Food for thought

Features - MSW Organics Programs

In the right conditions, haulers can help take residential food diversion programs to a fuller scale without bearing the brunt of the cost.

February 13, 2019

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As the zero-waste movement gains momentum, so does the public’s desire to responsibly dispose of what consumes nearly one-third of municipal waste—food scraps. The uptick in demand has resulted in a boom of municipal organics curbside collection programs in recent years, often driven by local governments or community groups. But for some who have studied municipal organics diversion for decades, full-scale programs are still lagging. “We’ve been tracking food waste composting for many years. After all these years of really pushing and advocating for food waste composting, it’s still not at a scale where one would think,” says Nora Goldstein, the editor of BioCycle magazine.

However, as some cities with successful curbside collection programs have shown, haulers can capitalize on the growing demand by partnering with local municipalities and processing facilities to implement a cost-effective full-scale collection program. With municipalities increasingly establishing legislation mandating organics diversion and the public becoming more knowledgeable of its benefits, the pump is primed for haulers to fill in the blanks.

“This is a great time to get into organics diversion. This is where the industry is going—reducing food waste lost all along the system,” says Brenda Platt, a director at the Minneapolis-based Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR) who has worked with Goldstein in recent years conducting research on organics diversion programs. “We’ve documented a wide variety of programs. Some are starting small, while some are more robust and comprehensive. You can just start somewhere on the path—you don’t have to do it all initially.”

Going the distance

Composting and anaerobic digestion offer the most scalable solutions for reducing food waste nationally, but more pervasive buy-in is needed from haulers to scale these practices. Although there are several hurdles for haulers entering the organics collection space, the biggest can be a lack of local organic processing facilities.

In a recent study, Goldstein and Platt were able to identify 185 full-scale government-supported composting facilities in the U.S. The U.S. also has 38 standalone anaerobic digesters, according to the American Biogas Council, along with 247 on farms and about 1,200 at wastewater treatment plants, though the streams accepted at those facilities are more difficult to quantify.

Haulers benefit from working with nearby facilities—the shorter the distance, the cheaper it is to haul. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) last year released its Excess Food Opportunities Map, which tracks both large food waste generators and facilities that can accept the food waste. This interactive map is just one tool haulers can use to identify the potential market and nearby facilities able to process these materials.

Navigating the challenges

For those with a facility close enough to validate the cost, the next step is to characterize the waste being collected. The type of organics and the way it is sorted may reduce facility options further. Mixed streams work better for anaerobic digesters, for example, while source-separated streams are more conducive to composting. Compost piles are also more forgiving to contaminants, too, like paper products and compostable food service ware.

The amount of material coming into the stream is important as well. Significant waste volumes are more likely to result in a cost-effective collection program, as large amounts of clean organics net better pricing.

Haulers must work with processing facilities to get tipping fees low enough to attract adequate volumes, but still high enough for the facility to make a profit. Goldstein and Platt have found cost-sharing to be an effective way to distribute the additional cost of organics collection to all stakeholders. In Virginia, for example, the city of Church Falls was able to launch an organics collection program in 2017 without substantially raising resident bills by splitting the extra cost with Veterans Compost of Aberdeen, Maryland, which hauls and processes the city’s organics.

Haulers may also be able to trim costs by simply adding organics collection into their existing routes. Analytics and logistics software can track pickups of partially full loads to reduce fuel and labor costs. A 2016 study conducted by Rethink Food Waste Through Economics and Data (ReFED), The Roadmap to Reduce U.S. Food Waste, found that efficient programs generally have a 5-10 percent net increase in collection costs versus landfill-only programs. “One thing we’ve found ... is when you’re redoing routes or shifting existing workers to collect segregated materials, it’s not a complete add-on,” Platt says. “You’re integrating your organics collection in. It’s the same amount of materials.”

Contamination, which can also affect cost, is another challenge that haulers can partner with municipalities and processing facilities to tackle. Residential education is key, Platt says, and can be kick-started through diligent public outreach. In San Francisco, for example, the city created educational materials for haulers to disperse to customers so they know how to separate food scraps. Meanwhile, the city’s organics processing facility, Recology, has started conducting audits of peoples’ bins to identify contamination and implement fines.

Opportunities abound

The haulers willing to navigate the challenges and engage in partnerships may be ahead of the curb when it comes to organics collection. Goldstein says that along with major haulers breaking into organics collection, she’s also seen a growth in niche haulers, composters and anaerobic digester companies investing in their own trucks for organics collection.

In another recent study conducted by Biocycle and ILSR, The Survey of Residential Food Waste Collection Access in the U.S., they found that more than 5 million households now have access to curbside food scraps collection—a number that continues to grow every year. Most of these are in the Northeast, Northwest and Midwest regions of the U.S., which the ReFED study estimates will continue showing the most potential for economic value in organics collection due to high disposal fees and compost and energy market prices.

“I think haulers are key,” Platt says. “Haulers who are supporting and engaging the community, educating them and supporting all stages of the food waste hierarchy—including prevention and rescuing edible food—are going to be the most innovative and have a competitive edge.”

The author is the assistant editor for Waste Today and can be reached at