Organics management has gone from an area that no one had much interest in during the first half of the 20th century to an opportunity with revolutionary potential in the early part of the 21 century, speakers observed in the opening session of the organics conference track at WasteExpo in Atlanta.
The 1930s and 1940s were the era of open dumps, when “we didn’t understand the impact of solid waste,” said Luis Diaz, president of CalRecovery Inc. If someone wanted to establish a composting plant in those days, it had to be very low cost, because no one wanted to invest a lot of money in waste management.
But gradually, organics management “began to migrate from folklore to science,” he said. Key composting principles like the amount of oxygen and moisture content required were investigated. The government began funding composting projects.
As composting grew the economics of the business weren’t managed properly, nor were the management of odors and the resulting public outcry. But by the 1970s, “the public became more aware of the importance of environmental management,” Diaz said. Yard trimmings bans starting in the 1980s were a big boon to the business.
“We still make some mistakes,” he said, summing up the last 50 years in composting. “Site selection is critical. And you need the funding.”
But the future is now, said Evan Edgar, Edgar & Associates. He identified the concept of net zero – going carbon negative, which California is striving for by 2025. And organics, with biomass or bionergy, is a big part of that.
“That’s the power of organics, and it smells really good,” said Edgar. “We have the technology in front of us right now.” California is going for 90 percent waste diversion by 2025. “And what happens in California goes elsewhere. So get ready for this.”
Edgar identified three scopes in California’s effort to reduce greenhouse gases, and how waste management is helping the cause. Scope one is direct emissions such as from collection vehicles, and the industry moving to compressed natural gas (CNG). Scope two is indirect emissions, or importing electricity. Landfills generate methane, but Edgar wants to see that food waste source taken out and used more efficiently with composting.
Scope three is avoided indirect emissions, which includes recycling.
Edgar said net zero is achievable. “We’re doing things now, with diesel, CNG and renewable CNG to get to carbon neutral,” Edgar said. Take organics out of the landfill and generate biomethane through composting and other energy methods to be carbon neutral. “That’s the power of zero, the power of organics.”
From a business perspective, there is an enormous opportunity to make money in organics management, said Mitch Kessler, president of Kessler Consulting Inc. He pointed out that 97.5 percent of food waste currently is disposed of. “Organics done correctly is a great opportunity,” he said.
He urged officials to revolutionize their services. Governments are instituting ambitious recycling goals, and the only way to achieve those goals is going after organics.
Kessler said the industry is going about it the right way, focusing more on the commercial end where the most tonnage is. And also by operating in partnership with the public sector. “The government is not capable of making this happen. We can help the government reach the goals they think they want.”
There are challenges. The marketplace is immature. Government laws and regulations are inconsistent. And collection, processing and marketing aren’t integrated as they should be.
But it’s worth dealing with the hurdles, Kessler said. “There’s no one path to get there, but there’s a tremendous opportunity.”