Organics are hot. What to do with them is fast becoming our industry’s biggest challenge. It is also the most elusive. Just defining which materials are "organic" can be maddening. Do we mean only food and yard waste or should we include other products including unrecycled paper products, such as towels, cups, tissues, wood pallets and even diapers and cat litter? If we take the former approach, about 30 percent of the waste stream is organic; with a more expansive definition, more than half of the waste stream is.
To complicate matters, organics are both easy and maddeningly hard to recover. Yard waste is easy. Local government’s promotion of grasscycling and backyard composting has been highly successful. Started in the early 90's, those programs continue to divert significant tonnages of yard waste away from further management.
In addition, curbside leaf collection in the fall has been commonplace for decades. That made the transition to year round collection for centralized composting simple. Contamination is uncommon in part because of how yard waste is generated and kept separate from other materials. Moreover, those composting facilities are relatively easy to site and manage.
Food waste is far more challenging. While all of us should know what food waste is, collection programs are faced with the same contamination challenges as are traditional recycling programs. Both kinds of recovery require behavior change to succeed. Generators—you and I—must learn new habits of where to put our food waste and how to keep it contaminant free.
Yet based on current experience, getting people to separate and only put food waste in those bins is behavior change on steroids. Food waste is messy when compared to traditional recyclables and has the “yuck” factor. Both tend to dissuade residential participation. Worse yet, commercial collection programs require intensive training and retraining of a changing workforce that often has bigger workplace priorities then keeping food waste bins clean.
Food waste is also wet and heavy, making collection a challenge. Carts full of food waste test workers' muscles and stamina. Collection trucks have to manage more liquids than recycling or garbage trucks. And of course, siting and operating food waste composting and anaerobic digestion facilities is proving to be expensive and difficult. Did I mention odor? These problems can be solved. But that won't happen overnight.
Another challenge is the difficulty of estimating the amount of available organics. National data does not reflect local climatic variables in yard waste generation. Estimates of the amount of available food waste nationally vary dramatically. Intensive waste sorts and characterization studies are need to ensure recovery facilities are not oversized. Further complicating this is the reality that commercial generators are likely to resort to in-facility options such as grinders or other systems to manage their food waste. And who knows, maybe the efforts to make us less wasteful eaters will be successful.
Those other materials that can be considered organic, such as unrecycled paper, are most likely to be managed by more technologically advanced systems. They can be good feedstock for anaerobic digestion facilities that are either stand alone or located at wastewater treatment plants. Toronto’s organics collection program even collects diapers and animal waste and sends those items, along with other organics, to an anaerobic digestion facility.
We are likely to make immediate progress by emphasizing recovery of edible food for human or animal consumption. These programs provide needed sustenance and are relatively easy to put into place. Better "best used by" labeling on food products will also prevent the too early disposal of edible food. Success in these areas will give us more time to build a solid food recovery infrastructure.
I have no doubt we will see a great deal of interest in organics recovery over the next decade. Our customers are increasingly asking us to provide this service. They will be expecting solutions.
As a result, my colleague Anne Germain and I have written a white paper: State of Organics Recovery 2016. We provide an overview of what organics are, where they are generated, existing laws and regulations governing their management, recovery technologies, barriers and incentives. Food waste is the focus of the paper, but we touch on all organics. I wish I could say we provide the solution. But the addition of food waste to organics management is the new frontier for our industry. Even the experts have more questions than answers.
The white paper is due to be released by the end of October and available at www.wasterecycling.org. We hope you find it to be a useful introduction to this topic. Your thoughts and comments will be appreciated.
Chaz Miller is the Director of Policy and Advocacy at the National Waste & Recycling Association headquartered in Washington, D.C. He can be reached with your questions and comments at [email protected]