Tetra Tech’s Debra Darby and Tom Bilgri collaborated on an article discussing the ongoing debate about the benefits and costs of diverting organics from the municipal solid waste (MSW) stream. Here we present a summary of their differing points of view and the common ground they arrived at.
The article originally ran in Waste Advantage Magazine’s August 2020 issue.
Nearly 30 percent of MSW comes from organics (food scraps and yard debris), most of which is disposed of in landfills. States across the country hope to expand their recycling programs by diverting organics through composting or anaerobic digestion (AD).
In this point-counterpoint discussion, Tom voiced concerns about the impact diverting organics from the MSW stream could have on landfill gas (LFG) recovery projects and existing waste facilities, while Debra supported diversion based on its potential environmental benefits and a more sustainable waste management structure. They each gave examples of states’ approaches to the issue, and, in the end, they found an approach that might be acceptable to both sides of the debate.
Debra held that diverting organics material could bring us to a more sustainable waste management structure, resulting in a circular economy that creates new green economy jobs, new products, and new infrastructure to manage organics waste. Reducing food waste through food donation and organics diversion could help build collection/processing infrastructure to support organics recycling.
Tom countered that diversion will only add more government control and layers of bureaucracy. And he noted that the COVID-19 pandemic, on top of the already-reduced recyclables market, is pushing municipalities toward reducing recycling, not increasing it.
New Organics Diversion Legislation
Debra noted that seven states have organics recycling mandates or legislation to divert food scraps from landfills and incinerators, with the goal of finding beneficial uses for food waste rather than simply throwing it away.
Tom pointed out that many states are moving in that direction only because of incentives or dwindling space in existing landfills. Food waste bans are typically a response to population density and are most common on the West Coast and in the Northeast. Plus, disposal fees in areas with bans are usually higher due to space limitations and environmental regulations. States that have more landfill space available are not on board yet with organics diversion.
Issues and Challenges
A serious discussion of organics diversion must include how to offset any significant impact to LFG generation, the concerns of nearby communities, costs associated with diversion, how realistic building new facilities for organics management is when existing MSW facilities can do the job, and whether existing infrastructure needs to be duplicated.
Tom said removing organics from the waste stream might extend landfill life by two to three years, but less LFG will be generated annually. Less LFG could mean some sites risking defaulting on their gas contracts. Debra argued that the time it takes to transition to diversion might be long enough for landfills to recover the LFG loss.
Another valid concern is the objections nearby communities might have to an organics waste facility being their neighbor. Building trust through transparency and good communication with the local community on practices to control odor and facility operations could help residents accept the facility.
Costs and revenue are major concerns on both sides. Less LFG produced means landfills generate less revenue but have higher operating costs (e.g., more facilities and trucks, and higher labor costs and fuel usage). New technology is being developed to address the higher costs. And, through innovation, cost-effective and sustainable programs can be built out and scaled up over time.
The final challenge discussed was how existing facilities will create the space needed to process organics. Tom offered the example of New Jersey’s recycling legislation, which would require facilities to build new infrastructure, roadways, scales, and power distribution to separately source MSW, organics, and recycling. More labor would also be needed for the separate processing facilities. Debra focused on the great opportunity to manage up to 30 percent of the solid waste stream and ways to build organics recycling within or alongside existing solid waste infrastructure.
Making It Work
Addressing this issue could provide the opportunity to find innovative ways to build organics diversion infrastructure into or alongside existing solid waste infrastructure. So, what would this facility look like?
A landfill owner could set up their own AD or composting facility—either building a new facility or upgrading an existing facility—and create a combined processing facility that addresses odors, waste liquids, transportation, costs, and so forth. They could convert their organics waste into green fuel. An existing facility already is capable of addressing these concerns and might be easier to get permitted as a green project.
By working to find creative solutions at either a new facility or an existing one, we could make water, soil, and communities healthier by composting organics and replacing chemical fertilizers. Creative persistence can find a workable middle ground to make the world safer and healthier through recycling organics.