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Is it really a good idea to make compostable waste go away and never come back? 

Each year, taxpayers collectively spend millions of dollars to burn or bury compostables.  Much like a tribe of ubiquitous Gollums, they just want garbage — the biodegradable and putrefying fraction of the municipal solid waste stream – to go away and never come back. 

The desire to make disagreeable discards disappear into fiery furnaces or burial mounds is understandable.  But is it wise?  Is it fiscally responsible?  Is it really a good idea to make organic waste go away and never come back? 

Nature recycles everything 

Rocks weather and erode, creating sediment. With heat, pressure, and time, that sediment becomes rock again.  Plants and animals feed and drink from the earth, die, and decompose to replenish the soil that will sustain future generations of flora and fauna.  Water drops from the sky as rain, filters down to aquifers, upwells and evaporates back to the clouds to fall once more. 

In a fantasy land, it may be possible to keep using resources without a thought to replenishment.  But in the real world, organic waste – the decaying residuals of once-living things – must be recycled back to the soil to maintain life-critical soil functions.   

Some seem to think the destruction of organics to make energy is more important than rebuilding soil.  But pushing an organic-waste-to-energy agenda by sacrificing the soil makes no sense. Humans managed to survive for millennia without electricity and centralized energy systems.  Without soil’s life-essential contribution to food and clean water, people face extinction in weeks.  

So, which is more important, energy or soil? 

Make energy and rebuild soil?   

Organic waste from developed societies includes all types of vegetation, food, manures … even compostable plastics.  When turned into a quality compost, these once-lost resources can be used by anyone anywhere to replenish depleted soil.   

Happily, making energy and building healthy soil does not have to be an either/or proposition.  It is possible to extract energy from organic waste without destroying the beneficial properties that make it valuable to soil.   The organic waste streams from these processes can then be used as feedstocks in the manufacture of compost products. 

Unhappily, energy production from biomass is one of the most expensive ways to make energy.  Even solar and wind power can be more cost-effective. 

Furthermore, bioenergy technologies based on anaerobic digestion of organics are still too pricey to be practical in many places.  Where they do exist, the waste stream (digestate) is not always put to highest and best use (i.e. composted).  Instead, residuals may be landfilled or relegated to low-dollar-value reuse. 

But one day, as more communities opt to restore natural soil replenishment cycles and energy generation technologies become more efficient, extracting energy from biomass, followed by composting and compost use, can become the system of choice for organic waste management. 

In the meantime … 

The importance of healthy soil 

Where humans live, topsoil has been scraped away or eroded.  Nutrients are used up.  Compaction has destroyed the pore spaces essential to the transport of air, water, and microbes.  Without a regular infusion of new organic matter to correct these deficiencies, soil dies.   

There are lots of processes for generating energy, but there’s only one way to replenish disturbed soils in developed areas – feed them a good, wholesome diet derived from organic waste converted into compost.   

From farms to lawns to sports fields, soils require periodic applications of compost.  There’s no other way to easily and economically provide soil with everything it requires to retain water, nurture vegetation, and create the type of environment soil microbes need to support nutrient uptake, contribute to disease resistance, and degrade pollutants. 

The best news? In many metropolitan areas, efficient, high-rate composting – the type needed to successfully manage big, urban waste streams – costs no more than landfilling or incineration.  Often, recycling at a modern, industrial composting operation can be more affordable than traditional disposal.   

Composting makes organic wastes go away, but they come back as enriching soil amendments.  Biodegradables need to keep recycling, just like they have since the beginning of time. 

Breaking the natural soil cycle by incinerating or burying compostable waste is a bad idea that should go away and never come back.

VIEW THE SLIDESHARE:  Addicted to convenience

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

Got food waste?  We’ll take it. 

Here’s what you need to do to get ready for food waste composting 

(Also view WE WORK FOR FOOD WASTE on SlideShare) 

Not every composting facility is using a technology with the oomph to take on the full range of biodegradables common to food waste.  McGill is one of a handful across the county that will accept it all. 

McGill accepts food waste, including dairy and meats.  We take certified-compostable cups and other serviceware, too.   Dirty napkins and pizza boxes, paperboard/cardboard, broken pallets  – toss it all into that container bound for a McGill composting facility. 

But there are a few things you need to do before jumping feet first into organics diversion. 

  • Composting generally costs less than landfilling.  Look around for any and all biodegradable wastes that can go to composting along with that food waste.  
  • Get a handle on total generation volumes of biodegradables.  You can’t get a quote, plan for storage or make meaningful forward progress until weekly or annual generation rates are determined.  Our Estimating volumes for composting SlideShare title can get you started on either a DIY or professional waste audit. 
  • Get a quote for composting services based on the total compostables volume. 
  • Figure out how you’re going to separate the compostables from the other recyclables (plastic bottles, aluminum cans, etc.) and trash.  The composting stream has to be “clean.” That means no non-compostables.  Contamination makes the compost unsalable.  Because the ability to derive revenue from compost sales is one reason composters can offer lower tipping fees, intake customers (like you) are the beneficiaries of diligent source-separation.   
  • Identify vendors for compostable serviceware and other products.  Determine costs to switch to an all-compostable food service environment.  Going all-compostable will eliminate most common contaminants, scratch the need for multiple trash and recycling receptacles in food service areas, reduce the cost of penalties for contaminated loads, and make enforcement of separation policies so much easier.    
  • Develop a collection, separation, and storage strategy. 
  • Confirm all assumptions, develop and finalize the project budget. 
  • Develop and initiate a training and enforcement program for participants, whether they be employees, customers, or residents. 

If you’re in a region served by a McGill composting facility: 

  • McGill will haul your food waste and other compostables if you generate enough to fill a big roll-off container or tractor-trailer load every few days.  Some health departments may have rules governing the required frequency of food waste collection.  Check with yours.  Regardless of local rules, you don’t want food waste sitting around for long periods of time.  If you are a low-volume generator, contact a third-party hauler who specializes in bin and cart collection.  Your public works department or local/state recycling coordinator may be able to give you some names.   
  • One cubic yard of food waste weighs about half a ton.  Our minimum load requirement is 40 tons.  We’ll haul smaller loads, but you’ll be charged the 40-ton minimum.  That’s why it may pay for you to look around for other organics to toss into the composting bin along with the food waste. 
  • If you want to haul yourself, take a look at McGill’s requirements for vehicles and drivers. 
  • To find out if there’s a McGill facility near you, find our locations here. 
  • Here’s how to contact us. 

If you’re not in a region served by a McGill composting facility: 

To find a composter in your area, contact state and local recycling coordinators or solid waste divisions.  There are also searchable directories online, like Find a Composter. 

Confirm what these operations will or will not accept, then base your waste audit and separation strategy planning on those findings. 

To compost it yourself: 

For high volume generators,  McGill offers package plants beginning at 35,000 tons per year throughput.  

But for low volume generators with sufficient space and people-power, on-site composting may be an option, offering the resulting compost for sale or giveaway to customers, employees, or the broader community. 

If exploring this route, do yourself a big favor and eliminate open-air composting as a consideration.  The last thing any company needs is negative PR from an outdoor compost pile gone wrong.  Opt for some kind of enclosed or in-vessel system, like those offered by Green Mountain Technologies.   

Also know that composting beyond the backyard requires professional management.  It may also require state or local permits.  For program stability and to ensure both paperwork and process are done right, even a small community food waste project relying on volunteers for the bulk of the labor force should consider putting a paid, trained, and certified specialist in charge of the composting operation.   

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.

Lipton

Organics recycling helps Lipton’s Suffolk, VA employees reach zero landfill goal.

When the plant manager of Lipton’s Suffolk, Virginia facility challenged his employees to improve their recycling program in late 2008, it yielded a surprising end—the plant become a zero landfill facility.

As Lipton employees worked to improve their recycling rate in early 2009, the plant manager realized they were quite close to recycling all of their excess materials. Still – “There were a few items we couldn’t find a home for,” said Michael Boone, Lipton’s warehouse supervisor, mainly, excess tea and some paper from the manufacturing process.   When the plant manager got in touch with McGill, he found a taker for these by-products, and Lipton officially became a zero landfill facility in May 2009.

Lipton puts all compostable materials in a compactor, then a hauler trucks them to McGill’s composting facility near Waverly, VA. Today, the company sends McGill about seven tons of organics per week, recycling the tea’s nutrients and helping make their business that much more sustainable. Which, really, is everyone’s cup of tea.