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The Business of Compost: Recovering Organic Waste

Wes Muir | Monday August 24th, 2009 | 0 Comments

CompostBy Wes Muir, Director, Communications, Waste Management

Americans love food. You can’t drive more than a few blocks in any town without passing by a restaurant, fast food joint or grocery store. And after each meal or snack, we also throw out much of our uneaten food. Those scraps that don’t end up in the mouth of a family pet are instead sent to the family trash can.

These food scraps, along with leaf, yard and wood wastes, which emit carbon when they decompose, are known as organic waste. Organic waste accounts for about two-thirds of the total solid waste stream in the U.S., yet it is also often forgotten when considering practices like reducing, reusing and recycling waste. If you take a look at your own trash can right now, more than likely you’ll find that much of it contains organic waste.

Food scraps, in particular, are the single largest part of the municipal solid waste stream by weight. In 2007, nearly 12.5 percent of the total waste generated in the U.S. included food leftovers. An even more sobering statistic shows that only about three percent of food waste was recovered. Fortunately, alleviating the amount of food waste we trash can be a simple process, both at home and with the help of local municipalities.

When left to naturally decompose, organics leave behind nutrient-rich materials for the surrounding vegetation – also known as compost. Many gardeners understand the many benefits of composting, such as using the resulting material as fertilizer in their own backyards. The nutrients left behind in the compost, are among the best fertilizers in the world. Composting is a fairly simple process to learn and implement in your own household.

Organic waste is also known for emitting a high volume of methane when put into an anaerobic environment. Methane can be used as a fuel for creating power or fuels for transportation. Some landfills can use the methane emitted during the anaerobic decomposition of organic waste to create landfill gas. This gas can then be used in a variety of ways, such as in creating electric energy or being converted into other fuels used for industrial and transportation purposes. As the country as a whole looks to reduce its dependence on foreign oil, the value of creating fuels from renewable sources, such as the high volume of organic waste across the country, becomes all the more valuable.

Waste Management and Linde North America have already begun on a project to process resident-generated organic waste at a plant in Altamont, California. Methane emitted during the decomposition process will be collected and purified to create landfill gas, which can be used to power the plant itself or turned into compressed natural gas to be used in truck fleets. Since methane is a potent greenhouse gas, capturing it has additional benefits as well. In fact, company officials estimate that this project will reduce “greenhouse gas emissions by more than 30,000 tons per year.”

While major initiatives like the one in Altamont illustrate the many uses of organic waste, it’s still important to remember the goal of increasing diversion of food scraps from the waste stream overall. Not only are these materials wet, heavy and difficult to process, but consumers also generally perceive food waste and compost as trash that stinks and attracts rodents.

Contrary to this popular belief, healthy compost that gets enough air actually smells like soil. As education improves, and more programs are implemented, cities and others involved in waste management systems hope to see more and more organic waste diverted from landfills. In fact, Waste Management of Alameda County in California began a household food scrap recycling program to help residents send less organic waste to the landfill. Customers are given three bins to separate garbage, regular recyclables and organics to be recycled, such as food and yard waste.

Food scraps will always remain a major component of our day-to-day waste, but those involved in waste management are working to reduce the volume of organics sitting in landfills. Encouraging education about composting and other ways in which food and yard waste can be diverted from the solid municipal waste stream are key components of this process. Perhaps food scrap recycling isn’t merely food for thought, but a recipe for a healthier planet.


Click Here
to read a recap of a 3P field trip to a California compost processing facility.


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