The Future of Composting and Organics Recycling

The Future of Composting and Organics Recycling

The future of organics management in the U.S. was a central theme at the third annual Composting and Organics Recycling Conference at WasteExpo. This article focuses on one of the key topics, the recovery of food residuals, which pervaded many of the presentations by addressing the importance of diverting more food scraps from landfills and incinerators, treating food scraps as a resource and not a waste product for disposal, and practicing sustainable materials management by using and recycling wasted food in the most productive and sustainable way.

As discussed by Dr. Sally Brown, there are significant benefits to local communities from organics diversion especially of food residuals from landfills to composting. Some of these benefits include reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, improved nutrient recycling, reduced water usage, increased crop yields and carbon storage in soils. From the revised EPA Waste Reduction Model (WARM) alone, the net benefit for landfill diversion and composting food scraps equals 0.71 tons CO2 per wet ton food scraps including soil carbon credit.

Jordan Figueiredo discussed how various organizations are working to prevent food waste and recover edible food for the millions of Americans who deal with hunger every day. He discussed Feeding the 5000 Oakland, a festival that highlighted the exorbitant waste of food in the U.S. Feeding the 5000 is a U.K.-based campaign that recovers wasted food from farms, groceries and restaurants, and then feeds people at large public events. Tens of thousands of meals have been served at these events throughout Europe since 2009 where millions of people have been educated about food waste issues.

Other speakers discussed how academic, corporate and healthcare organizations have developed onsite composting or collection programs to send food scraps to centralized compost facilities.

Carla Castagnero provided insights on how AgRecycle has prospered for two decades to become a successful composting company in a low tip fee environment by producing high quality compost products for a diversity of markets. This was achieved by partnering with food scrap generators from corporate, academic, public, and sports venues as well as restaurants, food processors and grocery stores.

Several presentations on technologies used in anaerobic digestion and composting documented success during food scraps processing and demonstrated the capability for managing organic waste streams while producing beneficial by-products, i.e., compost and renewable energy.

JD Lindeberg of Resource Recycling Systems pointed out that, as the demand for organics recovery grows, especially for food waste, a shortage of organics processing infrastructure will emerge as a major barrier to increased recovery which will require substantial financial investment for success.  Some key business plan ingredients for investment include:

  • Markets – High value product is essential to developing a healthy revenue stream.
  • Tip fees – Each recovery operation requires payment for handling material that would otherwise have been sent to the landfill.  Where tip fees are high, offsetting these sums often provides sufficient revenue for the recovery operation.  Where tip fees are low, additional revenue from product sales are required to support the operation.
  • Technology Selection – System choice is a function of feedstock material(s) and the locale of the site. But the system and associated equipment drives both capital and operational costs and must be appropriate for the circumstances. 

Ultimately, without a good business plan that is financially sustainable, organics recovery cannot be fully accomplished.

To develop successful organics recovery facilities, George Savage of CalRecovery discussed how a comprehensive, well-conceived procurement process is required to build and operate complex anaerobic digestion and composting projects with a potential lifetime of 15 to 20 years which is necessary to reasonably amortize the large capital costs.  

Well-conceived operating projects must account for changes that may occur over the life of the project such as the characteristics of the waste stream as well as markets and uses of recovered energy and compost products. In order to cover these project risks, to develop an operating agreement with the necessary flexibility and equity for the parties involved, and to define and secure the “real” price of the project, the process of procurement should include a draft with contract terms and conditions; reference waste characteristics and their relation to yield and quality of byproducts; definitions of important terms; performance guarantees; acceptance testing and reporting protocols; and incentives for the owner, operator, or both, to increase the technical and financial efficiency of the project over its lifetime.

These presentations as well as others from the composting and organics recycling conference program are available at Waste360 University. For more information, go here. If you are interested in information about speaking at next year’s conference, go here.  

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