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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 mandates are only the halfway mark 

Compost use gets organics recycling to the finish line 

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, 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 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 productseveryone 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