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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?

What is a composting facility package plant?

In the water/wastewater treatment and composting industries, a package plant typically refers to a small, prefabricated unit dropped on-site, ready to connect to the larger system.  A McGill composting facility package plant is different.

Since McGill doesn’t build small facilities, its “package” is actually a set of blueprints and specifications for an industrial composting plant pre-engineered to meet the specific environmental containment, throughput, and feedstock requirements of the owner.

Actual construction may include prefab and off-the-shelf components, but there is likely iron going up at the site and concrete to pour, too.

While the owner is still responsible for site-specific engineering,  all other aspects – structure, process, operating procedures, etc. — are provided with the package.  Initial crew training and start-up supervision is included, too.

Pre-engineered McGill facilities ensure efficient, economical operations because they are designed by folks who have been successfully building and running trouble-free, 100,000+ TPY commercial plants for nearly 30 years.      

When mixed paper and OCC markets are in freefall 

Composting steps in as an alternative to traditional waste paper and cardboard recycling 

Market fluctuations are not a new phenomenon for mixed paper and old corrugated cardboard (OCC) recycling.  The most recent trade war turbulence is neither unexpected nor unique.   

The truth is, for the last 20 or 30 years, the profit or loss potential for these commodities has been swinging like wind chimes in a stiff breeze.  Whether the resulting sound is a tolerable resonance or cacophonous jangle largely depends on readiness. 

As history repeats itself, markets for recyclableare going to shift, sometimes, dramatically.  Accept the inevitable Embrace it.  But most of all, plan for it.  There will be times when waste managers need an alternative to mammoth paper and cardboard stockpiles that’s more cost-effective than landfilling or incineration.   

Enter composting – a reliable, affordable recycling backup plan for all things organic, including mixed paper and OCC.  If you’re like the MRF operator paying $56/ton to get rid of the stuff,  composting can be a very attractive lifesaver.  It’s a service that’s available now, not months or years into the future when new domestic paper recyclers are expected to be up and running.   

Composters can use the carbon 

Wood waste was once abundant, an easy-to-source amendment for composting operations.  But like so many other industries, composting could do little but watch as this resource bled away to other markets, mostly waste-to-energy and other wood-hungry combustion technologies, both in the U.S. and overseas. 

As a result, it’s not unusual for today’s composting operation to accept wood-based waste products for a low-to-no tipping fee if that tonnage is clean and already ground/shredded.  If the facility operator has to grind, the tipping fee will increase to cover that cost.  Using mixed paper and OCC saves composters the expense of buying virgin materials like sawdust to use as a bulking agent while offering MRF managers a recycling option that can be less than half the cost of local disposal. 

But the mixed paper and OCC stream has to be clean 

Composting operations can’t use a feedstock stream that’s contaminated, because the resulting compost has little to no market value.   

Contaminants include all types of non-degradable plastics and foam products, as well as metal and glass.  Depending on the facility and process employed, some compostable plastics and films will not be acceptable, either.   

Typically, bio-resins require a modern, high-rate process for rapid biodegradationand most U.S. composting operations are still using older technologies. It’s not that these types of plastics won’t degrade using slower systems.  But the rate is too sluggish for the system’s designed throughput rate.   

That leaves obvious, partially-degraded plastics in finished product, rendering the entire batch unsalable.  Finer screens can help, but the extra handling adds to costs and can still leave visible contaminants in the final product. 

Small metal bits like nails and staples tend to “disappear” during high-rate composting, but broken glass poses unsurmountable problems for every type of process.  Since shards can be small enough to pass through screenscompost contaminated with glass is unsafe and cannot be used for anything but boiler fuel or landfill cover. 

On the positive side, biodegradable items that are usually banned in the mixed paper/OCC recycling stream (like pizza boxes, paper towels and paper-based fasfood wrappers) can all divert to composting.  It doesn’t matter if the paper or cardboard is dirty or has a wax coating.  Most modern, high-rate facilities will be able to handle it.  Untreated/unpainted pallets can be added to the carbon mix, too. 

Diverting a variety of carbon-based materials away from landfills and incinerators might offset the cost of composting the mixed paper and OCC.  Of course, the amount of savings (if any) depends on volumes diverted and local disposal fees. 

Composting can offer both short-term solutions and long-term stability for paper and cardboard recycling. 

Find a composter 

Whether seeking one-time rescue or a more stable, permanent alternative to traditional mixed paper and OCC markets, a local composting operation could be the answer. 

BioCycle Magazine’s FindAComposter site or the U.S. Composting Council’s products and services directory can help you find a composter serving your region. 

Waste managers in the Carolinas, Mid-AtlanticFlorida, and Ireland can also contact McGill directly for a quote. 

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.

waste handlingMany 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.

 

 

 

Portable Plants & Equipment coverInterested 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.