Photo by Marek Studzinski on Unsplash
In part one and part two of this post, we established that people with a variety of goals all agree that organics is the next big thing. And in part two, we established that different types of feedstocks can make very different products. But maybe you just want to comply with new composting regulations and/or do something that your customers think is important. So how does all that impact you?
Ultimately, you are going to have to decide your primary goal and plan in managing organics. Do you want to focus on making good quality compost and healing depleted soils (and tackling climate change through the ability of soils to act as a carbon sink)? Or do you want to maximize waste reduction (and tackle climate change by maximizing the reduction of methane emissions in a landfill)? There is not a perfect answer. The right answer for you will depend on the compost feedstocks that you have and the outlets that you have available to you. But the answer you choose will impact how you set up your program and how you talk about what you are doing.
Logistically, you need to ensure that your compostable wastes are getting picked up and shipped to market frequently. Food waste (and some other organic waste) is highly putrescible. That’s a big fancy word that means that really quickly it will stink really badly and attract pests if you let it sit around. I have seen some compost bins that look like a maggot farm because they were left un-collected too long. I have seen some composting programs that look like a scene from an Alfred Hitchcock movie because the food waste was left out and not sufficiently mixed with carbon-rich materials quickly. That can be a real problem in certain environments. The last thing you want in a foodservice environment is maggots. And depending on where you are, mitigating pests is a real issue. In a marine environment, the last thing you want is a program that attracts gulls. In a rural environment, the last thing you want is a program that attracts bears and racoons. And in an urban environment, the last thing you want is a program that attracts rats. So however you decide to manage your organic wastes, one of your primary goals should be to keep your product moving off site and/or into a well-managed pile as quickly as possible. I have seen far more composting programs fail because the logistics weren’t right than because the goals weren’t right.
One of the other most important factors to success is how you talk about your program, both in terms of how you explain it to participants and how you promote what you are doing.
Every composting or organics management end-market has slightly different sensitivities regarding what they can accept. I strongly urge you to avoid generic lists of what is acceptable. Look at the specific things that you generate and talk your end markets about the specific things they can and can’t accept and adjust your guidelines accordingly. Your goal should be for participants to quickly identify which bin the thing they are prepping or discarding from their plate goes into in the fractions of a moment that you have before they put it in the wrong bin. The more general rules you can give them, the better because it will give them context to help explain your specific lists of what is and is not acceptable in your program. It’s also critically important to match how you promote what you are doing to what you are actually doing. If you don’t, you run the risk that all of your well-intentioned efforts get undermined by accusations of greenwashing or false advertising. If your program is focused on making quality compost, talk about that. Talk about creating healthy soils and food production systems. Don’t focus as much on your commitment to waste reduction, because chances are, there are some items you are leaving in the trash for the sake of quality compost. Conversely, if you are focused on maximizing waste reduction, focus on waste reduction, avoided greenhouse gas emissions (maybe even renewable energy if you are making that). Don’t represent that what you are doing is composting if the end result of your treatment process is stabilized garbage or crap-grade compost that will be used for nothing more than covering landfills. Understand what you are doing and talk about the benefits of that.
The same is true when you talk about (or report your success in achieving) compliance, whether with legislation or voluntary certifications. What does that legislation or certification require you to do? Let’s look at California’s SB1383 as an example. Despite what you have read in the news stories about a composting law, SB1383 is not a composting law. It does not charge the soil conservation service to ensure the production of high quality compost to apply to depleted soils. SB1383 is a global warming solutions law. It garners its authority from the California Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006 which deals with monitoring and regulating sources of emissions of greenhouse gasses. Specifically, SB1383 is about regulating short-lived climate pollutants (i.e. methane) from livestock operations and landfills. How will that impact the type of program that you design and promote?
When it comes to managing food waste, there is no perfect answer. The best option for you is the option that best matches the feedstocks that you have to the opportunities available to you, at a cost that is viable and within the regulatory framework(s) that you operate. But, once you navigate all of those factors to find the best program for you, most people will agree that it is the next big thing and an important step for you heal global soils, manage your waste and/or reduce your greenhouse gas emissions.