Today’s schools, institutions, restaurants and corporations recognize that including environmental elements, namely organics recycling, into their waste management and recycling protocols is more than just green business – it’s good business.
Rick Perez, founder and chief executive officer of Houston based Avangard Innovative, one of the world’s largest waste and recycling optimization companies employing over 600 with operations in 11 countries, said that while it is difficult to quantify the adoption rate or volume of organic waste currently recycled due to the lack of standards set in defining types of data, it is well documented that this segment for recycling is growing fast, faster than other segments like scrap metals or specific types of packaging.
“Companies, organizations and institutions are increasingly recognizing that organics recycling, by weight, is one of the largest negative impacts to sustainability program metrics, like Capture Percentage Rates, and causes a large negative impact on environmental metrics and ESG compliance,” Perez said. “This makes it a very popular topic at corporate and government offices, as well as boardrooms.”
Jen Panaro, owner of WasteWell, an organic waste collection company, said that, generally speaking, the organic waste recycling industry is still quite small and has much room for improvement.
“However, I think it varies greatly by geography and local government leanings. A few areas have quite robust community-wide systems in place while most communities have next to nothing, at least with respect to broad infrastructure,” Panaro said.
Panaro pointed to a growing interest from municipalities and private organizations to reduce their landfill waste through organic waste recycling programs and initiatives, but many are fairly cost sensitive.
“I understand why this is the case, and in some ways, there are certain initial costs that entities must absorb to change current waste management practices,” Panaro said.
However, Panaro said there’s a bit of an educational hurdle to overcome to help people understand that organics waste recycling can be a long-term cost shift (from landfilling and other waste management costs to organics recycling) instead of an additional cost that communities and organizations will forever add to their existing waste management cost structure.
According to Stephanie Miller, author of Zero Waste Living and founder of ZeroWaste in DC, a company providing zero waste household consultations and advocacy through corporate and community presentations, California has always been a trendsetter on environmental regulation – whether in vehicle emissions restrictions or clean energy mandates. For organics recycling, they are also leading the way with the passage of the 2016 law (SB 1383) that takes effect in January 2022 requiring all residents and businesses to recycle their organic waste (primarily food scraps and yard trimmings) and all jurisdictions to provide collection services for this waste. This builds on previous mandates for businesses of a certain size to compost their organic waste.
“I believe California’s efforts will spread because one of the easiest ways for states and cities to meet their ambitious greenhouse gas reduction targets is to divert organic waste from landfills,” Miller said. “This will result in reduction of methane emissions produced when organic waste breaks down in landfills. Since methane is one of the most prevalent and potent greenhouse gases, and landfills are the third largest source of methane emissions, these efforts have a big impact in meeting emission reduction targets.”
Legislative target setting is also a way to encourage the growth in new composting infrastructure, which falls far short across the country. And so far, organics recycling is largely an untapped opportunity. As Miller explained, according to the Montgomery County, Maryland Department of Environmental Protection’s website, food scraps are “the next frontier material, providing the greatest opportunity to recycle more, in the quest to reduce waste and recycle more…”
“California’s goal of reducing organic waste by 75 percent by the end of 2025 is not dissimilar to the goals set at the federal, state and municipal levels and by educational institutions. The U.S. Department of Agriculture and the EPA announced in 2015 a goal of cutting food loss and waste in half by 2030,” Miller said. “The recent Global Methane Pledge initiated by the U.S. in the lead-up to the Glasgow climate summit and signed by more than 100 countries also will surely generate pressure to increase these targets further.”
Perez said there are two buckets in terms of challenges with organics recycling: the first is environmental responsibility and regulatory compliance. It is well known that methane emissions resulting from the decomposition of organic waste in landfills are a significant source of greenhouse gases, contributing to global climate change and other environmental disasters.
“To one level or another, local governments have addressed organics recycling legislation and regulation, but there are no standards yet, so organizations and institutions are left to understand the law, comply with it and own their environmental responsibility,” Perez said.
The second challenge, which is perhaps even more important than understanding what needs to be done, is how it needs to be done. As Perez explained, having options other than diverting to landfills is a big challenge, as well as contamination of utensils, paper products and plastic materials, which prevent organic recycling to be turned into animal feed, for example. Equipment is also a challenge, where organizations need to have a large enough supply of organics to maintain a digester habitat.
According to Panaro, contamination is currently the most significant challenge for large scale organics recycling operations. Just about every process involves some level of sorting waste into different streams like landfill waste, organics recycling, and others.
“It’s not always an easy task to sort properly, due to lack of education and lack of engagement,” Panaro said. “It can be quite expensive and time-consuming to sort out the contamination during the recycling process which is reflected in the service costs to process organic recycling. We need far more education and, ideally, better technology to help make the sorting process more efficient and effective.”
Costs and benefits pose challenges as well. Due to contamination, limited processing capacity and state regulations in some places, Panaro said the costs and operational hurdles to execute organic recycling are more difficult than they should be.
“Further, composting, at least in many parts of the U.S., is not well understood. I don’t think many people know enough about the benefits to clearly see why it’s such a cost effective and beneficial element of holistic waste management and cleaner, healthier communities in the long-term,” Panaro said.
Miller added that the challenges encountered by California in rolling out its organic recycling program will be similar to those faced by other jurisdictions: the need for composting infrastructure to keep up with demand; the importance of public education and outreach; and the imperative – similar to that in traditional recyclable programs – of avoiding contamination in the organics collection process.
Various programs are being established by schools, companies, universities and other institutions for organics recycling. This includes food recovery jointly with food rescue organizations, composting and soil enrichment, animal feed, and to a smaller scale recovery and conversion of sugars to energy.
“We need to organize corporate panels or think tanks between major organic producers, equipment manufacturers, and recyclers to ‘round table’ ideas for growth and implementation, Perez said. “Standardization of best practices, regulation, legislation, and processes would go a long way to grow, optimize and make organics recycling more efficient.”
Panaro noted that the various types of programs being organized is evidence that the industry can develop a variety of organic waste recycling solutions that fit myriad needs. Institutions like schools, companies, and universities have everything from small programs like school lunch compost projects and classroom gardens for students to manage, to hired collection services that transport and process organic waste to a farm-based processing facility, on-site anaerobic digesters that significantly reduce the volume of food waste before further composting elsewhere, and many more.
However, Panaro said that outdated regulation, especially when it doesn’t acknowledge the differences between broad solid municipal waste and the subset that feeds organic recycling systems, hampers growth of the industry.
“It can make it really challenging to develop programs that are large enough and in the logical geographic areas to process organic waste in a regenerative way,” Panaro said. “Many programs will benefit from refreshed regulation that considers the many ways organic recycling can operate effectively without posing hazards to the communities in which the facilities and operations are located.” In many cases, organic recycling can actually help the health of local communities to the extent the facilities have finished compost that can rebuild soil or technology that uses the waste output to produce clean energy, for example.
As updated regulations reflect the myriad technology and benefits available from organic recycling, Panaro said programs can expand and will be less expensive, making them more accessible to a broader swath of communities.
“Furthermore, updated regulatory considerations along with better education about how organic recycling works can help alleviate some of the limitations individuals face when trying to participate in organics recycling programs or encouraging communities to participate together,” Panaro said.
Many homeowners associations also prohibit composting, and a lot of municipalities don’t allow community composting. Regulations more attuned to the specifics of organic recycling and its costs and benefits will likely open up more opportunities to run smaller community composting operations and demonstrate that properly-managed organic recycling systems don’t pose the sanitation threats some people perceive.
As with other types of recycling, technology is taking over error prone processes driven by humans within the organics recycling segment of the industry.
According to Perez, with the use of artificial intelligence and machine learning, organics recycling can become much more efficient, allowing organizations and institutions to streamline a process from beginning to end, tracking volumes, optimizing diversion and capture and even monetizing outputs.
“As we see landfills filling up around the country, I don’t think we have a choice but to adopt more organic recycling programs,” Panaro said. “While the road ahead is long, I think more people are seeing the benefits and understand that organic recycling is both necessary and feasible. More people see the benefits to land use, soil management, and responsible resource management that organic recycling can help us accrue.”
Published in the January 2022 Edition