Leading the way

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Republic Services has been recognized as an industry leader thanks to its efforts to divert organics from landfill.

March 11, 2021

With 11 compost facilities in five states, Republic Services is helping lead the charge to divert yard and food waste away from landfills throughout the country. The Phoenix-based company, which processes 1.7 billion pounds of organic waste annually, converts this material into 270,000 tons of compost per year or into renewable energy through anaerobic digestion.

While organics diversion is a concept widely embraced for its environmentally friendly benefits, the actual practice of diversion is often driven by local regulation.

“The development of new organic waste infrastructure, especially to meet demand, is driven by regulations throughout the country,” Republic Services Director of Organics Operations Chris Seney told Waste Today. “California is leading the way, but you’re seeing organics regulation really come about all over the country—not just in California, but the Northwest, the Northeast and in cities like Minneapolis, Boston and Austin. You’re really seeing [the passing of these regulations] all over the country now and it’s growing pretty rapidly.”

Perhaps the most progressive state in mandating organics diversion has been California, where SB 1383 was signed into law in September 2016. This legislation is set for implementation on Jan. 1, 2022.

According to CalRecycle, “SB 1383 establishes targets to achieve a 50 percent reduction in the level of the statewide disposal of organic waste from the 2014 level by 2020, and a 75 percent reduction by 2025. The law provides CalRecycle the regulatory authority required to achieve the organic waste disposal reduction targets and establishes an additional target that not less than 20 percent of edible food that is currently disposed of is recovered for human consumption by 2025.”

Republic’s Otay Landfill site is off the grid thanks to its use of solar power.

In practice, SB 1383 will require every home and business in the state to recycle their organics.

Seney says that there are around 23 to 25 million tons of organic material currently going into landfills in California, which comprises more than half of the incoming waste volume. With the state’s goal to divert 15 million tons of organic waste away from landfill by 2025, CalRecycle has estimated that the state will need approximately 100 to 150 new compost facilities and anaerobic digestion facilities to achieve this target.

One such facility already in operation can be found at Republic’s Otay Landfill in Chula Vista, California, which was commissioned in 2018. According to Republic, this composting site stands as an “innovative example” of the company’s commitment to diversion.

According to Seney, the Otay Landfill site differs from a standard windrow composting site where organic waste is spread in rows of long piles and aerated by mechanically turning the piles. Instead, the Otay Landfill employs positive aerated static pile (ASP) technology where airflow is continuously introduced into the compost piles using electric blowers.

Beyond the positive ASP method, a GORE Cover is placed on top of the compost feedstock. Together, this composting methodology results in a more ecofriendly way of managing organic waste. Republic Services currently operates six ASP compost facilities in California and Oregon.

“Using positive ASP with the GORE Cover is a very efficient way to control odors, reduce emissions and it also significantly reduces the amount of water a facility uses while reducing the actual footprint or acreage that’s needed for a compost facility. Since ASP incorporates the use of a biofilter that the air passes through, air and odor emissions are reduced by 90 percent or more [from a standard windrow composting site]. The cover keeps rainfall and other moisture out, and because of its construction, you can literally stand on top of the cover on the compost pile and have no idea that there’s food waste and green waste biodegrading right under your feet.” Seney says.

While the positive ASP method and use of the GORE Cover are recognized as some of the industry-leading best practices for handling organic waste, the big thing that differentiates the Otay Landfill site is the fact that it is 100 percent solar powered. All the fans and blowers, as well as the office, are off the grid.

“Because this is an active landfill, operations can be moved around the facility as needed. And because it’s solar powered, you don’t need a generator, you don’t need to run power. It is a very innovative and impressive facility,” Seney says.

The Otay site has been operating in its pilot phase for the last two years, processing 5,000 tons per year of green and food waste. The facility will ramp up to processing 60,000 tons a year in 2021 in anticipation of SB 1383 implementation.

Taking a step back

Before organics can be effectively composted or recycled, contamination needs to be removed from the waste stream.

Seney says that approximately 5 to 15 percent of the commercial source separated organics (SSO) Republic collects is contamination. To remove this contamination, Republic takes this material to a preprocessing operation.

“To truly divert the food waste from the landfill, because you can’t send this stream with contamination in it to an anaerobic digestion facility or a compost facility, you first have to get the contamination out. That’s where these preprocessing operations come in,” Seney says.

He says that Republic has a preprocessing facility in Anaheim, California, that was commissioned in 2018 where contamination is removed from food waste derived from restaurants and grocers. Republic worked closely with its partner, the city of Anaheim, who Seney says is very supportive of the organics project.

Seney says this facility, which is permitted for 250 tons per day, can process up to 20 tons per hour. The SSO Republic brings in on its commercial collection routes are dumped on the tip floor and then fed into a hopper by a front-end loader. The material moves down a conveyor and into a horizontal hammermill, which is manufactured by Scott Equipment.

“The SSO enters the hammermill, and within the machine you have 55 paddles swinging up to 400 RPMs and they’re offset from a screen by 1/8th of an inch. It’s very durable and does an exceptional job at removing contamination—I’d say up to 99 percent of contaminants are separated from the food waste because it presses the organics through the screen and the contaminants stay in the drum,” Seney says. “It does a great job of separation and not chopping the material, because obviously you don’t want to chop up contamination and mix it in with the ‘clean’ organics. What gets removed is primarily plastic bags and silverware, which are easily pulled out by the machine. The ‘clean’ organics can then be sent to composting or anaerobic digestion facilities.”

Food recovery

Although Republic Services is known for waste collection and disposal, the company also is helping rescue food for consumption that would otherwise be sent to landfill.

Republic has been partnering with local food rescue organizations, including World Harvest and Food Finders, for the past several years to serve those in need around the Los Angeles area. Food recovery requires moving recoverable food quickly and safely, so it doesn’t spoil. To help those efforts, Republic sponsored a refrigerated truck for Food Finders.

“When it comes to organics diversion, you’re going to continue to see this sector grow quickly, and you’re seeing it already.” –Republic Services Director of Organics Operations Chris Seney

“We collect the surplus food from commercial businesses, and then that food gets recovered and helps feed families in need. These combined efforts have provided over 1 million meals in Los Angeles alone,” Seney says. “Helping local families is part of being a community partner, and it became a win-win to build a food recovery program that could positively impact people in the communities we serve.

“But even with all of our local food recovery efforts in L.A., we found that there was still food, especially produce, that we were still not able to get diverted. The Republic team did an excellent job there and found a solution with the L.A. Zoo. We started diverting approximately 10 tons a month of produce to the zoo, which feeds it to their animals.”

Getting recognized

Last September, Republic Services was recognized by the National Waste & Recycling Association (NWRA) as its 2020 Organics Recycler of the Year for its innovative approaches to managing organic waste.

“As one of the nation’s largest recycling and waste services providers, Republic Services is committed to protecting our planet, and extending the life of the materials we recover from the waste stream is a priority,” Pete Keller, vice president of recycling and sustainability at Republic, stated in a release. “The organics industry is an emerging sector providing tremendous potential for us to both grow our business and strengthen the circular economy. We are proud to be leading the way in the industry.”

Although Seney says that being recognized for the company’s efforts is something the organization takes pride in, there is still substantial room for growth.

“Organics are an enormous opportunity that exists across the country, with food and yard waste accounting for roughly 30 percent of the municipal solid waste sent to landfill [according to the EPA]. When it comes to organics diversion, you’re going to continue to see this sector grow quickly, and you’re seeing it already. I have a national map that tracks the regulations around organics. And when I look at what that map looked like from 10 years ago until today, there are significantly more states—10 or 12 more—that have organics regulations in place. Even outside of California, you’re seeing this conversation occur all over the country. It’s definitely going to continue to grow and ultimately be driven through regulations, which will change the path into the future,” Seney says.

The author is the editor of Waste Today and can be reached at aredling@gie.net.