Our landfills are belching methane because of all the rotting organic matter in them. Organics recycling takes the pressure off. Organic waste includes anything that used to be alive. That is, it includes food waste, yard waste, agricultural waste, animal feces, sawdust, ash, and more.
Up until about 1960, American households separated wet garbage from dry trash. They put them out in different containers hired separate companies to haul everything away.
Then Sam Yorty became mayor of Los Angeles. He had promised to save housewives from this burden. Soon enough, the idea of commingled wastes spread nationwide. This costly convenience has caused our current landfill and recycling crises.
In the 1980s, some municipalities began to require separate collection for yard waste—the first reversal of commingled wastes. Soon enough, most states and nearly all large cities forbid putting yard waste in trash cans. They instituted brush collection programs instead. A huge volume of organic waste no longer went to landfills.
So what happens to yard waste?
It is the oldest form of organics recycling. It goes to some kind of commercial composting facility. Think of turning it all with a bulldozer instead of a pitchfork. Municipalities then use the compost for their own landscaping projects and/or sell it to their residents.
It’s not enough.
According to EPA estimates, the US produced 63 million tons of food waste in 2018. The staggering quantity of food waste is a growing problem, and about 68% of it gets to landfills. It represents the single largest segment of the waste stream: 24% of all waste in landfills and 22% of materials incinerated in waste-to-energy facilities.
Keeping food waste out of trash
In 2016, California expanded organics recycling when it passed a law to ban putting food waste in the trash. It went into effect January 1, 2022. The state already banned yard waste and required separate containers for trash, recyclables, and yard waste.
Now, food waste must go into the same container as the yard waste. Also, the state already required businesses over a certain size to recycle organic wastes. The new law effectively keeps all organic wastes out of California landfills.
What happens in California frequently influences the rest of the country. The rest of us don’t need to wait for state or local laws to refrain from adding organic wastes to our trash. We just don’t have that third container to haul to the curb.
Although other states have not adopted California’s approach, they all have an interest in dealing creatively with food waste.
Here is one example:
In January 2021, the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality released a study of organic waste recycling options. The department’s Division of Waste Management has issued permits for 52 composting facilities: 3 at universities, 25 publicly operated sites, and 24 private ones.
These do not include composting operations at landfills or at Division of Water Resources facilities. They also do not include small facilities exempt from certain permitting and reporting requirements.
Of the organics recycling programs noted in the study, 25 have permits only to receive yard waste and clean wood. Of the 27 permitted to receive food waste, only 15 actively accept it. The average tipping fee for all 52 facilities has been $26/ton over the past decade, compared to the average landfill tipping fee for municipal solid waste of $44.
North Carolina uses only about 30% of its available organic material capacity. It could process 1.82 million tons per year more than it currently does. This additional capacity could handle much of the food waste currently sent to landfills.
The biggest challenge for food waste recycling in North Carolina—and probably everywhere but California–is collection. Currently, no municipality offers curbside food waste collection. Several operate drop-off centers available both to residents and businesses. In addition, commercial composting and food waste collection companies operate in North Carolina.
Birth pains of the organics recycling business
The organics recycling business is fairly new and quite small. Businesses and governments have only recently taken seriously the fact that organic wastes have a huge negative impact on sustainability goals. Right now, most of them go to landfills.
Rotting organic wastes in landfills spew large amounts of methane into the atmosphere. Landfills, therefore, are among the most potent generators of greenhouse gases.
It might seem like efforts to separate and collect food waste imposes an additional cost that businesses and communities must bear. But like existing brush collection programs, it represents a cost shift. More money spent on organic waste recycling ultimately means less money spent on operating landfills and trying to find room for new ones.
Success for organics recycling requires creating infrastructure. Among other things, it ought to take advantage of artificial intelligence to overcome the human error that has hampered traditional recycling.
It also requires legal acknowledgment of the difference between food waste and other municipal solid waste. Unfortunately, many homeowner associations forbid composting. Some municipalities even forbid community composting.
How you can keep organic waste out of the landfill
If you live in a house, you can participate in organics recycling of food waste: Build your own compost pile—even if you don’t garden. Or, if you have suitable space, you can simply bury compostable waste in the ground. I have written elsewhere about what to compost and how to compost. Unfortunately, you can’t compost meat or dairy products in a home compost pile.
If you can’t or choose not to compost, you still have options:
- Check with a local farmer’s market to see if it offers a compost drop-off stand. A farmer might even be equipped to compost meat and dairy products.
- Look for a local community garden, which may have its own composting area and may let non-members contribute to it.
- If you’re lucky, your town may have a food waste collection service.
Your municipality has its own regulations about what to do with yard waste. But you don’t really need to contribute the leaves that fall in your yard. For one thing, you’ll need them for a good compost pile.
For another, you can go over them with a mulching mower and leave them on the ground to nourish your grass. In the fall, when the trees drop too many leaves for that, you can mow over them and bag them. They make great mulch for your flower garden as well as compost material.
Contamination presents one huge problem for recycling. It’s why China and other Asian countries stopped importing recyclables from us. No surprise, then, that contamination can hamper organics recycling, too.
Here are some items that all too frequently appear in yard waste collections:
- Plastics of all kinds, including plant ties and netting
- Treated wood (including railroad ties)
- Garden tools
- Rubber hoses
- Dog poop and other animal wastes—most likely in a plastic bag.
So pick up plastic from your yard before you mow. If you rake leaves, be on the lookout for any pebbles that might be lurking under them.
See if your area has any guidelines about pet waste. Otherwise, just toss it in the flower garden or shrubbery to keep from stepping in it. The same with whatever wild animals leave behind. In my experience, it won’t hurt anything if you don’t put too much of it in the same place.
California’s new composting law starts Jan. 1. How to recycle your food scraps / Karen Garcia, Los Angeles Times. December 30, 2021
Embracing organics recycling / Maura Keller, American Recycler. January 2022 [Link no longer works]
State of organics recycling In North Carolina / Emily Burnett, Colin Stifler and Sandy Skolochenko; Biocycle. April 13, 2021
What NOT to put in with your yard waste / Scarce. October 27, 2017