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Organic Waste: Part 1

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The Next Big Thing

I began my first institutional composting program in the early 1990s and it seems like ever since, composting has been targeted as the “next thing” for recycling and solid waste legislation. Several states have been targeting food waste for several years with rules that get more restrictive each year and impact smaller and smaller generators. If you are reading this, it may be that these rules have finally reached your business or institution. In California, the threshold is now down to folks who generate two cubic yards of waste (which includes the total of trash, recycling or composting that you generate). Given that two cubic yards of trash is the smallest dumpster that most waste haulers offer, that essentially means all but the smallest commercial generators are now subject to these requirements. 

There are a few different reasons why organic waste is targeted, and it’s important to know the difference. Understanding why will impact the products that you make. That understanding can also help you with regulatory compliance and help to avoid implementation issues: 

Diversion Goals

A lot of mandatory recycling rules are still based on the old landfill-diversion model from the late 1980s and early 1990s. This methodology essentially looks at a pie chart of what’s in the trash and targets regulations based on anything that is a significant slice of that pie that could be “diverted” to another home. After early recycling rules removed items like paper, cardboard, and certain heavy dense construction materials (scrap metal, asphalt and concrete, etc.), compostable food waste and organic wastes have been one of the largest remaining “slices” left in that waste pie chart.

GHG Goals

When you dump organic materials in a landfill, they are consumed by a variety of micro-critters that operate in that oxygen-restricted environment. In the process those micro-critters emit methane, a potent greenhouse gas (ghg) that is more than 20x stronger than CO2 as a global warming contributor. As such, the methane from landfills has been targeted as an issue for decades. While most modern landfills have some form of methane collection system to reduce methane emissions these collection systems have limitations and fugitive emissions from landfills have made organic wastes a target for diversion for a long time. 

Soil Goals

And then there is the desire to return organic materials back to the soil. If you’re a backyard gardener or landscaper, this is likely what you think of when you hear the word composting. Years of agricultural practices, landscaping practices and development have left many soils depleted and in need of replenishment. Why landfill food and organic wastes when you can use them to make compost, a valuable soil amendment that improves soil tilth, encourages the production of beneficial microorganisms and returns carbon and nutrients back into depleted soils?

Fuel Goals

Remember the part about the micro-critters consuming organic material and emitting methane? Increasingly, a new breed of organics management facility is deliberately undertaking that process or other related processes in a controlled environment specifically to generate methane or other gasses. These gasses are either used as is or further refined into a variety of other fuels. 

While all three of those goals have worked together to make food waste the “next” thing to target, the end result of what you get can be very different depending on what goal is driving your program. Check out part two of this post for more information on how this might impact your final program.

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Roger Guzowski

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