December 1, 2015
Corrected on Dec. 3, 9:27 AM to remove California from the list of states with food bans in "Current Policies" section.
Although controversy continues to swirl around traditional recycling, with regard to both its value and its cost, interest in organics diversion, particularly food waste, continues to grow. Despite depressed commodity prices and higher recycling rate targets, zero waste goals are proliferating. And more states–and more particularly, municipalities–are looking at food waste recovery and landfill diversion.
As noted in prior Business Insights columns, and confirmed by several speakers at the Waste360 Recycling Summit that took place in September, only 30 percent to 40 percent of the waste stream is considered traditionally recyclable, so reaching higher recycling and/or landfill diversion rate targets requires some organics capture, particularly of food waste, as that remains the largest organics stream still being landfilled.
Current Strategies for Organics Management
Although far less preferred by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in its food recovery hierarchy, landfill and composting remain the most common methods of organics (food and yard waste) management, with landfills handling the most food waste and composting the most yard waste. Landfilling may be least desirable from the EPA’s perspective, but it has the advantages of typically lower cost and no contamination worries, while it is also a potential source of alternative energy production as the majority of landfills have landfill gas-to-energy (LFGTE) systems.
Composting of yard waste is common but can be misunderstood with regard to food and food-related waste–many items that are “biodegradable” are NOT compostable, and contamination can be a significant issue.
The third strategy alternative, anaerobic digestion (AD), is most talked about, but its usage in the United States still remains relatively small, although it is more widespread in Europe.
In a recent webinar entitled “State of Organics Management,”Bryan Staley, CEO of the Environmental Research and Education Foundation (EREF), set the landscape. According to EREF, there are 66 specific commercial reactor designs (about 80 percent are the “wet” type), and 46 companies market their systems as having the ability to manage municipal solid waste (MSW) organics. So, the technology exists, but the cost for a stand-alone facility, and the need for a relatively consistent feedstock composition (not always an easy task in MSW) are impediments to AD usage.
POTWs (sewage treatment plants) are often capable of co-digesting MSW organics but are generally not interested in doing so, unless they wish to generate energy as well. Re-use of food waste for human food or animal feed is obviously much higher in the EPA’s hierarchy, but also subject to time and contamination issues.
So What Is the Current State of Practice?
Of the total MSW tonnage of 251.3 million tons heading to 1,461 landfills (by EREF’s count), 106.8 million tons, or 42.5 percent, are organics. Of that, 50 percent is food waste, 19 percent yard waste and 19 percent wood. Positively, 85 percent of tonnage goes to landfills with gas collection systems.
As opposed to landfill, composting is much more fragmented. In the United States there are 3,578 facilities that compost MSW organics. The bulk of them (82 percent) are private, and they also manage the bulk (86 percent) of the tonnage managed. Composting facilities managed slightly more than 25 million tons of MSW organics in 2013. Perhaps not surprisingly, a large portion of that, 43 percent, was handled in the Pacific states, with another 36 percent in the Northeast. In the Midwest, there were a relatively large number of facilities, 1,478, handling 17 percent of the tonnage. However, when looking at the feedstock, an overwhelming amount, or 90 percent, of the 25 million tons was green (yard) waste, while food waste only comprised 8 percent, or slightly more than 2 million tons.
With regard to AD, 180 facilities accept MSW organics; however, only 16 percent of those are stand-alone, where the primary feedstock is MSW organics. The remaining 84 percent are co-digestion, either on farms or waste water treatment plants. Despite the disparity in numbers, however, the stand-alone facilities manage 52 percent of the 784,037 tons managed by AD, with the co-digestion facilities handling the remaining 48 percent. Again, the Pacific states account for the biggest proportion of the tonnage managed, 36 percent, with the most stand-alone facilities at 10. The Northeast manages another 18 percent, with three stand-alone facilities. The Midwest manages a large proportion of MSW organics handled by AD, or 29 percent, with eight stand-alone facilities, and also unsurprisingly 28 co-digestion facilities on farms.
In general, the co-digestion facilities accept much less MSW organics as it is not their primary purpose. But, with AD, the primary feedstock is food waste, which comprises 87 percent of MSW organics handled by AD, while only 5 percent is green waste. So this is the only non-landfill organics management strategy where food waste is the primary component feedstock.
On a national level, the only overarching policy is the recent EPA/U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) food waste reduction goal, which calls for a 50-percent reduction in food waste to be sent to landfill by 2030. This was established in 2015. The majority of organics policies are state, and increasingly local, bans and goals. Currently, 19 states have yard waste bans, while five four states have food waste disposal bans—California, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Vermont and Rhode Island, though it should be noted that the food disposal bans typically apply only to commercial generators.
More recently, cities and municipalities seem to be establishing the lead, including the large cities of San Francisco, Seattle, Portland and Austin. There are also numerous pilot programs that have started, including in New York City.
Summary and Potential Pitfalls
In summary, of the roughly 144 million tons of MSW organics managed–of which food waste is 42 percent–more than 74 percent goes to landfill, more than 17 percent is composted and less than 1 percent goes to AD facilities. Most of the remainder goes to waste-to-energy (WTE). As noted before, most of the recovered/recycled organics are green waste, as only 10 percent of food waste is recovered versus 87 percent for yard waste.
So despite the momentum for organics diversion, the EPA/USDA goal looks aggressive at this point, given the current low level of food waste recovery, combined with insufficient infrastructure. That is despite the fact that the number of stand-alone processing facilities is set to double during the next 5-10 years, and the processing capacity is expected to quadruple in five years.
And there is also the cost issue. As Waste360 quoted in its recent food waste white paper, “a cold hard truth about food-waste recycling: it usually doesn’t save money.” There certainly are a number of benefits, but they tend to be less directly measurable than the added costs.
Leone Young is the Principal of LTY ERC, LLC, providing consulting and research services to, and conducting special projects for, the environmental services industry, primarily the solid waste sector.
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