Should food waste continue to find its way to landfills, or should food scraps and other organics be diverted for other purposes?
Environmentalists and solid waste managers are at odds over this question, with landfill operators questioning the unintended consequences of a valiant effort.
Roughly 72 percent of the municipal waste stream is made up of organic waste including food waste, which the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says is the single largest source of methane.
EPA promotes food waste diversion from landfills, and says food can be diverted through preventing food waste, donating food to those in need, feeding food scraps to animals, turning food waste into biofuel, composting, and through anaerobic digestion.
Benefits food waste diversion includes reduced methane production in landfills, the creation of valuable and other soil amendments, lower disposal costs, and tax benefits, according to EPA.
The U.S. Composting Council also promotes diversion, and says national diversion rates have increased 2 percent in 1990 to 20 percent in 2005. USCC promotes ongoing diversion efforts, including bans on landfilling food wastes.
Devin Moose, PE, DEE, director of solid waste services for Environmental Solutions, says banning food waste or other organic material from landfills is not a decision that can be made in haste.
“No materials should be banned from a landfill without first considering all potential consequences,” Moose says. “First, why are we banning it? Does it pose a threat to the environment? In the case of food waste, it poses no threat to the environment if disposed in a properly operated Subtitle D landfill.”
Additionally, Moose questions the intent to preserve landfill space.
“Landfill capacities vary significantly from region to region. Some landfills have a hundred years of capacity while others may show limited capacity but are readily expandable. Moreover, how much space does food waste actually consume during the life of a landfill?” Moose says. “We know the weight of food waste at the curb for the most part but that cannot simply converted to volume consumed at the landfill because over the life of a typical landfill, say 20 years, most of the food waste deposited in the landfill would have degraded. I believe food waste consumes an insignificant volume in a typical landfill over its life.”
More factors to consider are the inadequate regulations and infrastructure in place to handle diverted waste. Without proper protocols in place, diversion could cause more harm than good, Moose says.
“We have seen this when other materials are banned from a landfill without considering all factors,” Moose says, using cathode ray tubes (CRTs) as an example. “In most areas of the country, there are inadequate protections in place to accommodate a food waste landfill ban.”
In order for a ban to be effective, policymakers must also be able to accurately gauge the expense of a ban, Moose says.
“If it will be more expensive, is this something the people they represent are willing to pay for? What are the cost impacts by losing this volume at the landfill?” Moose asks. “This varies from community to community and therefore a national or statewide ban is inappropriate. In my experience, food waste diversions are more expensive,” Moose says.
Moose also voiced concerns over the value and market of the diverted food waste product—compost.
“If your goal is to produce compost is there a market for the compost or is used as daily cover at a landfill or simply applied to farm fields and if so, what value does that really bring?” he asks.
In regard to greenhouse gas emissions, Moose says the effects vary by community and therefore should not be weighed at the state or national level.
Moose says not only does he not believe in national food waste bans, but also statewide bans. He says any bans should be of a smaller scale and weighed very carefully.