The Commission for Environmental Cooperation (CEC), an offshoot of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), has released a new report titled “Characterization and Management of Organic Waste in North America—Foundational Report” based on the findings of two years of research.
The CEC has also released a companion report on the state of food loss and waste (FLW) in North America. To create the reports, the CEC relied on existing data and literature as well as interviews with professionals and experts in the areas of organic waste and FLW.
“From the two reports, I think we’ve interviewed nearly 300 people,” says David Donaldson, head of the Green Growth Unit at the CEC.
Donaldson said the biggest challenge in putting the report together was a lack of available data, particularly in the industrial, commercial and institutional (ICI) sector and concerning the economics of end products.
The report focuses on specific types of organic waste, including food waste, yard and garden waste, paper products, wood other than construction and demolition debris and pet waste. The report does not examine textiles, leather, petroleum-based plastic livestock manure or wastewater treatment biosolids, except when referring to Mexico, where some of those waste types were specifically included.
The report examines the current state of organic waste diversion and processing, discusses the challenges associated with managing organic waste and identifies strategies for increasing diversion and reducing the problems that organic waste can cause, namely air and water pollution, climate change and hunger.
“It’s really to get that broad kind of look at us as a continent on the issue of organic waste,” says Donaldson.
Here are some key takeaways from the report:
- According to the report, Canada, Mexico, and the U.S. generated approximately 265 million metric tonnes of organic waste each year. From that total, roughly 75 million tonnes are diverted and the other 190 million tonnes end up in landfills.
- Canada and the United States both have an organic diversion rate of 32 percent, while Mexico has a rate of 7 percent.
- The three North American countries differ in implementation strategy when it comes to organic waste diversion and processing, but collection methods and processing technology are much the same. Further, the countries face similar challenges such as educating the public and combating contamination.
- Estimates of residential organic waste in North America are the most comparable because all three countries track the residential solid waste stream. Such is not the case in the ICI sector. Comparisons are complicated, however, by the lack of consistent specifications across all three countries for what is considered organic waste.
- The report states that the U.S. has significantly more composting facilities than Canada, but Canada in turn has significantly more than Mexico. Less information is available concerning the use of anaerobic digestion (AD) in the three countries.
- Across the globe, landfills are the third biggest human-caused source of methane, accounting for approximately 799 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent (MTCO2e) in 2010. This methane is created mostly by organic waste in the landfills.
- The report estimates annual greenhouse gas emissions from solid waste disposal for each country. Canada emits an estimated 26 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent annually, while Mexico is responsible for 18 million to25 million tonnes and the U.S. emits 148 million tonnes each year, bringing the combined total to just under 200 million tonnes.
- Through increased diversion and processing, the report estimates that North American countries could potentially reduce these emissions by up to 100 million tonnes combined, although it notes that such estimations are complicated and variable.
- Diverting and processing organic waste has useful outputs such as biogas and digestate, but participation, and proper participation at that, is crucial.
- Solutions to the challenges of organic waste include outreach and education efforts that inform the public about proper participation, increased landfill and waste-to-energy tipping fees for loads containing organic waste and support for the growing market of products derived from organic waste across North America.
- Public or private curbside collection of source separated organics is becoming increasingly popular. The customization available to customers makes it one of the best ways to increase diversion rates.
- Several communities in Canada and the U.S. have instituted economic incentives such as pay-as-you-throw programs that require residents to pay based on the volume of waste disposed. The practice incentivizes throwing less away and keeping organics out of the trash.
- Mexico City, Mexico, requires both the residential and ICI sectors to separate their organic waste.
- Twenty-four U.S. states and the provinces of Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia in Canada have banned organic waste from landfills entirely.