By Debra Atlas
Almost half of the nearly 250 million tons of garbage that winds up in landfills in the U.S. each year could be composted. An average single-family household throws away about 45 pounds of food scraps and food-soiled paper every month—around 25% of total trashed materials! SCGH explores a growing trend that creates a viable alternative to this: curbside food waste collection.
Already over 160 communities in 16 states have implemented curbside food waste collection programs. “The growth trajectory [for these programs] has been increasing by about 50 percent for the past three years,” said Rhodes Yepsen, an organics recycling expert from biodegradable and compostable materials developer Novamont North America. “The number of food waste facilities in the U.S. is growing, and many yard trimming [compost] facilities are applying for new permitting to make the switch to food waste collection.”
Composting organic waste—like kitchen scraps and yard trimmings—can be recycled into valuable compost used to enrich soil in landscaping and road construction projects. It also helps reduce the amount of methane, a by-product of landfill and food waste, that’s released into the air. A report issued by the EPA in 2011 noted that composting all the food scraps in California, for example, would cut emissions by 5.8 million metric tons each year.
Supermarkets and restaurants can also make a difference by participating in these programs. “Supermarkets generate large volumes of organic [waste],” said Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP) Commissioner Kenneth Kimmell. “And, combined with recycling programs for cardboard and shrink wrap, [they] can recycle more than 70 percent of the waste they generate.”
Leading the trend since 1996, San Francisco’s programs have helped to divert 80 percent of waste from its landfills, explained Robert Reed of San Francisco’s Recology, a resource recovery center in the city. Over the past four years, Recology has seen an increase of green bin tonnage from 350 tons to 600 tons each day day! Reed noted that, over an eleven year period, San Francisco has reduced the tonnage going to landfills by 49 percent. “It’s the highest [percentage of diversion] in North America.”
Along with increased diversion, these programs produce a cost savings. With consumers reducing their garbage through food scrap programs, landfill waste collectors can reduce their weekly collections. In places like Portland, Oregon; King County, Washington; and several counties in Minnesota; composting programs have allowed a cut in weekly garbage collections to every other week.
Many towns provide kitchen scrap pails and encourage the use of approved compostable bags for collecting food waste. Some programs are “pay-as-you-throw”; others offer varied rates to customers.
So what counts as “food waste”?
- Food scraps such as fruits and vegetables, meat, fish and bones, bread, pasta and baked goods, egg shells, dairy products, and coffee grounds
- Food-soiled paper goods such as paper towels and napkins, paper plates and cups, and pizza boxes
- Milk and juice cartons
- Egg cartons
- Boxes from frozen and refrigerated foods
- Waxed paper and paper containers
- Coffee filters and tea bags
- And other compostable items such as full vacuum cleaner bags, dryer lint, tissues, cotton balls, floral trimmings, and house plants
Before launching curbside food waste collection programs, though, communities must take four crucial steps. First, they must create the necessary infrastructure, including establishing a composting facility. Second is mandated city-wide participation. Third, the program must offer convenience—the easier it is, the more likely consumers will achieve satisfactory participation. Lastly, a broad outreach program must be put in place to educate consumers about the benefits of participating, including how they’ll save money.
“People have a hard time understanding what food waste is—it’s the next step after conventional recycling,” Yepsen said. “But it’s solving a lot of problems,” he added. “We have a topsoil problem. We have a water problem. We don’t want to put chemicals [on things]. Compost helps with [all] that.”
As cities like San Francisco, Seattle, Kansas City, and Boulder are embracing curbside food waste collection programs, they’re seeing real benefits to both the communities and the planet.
Don’t have curbside food waste collection in your neighborhood? You’ve still got options:
- Talk with your local politicians to see if this is a program you can get. Work with your neighbors to draft a letter to your city. Or, contact your waste hauler directly.
- “Waste Management offers food waste collection [services],” Yepsen said. “They might be willing to offer this to [your] neighborhood.”
What do you think about this trend? Comment below.
Read more articles by Debra Atlas.
© 2013 SCGH, LLC.