On Organics: Capacity Issues

As reported in my previous column, during the 1990s the number of yard trimmings facilities in the United States grew from less than 1,000 to more than 3,000. This growth coincided with an increased number of bans on the disposal of yard trimmings in landfills. Currently EPA estimates that more than 60 percent of yard trimmings are being diverted from landfills. Although there is more to be accomplished, growth in yard trimmings composting has been impressive as demonstrated by significant diversion of these materials from landfills.

Overall growth in the diversion and composting of food residuals, however, has been relatively slow with EPA estimating that only 2 to 3 percent of the 34 million tons of food scraps generated annually is composted. The most recent estimates of infrastructure for food residuals identify about 270 composting facilities, with only 57 of those capable of accepting more than 5,000 tons per year (BioCycle, 2008).

These data include nearly 100 university/institutional programs, which do not handle food residuals from other sources. Even with added capacity since 2008 and plans for anaerobic digestion facilities to process food scraps, there is a vast shortage of capacity to accommodate the growing demand for increased diversion and composting (and anaerobic digestion) of food residuals nationwide. As states continue to adopt higher recycling rates and diversion goals, and as communities embrace zero-waste policies, the need for additional capacity will continue to increase.

One of the barriers to developing the infrastructure needed to process additional food residuals is the variety of regulatory hurdles from state to state. Existing yard trimmings composting facilities that want to add food residuals to their feedstock materials are an obvious source of additional capacity. But the process of getting an existing yard trimmings facility permitted to accept food residuals can be very costly and time consuming. As a composting feedstock, food residuals are highly putrescible, wet and rich in nitrogen. This requires additional precautions to control leachate, and poses challenges in terms of efficient process management and odor control.

Siting issues, as well as the cost and time required to permit new facilities, pose additional challenges to infrastructure development. As an example, the Wilmington Organics Recycling Center in Delaware cost about $25 million to develop and took three years to permit and begin operations.

Other means for increasing capacity include bans on organics in landfills and mandatory composting legislation. Although some of these bans have come under attack the past few years and two have been overturned, there is still movement in this direction. Vermont passed a law last year phasing in mandatory composting of food and other organic waste, eventually banning these materials from landfills. In addition, Massachusetts has proposed regulations to ban the disposal of commercial and institutional food residuals in landfills and incinerators beginning in 2014.

San Francisco began pilot testing residential source separation of organics, including food residuals, several years ago. The program expanded to include mandatory commercial and residential composting in 2009. In this case, the facility infrastructure has grown in response to the city’s program and efforts to get composters to take the food scraps.

Although these examples provide a glimpse into some of the ways composting capacity issues are being addressed, major changes and initiatives will be needed to have a significant impact on the diversion of the more than 30 million tons of food residuals currently being disposed of in landfills and incinerators.

So where will the additional capacity come from? In the past few years, some of the major waste companies have entered the organics arena. They have the resources to make major investments to expand infrastructure. Will these investments be made? Will mergers and acquisitions lead to consolidation in the organics sector? What exactly are the business opportunities for waste management companies and haulers in the organics sector?

These and other topics will be discussed in greater detail at WasteExpo’s 1st Annual Organics Conference in New Orleans, May 20-23. To learn more, visit www.wasteexpo.com and click on the link to the conference program.

Stuart Buckner, Ph.D., is president of Buckner Environmental Associates, LLC, a consulting firm specializing in organics management. 

The author welcomes comments from readers. E-mail him at [email protected].

TAGS: Food Waste
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