Food Waste. Wasted Food. No matter how you want to label the issue, the solution to the problem of what we don’t eat has caused to the environment does not seem easily remedied. At least, it seems to be harder than it should be. Why do companies and farms and manufacturers continue to struggle with this byproduct? These entities have all the right intentions and they may have identified their own specific problem in many instances through their own internal reviews. Many have the right attitude and data needed to drive change. And in some communities, local and state governments insist on that change and have set (attainable) goals. So why has this problem of removing food waste from the landfill persisted?
Albert Einstein is credited with saying: “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” When it comes to wasted food, the simply has been identified, quantified and legislated. While what we know depends on where you do the research, the explanation of why there is still a problem with this highly recyclable item remains a head scratcher in many markets. Despite what we know.
Let’s take a look at a couple of those markets. In almost every community that participates in a food recovery (recycling) program, often with a process that moves this product to a facility that creates compost from the material, the number of households actually taking the time to do it correctly has not improved. While participation has in many cases increased, the collection bins often include items that are well-intentioned but are not compostable. Seattle found this to be a costly problem to a their reasonable food waste recycling solution.
New York had different problems with their program: the smell created complaints at curbside and the facility they had been using (the waste was transported to Delaware) closed for the same reason. That odor is just one of the reasons the permit for that out-of-state facility was not renewed.
According to the Institute for Local Self Reliance, the issue in Wilmington also suggests a larger understated problem. Despite the need for a facility, despite the often-touted downstream jobs created by these efforts, despite the olfactory insult many communities cite with a not-in-my-neighborhood stance and despite the contamination of this material with plastic, the real reason the facility and many like it close: the volume was not there.
There are wide ranging estimates of how much food waste is actually being wasted. And companies such as Waste Management Industries have taken great risks in attempting to partner with these types facilities, such as the Peninsula Compost Company (in Delaware) to promote this ever-growing business opportunity. Their optimism was not well-founded promising their ability to deliver 600 tons of product per day. However more than lack of optimism brought the plant to a close.
“Andrew DiSabatino, Jr., Managing Partner of PCC, reported that the Wilmington Peninsula plant would not be reopened. Another plant that had been planned for the southern part of Prince George’s County, Maryland, is unlikely to move forward.” The complaints about odor may have been the catalyst but the reasons for the plant closure may not be as clear.
WMI invested a great deal of money in the project, enough to be considered a controlling partner. And while the process could have been cleaned up, WMI, who touts their nationwide 200k ton food waste recycling projects, did not do all they could have done at this facility. They could have diverted wood waste to the plant, an addition that allows for the carbon balancing needed for successful composting. This would have helped. However, some speculate the move to close the facility benefited another landfill nearby (which they own and receive tipping fees).
And then there is the cost. This is big business run by folks who are accustomed to moving waste to the landfill. And while they understand and even boast about their accomplishments in the world of recycling, those claims often focus on their ability to move marketable items. Composting has a mixed reputation and has yet to create a profitable format that is adoptable by all U.S. market areas.
Make no mistake about your business partners: They are in this industry to make a profit. How they make it is relatively straightforward. Communities have waste. Waste needs to be removed. And haulers need to move it. So what happens when we begin to dissect that waste, asking haulers to move from simply moving trash to become trash haulers and recyclers? Follow the money.
Vermont has legislated a mandatory composting program. Spread out across 9,614 square miles, it is ranked 30th in density and 45th in population. The Universal Recycling Law also known as Act 148 was passed in 2012 and may be the most aggressive effort taken by a state to reduce landfill use. However, the haulers do not share the same enthusiasm for the law and want the issue revisited.
“If we remove this requirement that haulers pick up organics, otherwise known as compostable materials, from residences, it will lead to an increase in food scraps and organic materials going to our landfills,” says Johanna deGraffenreid, with the Vermont Public Interest Research Group. The remaining food waste produced from larger companies such as restaurants will be barred from the trash. So why does Chittenden County Solid Waste District director Sarah Reeves support a change to the law?
Karen Horn of the Vermont League of Cities and Towns suggests: “it’s not profitable for haulers to invest in a truck that does just [compostable material] and then have two or three places to pick up on a single road, a five-mile stretch of road.” The hauler however is the lynchpin.
Your Business Partners
It is critical that your recycling business partners stay in business. This profit-sharing, you-need-me-and-I-need-you mindset often leads many companies (and municipalities) from taking a hardline stance on the process. The executives and the elected are often at the mercy of those haulers. Those haulers are in the business of logistics, moving wasted material efficiently and profitably. However, your business should not be adding to the problem while suggesting you are helping eliminate it.
Haulers rarely mention carbon footprint with those efforts. According to Forbes: “This comes with a heavy carbon footprint as well. When food is disposed in a landfill it rots and becomes a significant source of methane – a potent greenhouse gas with 21 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide. Growing and transporting the food that goes to waste emits as much carbon pollution as 39 million passenger vehicles.” This does not even account for those companies that haul their wasted food to rancher/farmers for animal feed.
If you chose to rely on your business partners to present a viable organic recovery solution, the result may not align with your sustainability goals. This may be a result of simply taking the easiest option, the only one their contracted, on-the-ground hauler offers. This may be the result of lack of local recycling options and a send-it-to-the-pig farm mentality. It might even be the result of no sustainable advisor to guide (or write a document for) your business.
There are organic recovery solutions that are not only viable and profitable but may also capture up to 50% more materials than is currently being removed from the waste stream. And these solutions are also carbon neutral. Shouldn’t we talk about your options?