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.
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.
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.
It has been seven years since we built our new home here in North Carolina, arriving from Maryland excited about the opportunity to create a beautiful lawn to complement our beautiful home.
Well, after our initial year of very hot weather, which caused the wonderful lush sod the contractor had installed to become dry and sparse, I found out how challenging it is to maintain a lawn of cool season grass in the south.
I asked the contractor why my lawn had so many bare spots. He said fescue does not spread to fill in bare spots and it requires a lot of water to establish roots.
So after three summers of extreme heat and drought wreaking havoc on my lawn, I began with the “tried and true” method of applying fertilizer, lime, and various other chemicals in an attempt to rejuvenate the fescue. Four years later, I was still filling in spots that did not want to grow grass in an effort to develop that nice, lush lawn all “do-it-yourselfers” strive for.
It became apparent that applying various fertilizers and way more water — which cost more than I ever imagined — was not providing the results I wanted.
After joining the McGill team last year, I attended seminars about the use of compost on turfgrass to build the organic matter in soils, helping turfgrass establish deep root systems with limited or no chemicals. I became excited when speaking with our many customers and hearing their success stories, with one landscaper stating: “McGill SoilBuilder compost grows grass on concrete.” Now, I didn’t believe our product was that impressive, but I couldn’t wait to find out for myself.
Getting the lawn of our dreams
After convincing my wife that I had not given up turning our lawn into the green gem of our dreams, I ordered a load of our compost and, with her help, spent an unseasonably warm Saturday morning in early March spreading the compost with nothing but a shovel, wheelbarrow, and rake.
I had rented a lawn plug aerator the weekend before to prep the yard by opening small plug holes that would be filled with the compost. After we spread our wonderfully screened and easy-to-handle compost, I over-seeded the following day and watered in, as directed.
We have obtained the results that I have been striving for the past seven years — without the use of harmful chemicals. I had great germination results with the seeding and the turfgrass has greened up amazingly, but the main thing I have been working to achieve — to establish a thick root system — is now reality.
I am looking forward to the water savings that compost has been shown to provide (25-50 percent less water use, according to the research). I feel much more comfortable not having to add various chemicals, because compost provides slow release of nutrients for years of benefit. And if we ever build another home, I now know that applying a thin layer of topsoil does nothing to prepare the soil for growing a good stand of turfgrass. Instead, to get the beautiful lawn we want, we’ll add a couple inches of compost BEFORE we lay sod or seed to add organic matter and build healthier soil.
EDITOR’S NOTE: When he’s not concentrating on his lawn, Gary works as McGill’s compost sales and marketing manager for its U.S. operations.
Many thanks to the folks at Waste Handling and Equipment News East who were kind enough to run a story about our Composter of the Year award from the U.S. Composting Council. You can find the article on Page 6 of the April 2012 edition.
Interested in learning more about the screening equipment McGill uses in its operations? Check out our profile in the March 2012 issue of Portable Plants & Equipment. Page 23. Our thanks to the folks at PP&E.
For a group of students exploring links between economics and the environment, what better place for a tour stop than the McGill Regional Composting Facility at Merry Oaks just south of Raleigh, NC? Students from the Park Scholarships program at North Carolina State University made a late-March visit to hear Noel Lyons, McGill president, talk about the company’s milestones and challenges through 20-plus years of growth.
Last month, town officials in Cary, North Carolina, organized another of their popular compost giveaway events. Residents loaded up free compost manufactured from waste materials generated by the community.
As a result, the line of cars, trucks and SUVs often spills into the street for Cary compost distributions. This year, vehicle count for the “while it lasts” divvy-up was 204.
Sending waste off to be recycled only takes us halfway around the recycling loop. To close it, people must use the products manufactured from those residuals and by-products.
The folks in Cary get it. They also get gallons of irrigation water saved. Other benefits include stormwater runoff reduction and lower water treatment costs. Plus, every patch of suburban lawn or sports field amended with compost sequesters carbon.
Manure vs. compost — which is the better choice? Here are a couple of clues:
- The best thing about raw manure or poultry litter? It’s free.
- The best thing about compost? It works.
- Organic material (OM) is added to soils through manure decomposition. But the amount is about equal to the amount of organic matter lost through natural processes. That’s why you may see no rise in field OM even after years of manure applications. Compost adds stable organic matter.
- Compost is a concentrate. The amount of compost required is much less than the amount of manure required. This helps to cut total number of trips over the field.
- Compost keeps water and fertilizers at the root zone, mitigating fertilizer leaching, erosion and topsoil loss.
- The natural microbial activity of compost does lots of good things for soil which, in turn, does good things for plants. Researchers report improved nutrient uptake and resistance to pests and diseases.
- Compost is best for pasture and hay fields where raw manure applications can reinfect livestock with internal parasites, bacteria and viruses. Compost may be more palatable to grazing horses than untreated manure.
In the compost vs. manure debate, compost is the clear winner.