major victory.

And in this case, everyone wins, not only the waste generator.

Diversion enthusiasts applaud higher recycling rates and lower greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.  Corporations earn green bragging rights.  Everyone gets a sustainable management program for biodegradables.

Some high-volume generators don’t care about such things. They only want the lower tipping fee.

But they still enjoy cleaner air and a longer lifespan for the local landfill.

Yet the war against wasted organics is far from over.  Businesses producing compostable waste in high volumes represent the low-hanging fruit. Their generation rates justify the cost of commercial collection for compostables.

But for everyone else, the economics may not make sense.

Commercial composters drool over the market potential of independent grocers, restaurants, and households. But without source separation and collection infrastructure, a facility could stand empty.

At the cart and bin level, a municipal plan to ensure route density boosts food waste diversion.  Build that system, and the composters will come.