2014 will be an exciting year in garbage. We will see more privatization of solid waste services, more collection trucks running on alternative fuels, more interest in every other week collection of garbage and more zero waste initiatives. But the overriding trend will be the conversion of organics into either compost or an energy source.
The spotlight on organics is an inevitable outgrowth of the biggest trend of the last two decades: our move from disposal to recycling and composting. Yes, the increase in recycling will slow down as our use of easy to recycle products such as newspapers and other printed papers continues to decrease. Another factor is our inability to make headway in collecting recyclables from multi-family housing, small businesses and public spaces.
As a result, states and local governments will look to decrease their reliance on disposal systems by focusing on organics. More than half the waste stream is composed of yard waste, food waste and paper products. We are doing well on composting yard waste and we recycle more than half of the paper we use. But we lag badly on food waste. That and hard to recycle paper products such as plates, towels and cups, are well suited for composting or anaerobic digestion.
Increasing our diversion of organics from disposal will not be easy. While we have plenty of composting facilities for yard waste, we have pitifully few for food waste and even fewer for anaerobic digestion. Many states will have to revamp their composting regulations to control the greater challenges posed by food waste. All states will have to deal with the inevitable siting problems. The NIMBYs will be out in force, pledging their support of organics recovery so long as it happens somewhere else. Food waste will also provide an increased odor challenge. The learning curve will be daunting but that challenge can be overcome.
Another problem facing food waste diversion is the attempt by some legislators to guarantee a market for new organics recovery facilities. They will do this by forcing large generators such as grocery stores to use a facility that is located “close” to that generator. If those facilities use the legislative mandate as an excuse for price gouging and poor service, they had better be prepared for a backlash from their captive customers.
Every other week collection of garbage is another trend arising from the increased emphasis on organics. It is still rare, but is gaining momentum as people put less garbage in their trashcans and more recyclables and organics in their other bins. I do not expect 2014 or even 2015 to be its breakout year. But I anticipate more pilot programs and a few cities switching to this new collection schedule.
Zero waste initiatives at manufacturing plants and retail outlets also benefit from the interest in organics. 2013 saw a continued increase in news stories from companies boasting about their successes in eliminating waste from their operations. In many cases, these stories emphasized the diversion of edible food “waste” to food banks and other food “waste” to animal feed operations. This smart capitalism has a green future ahead of it.
Will more organics collection occur overnight? No. In addition to regulatory and siting issues, the same practical problems that have plagued recycling will create problems for organics. Nonetheless, just as recycling took off three decades ago, organics are poised to launch now.