The goal is an important one: A growing number of communities want to send less of their municipal waste to landfills and more to recycling centers, while others would prefer composting a greater amount of this waste. This makes sense: the nation’s landfills are getting crowded, and few municipalities are interested in opening new ones.
Recycling waste and turning it into mulch, animal bedding, or even road-building materials not only reduces the demand on landfills; it’s also a plus for the environment.
Recycling programs, then, are on the rise. The big challenge, though, remains organic waste. What steps can municipalities take to recycle this trickiest of materials? Because organic waste is anything that was once alive, it includes a wide variety of materials—everything from leaves and wood to food scraps.
Municipalities are taking a wide range of steps to recycle more of this material. Some have launched programs designed to encourage residents to compost more of this waste on their own. Others have established separate curbside pickup programs for food waste. Still others are instituting direct land application programs or even investing in aerobic digesters.
But whatever steps municipalities are taking, the message today is a clear one: the trends favor the increased recycling of organic waste. And it’s time for municipalities to begin crafting their own plans for recycling this material.
Moving Away From Landfills
Jami Bestgen, vice president of sales and marketing with Rotochopper (based in St. Martin, MN), says that municipalities that are investing time and money into recycling more of their organic waste are often inspired by legislation and regulation. That’s because a growing number of state governments are requiring that municipalities divert more waste from landfills.
Municipalities, then, often face daunting targets of how much waste they’ll have to divert from landfills in 5, 10, or more years. This forces them to become creative and to institute new ways of reducing the amount of waste they do send to traditional landfills.
One way to meet these increasingly tough regulations? Municipalities can boost the amount of organic waste that they recycle.
It’s simply a task that municipalities can’t ignore. As Bestgen says, regulations and the requirements to reduce the strain on landfills aren’t going anywhere.
“Congress is working on food legislation that attempts to reduce food waste and encourages composting as a conservation practice,” says Bestgen.
Some states have more regulations than others, of course. In California, waste diversion legislation has already passed. Haulers and municipalities in this state must now divert up to 75% of their waste from landfills by 2020.
“I would expect additional states to follow California’s lead in legislating diversion from landfills,” says Bestgen.
As Bestgen says, in many parts of the country today there is little appetite for growing the size of landfills or for permitting new landfill sites. Municipalities, then, are working to both reduce the size of what is already in their area landfills and to divert as much waste as they can from reaching these facilities.
“Obviously, municipalities must manage their communities’ waste streams in a way that preserves the health and safety of them,” says Bestgen.
The Rise of Single-Stream Recycling and Organics Recycling
Single-stream recycling has, of course, become a popular option for municipalities. In this form of recycling, consumers place all of their recyclables into one bin for pickup. This material is then transported to MRFs where they are sorted and processed.
Companies like Rotochopper can help in this process. Bestgen says that municipalities use her company’s horizontal grinding equipment at the end of the sorting process to reduce the size of organic waste such as wood waste. Once the size of this waste is reduced, municipalities can reuse it for other purposes such as mulch or animal bedding.
Municipalities can also use horizontal grinding equipment to handle the initial processing of organic food waste, a step that becomes the very beginning of the composting process, an effective way to recycle organic food scraps instead of sending it to landfills.
Bestgen says that she expects more municipalities to look for ways to recycle and reuse more of their organic waste as a way to meet the growing regulatory demands from states.
“Organic waste, and particularly food waste, is getting more attention of late as haulers and municipalities have already achieved a fairly high degree of proficiency in removing the recyclable glass, plastics, metals, wood, and paper from the waste streams going to landfills,” says Bestgen. “The next high-volume piece of the waste stream that can be effectively recycled is organic waste.”
Stan Brown with Brown Bear Corporation in Corning, IA, agrees that there is a greater emphasis on recycling waste today, including organics. But he also says that he is not yet seeing a big increase in the number of municipalities that are recycling their organic waste.
This doesn’t mean, though, that the trend isn’t at least heading that way. Brown says that Brown Bear is seeing what he calls a “modest” increase in recycling efforts from municipal clients. He doesn’t, however, expect this increase to become a boom until even more states pass legislation forcing municipalities to divert more of their organic waste away from landfills.
“Right now, the increase in this that we are seeing is not anything huge,” says Brown. “There have been some states that have actually, by law, prevented organic matter to be placed in landfills. That forces recycling. But there hasn’t been a huge increase yet outside of that.”
Brown says that part of the problem is that there aren’t as many options available for municipalities that are looking for ways to recycle their organic waste.
That’s a challenge because organic waste is not an insignificant form of waste for municipalities. Commercial food waste from restaurants, hospitals, and schools, for instance, makes up a significant amount of waste volume—waste that municipalities are responsible for collecting and either disposing of or recycling.
And that’s just on the commercial side. Residences throughout a municipality add even more organics to the waste stream, and this places even more pressure on municipalities that have to determine how to divert and recycle this additional amount of waste.
This is where grinders can play a role. As an example, consider how municipalities use Rotochopper’s grinders.
Some of Rotochopper’s clients run construction and demolition waste through a sort line. Workers there will pull out metals and other materials that can be recycled in different avenues. As part of this process, these clients will run organic wood waste through grinders to reduce the size of it.
The clients will turn much of this waste into products such as animal bedding or mulch.
“It all depends on the quality of the product that they are running through the grinder,” says Bestgen. “Customers all over the country are using our equipment for that sort of size-reduction purpose.”
Many clients, including municipal ones, put organics through what is known as a primary grind. The organic waste is then often put into materials to build and repair roadways.
Bestgen says that such clients want their ground material to be of a chunkier quality. Others turn organic waste into finer mulch through the use of grinders.
“The desire for creating new landfills or growing current landfills is not there,” says Bestgen. “The interest in adding to our landfills is shrinking across the United States. There is legislation all over the country and at the federal level designed to encourage municipalities to divert their waste from their landfills. California is the most aggressive, but it certainly is not the only state encouraging this diversion.”
Municipalities are already pulling out glass, plastic, paper, and wood from their waste streams, Bestgen says. The next big target? Organic material.
Bestgen compares the trend toward diverting waste, and encouraging the recycling of it, to the earlier efforts that states took on to reduce smoking rates.
“Look at how legislation is enacted to ban smoking in public places,” she says. “Then states start rolling out other regulations that improve the health and the safety of communities.
Then that kind of legislation starts rolling out across the country. That’s how it is happening with the recycling of waste. Some municipalities, states, and counties are slower than others. But it doesn’t take long for it to become a nationwide trend.”
Direct Land Application
One of the more common ways to recycle organic waste is through the land application of biosolids. This waste-recycling process uses treated wastewater as fertilizer for crops.
The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation is one agency that actively promotes this method for recycling at least some of the organic waste that municipalities collect. Collecting sewage sludge, septage, processed sludge, and other solid waste and then applying it directly to crops not only diverts this waste from landfills, but it also helps to organically enrich soils.
According to the state’s department of environmental conservation, there are currently 24 facilities permitted to land-apply organic waste materials in New York State. Of these facilities, 21 are permitted to land-apply biosolids.
Of course, the key with land application is to protect the health and safety of people. New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation says that the greatest potential risks to human health and the environment occur with the direct land application of sewage sludge, also known as biosolids. That’s because of the contact this waste has with pathogens.
This risk means that facilities must meet several regulations to receive a permit for biosolids land application. The Federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has also enacted several strict regulations for any facilities practicing the direct land application of biosolids.
To make the recycling of biosolids an easier process, the EPA recommends that municipalities and commercial users do everything they can to reduce the volume of them before they transport or store them. The EPA recommends that the amount of water in biosolids be reduced through such mechanical processes as draining, pressing, or centrifuging. That can result in material made up of up to 30% dry solids.
A Slow but Steady Rise in Composting
Composting is a tool that is growing in importance for municipalities looking to reduce the organics that they send to landfills. It’s not a perfect system, of course, but composting programs are making a difference.
A good example is in New York City. City residents can now put out brown bins—in addition to the blue and green ones they use for glass, paper, plastic, and metal—for the collection of organic trash such as food scraps and yard waste. According to a feature story in the New York Times, more than 1 million residents throughout New York City currently participate in the curbside composting program, an effort to reduce the amount of organic waste that the city sends to landfills.
The Times story says that by the end of 2018, all city residents will be able to participate in the program. Last year, New York’s organic composting program collected about 23,000 tons of organic waste from about 300,000 households, 722 schools, agencies, and institutions, and 80 drop-off points, according to numbers from the City of New York. About 2% of the organic waste collected by the city last year, then, was composted instead of sent to landfills.
Municipal curbside composting programs, though, can only have a small impact on organic waste today. That’s simply because there are so few of these programs operating around the country. A study published in 2014 by the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at MIT found that as of 2013, only 183 US communities in 18 states were collecting compostable materials at the curb.
The good news? The same study found that many cities were signaling interest in instituting such programs in the future. Composting, then, might become a more effective way for cities to handle organics.
A Boost in the UK
CDEnviro provides a good example of how other countries have handled organic waste. The company has helped many municipal waste systems across the globe boost their recycling efforts.
One example is a recycling plant that focuses on road sweepings in the UK. The system is designed to recycle road sweepings and gully waste, the waste that collects in ravines throughout the area, and then recycle the water used in the process.
Previously, 100% of the street sweeping waste collected each year throughout the UK went to landfills. Officials wanted to change this.
The CDEnviro system uses a combination of wet and dry separation to accomplish the diversion of this waste stream. A final separation of solids leaves a dust that provides the opportunity for precious metals recovery.
The new solution was required to divert 85% of street sweepings and gully waste from landfills and to send less than 15% residue to landfills. The CDEnviro system helps the recycling company exceed this goal.
When processing yard sweepings and gully waste, CDEnviro’s facility creates a final product that is mostly sand and aggregate. Oversized materials such as rags, twigs, and large stones are processed through a trommel screen, leaving the ferrous metals, organics, and plastics to be sent for recycling.
The resulting filter cake is then used for landfill remediation efforts, while the aggregates and sand are used for onsite construction.
Hoping for More
Other countries are ahead of the US when it comes to recycling organic waste. Brown says that he would like to see this change.
“There is an increase in the attention paid to recycling organic waste every year,” says Brown. “But it’s never a huge increase. We would be tickled to death if it was. That would mean more business coming our way.”
Brown does have confidence that more municipalities will recycle a greater amount of their organic waste—both liquid and solid—in the coming years.
“As the older generation that isn’t used to recycling leaves the industry, and is replaced by younger people who grew up with recycling, I think you’ll see an even greater push,” says Brown. “The younger folks tend to be more receptive to recycling waste than are the older people.”
Dave Girard, the recycling market development manager with Peterson Pacific Corporation, based in Eugene, OR, says that municipalities in most parts of the country are already on board with the need to recycle as much of their waste as possible. This is especially true with municipalities on both the West and East Coast, many of which are already diverting large percentages of their waste, including organic waste, from landfills.
But that doesn’t mean that some municipalities aren’t still struggling.
“The wood waste and the yard waste that comes in is fairly easy to recycle,” says Girard. “There really isn’t any downside to doing that. There are a lot of private contractors working in municipalities who are happy to take the material or grind it and process it to make a finished product. I don’t think recycling that kind of waste is difficult at all. That’s the easiest part to handle.”
There are forms of organic waste, though, that are more challenging.
“Food waste? That is definitely more difficult to recycle,” says Girard.
Girard says that there are two main options when it comes to recycling food waste: composting and anaerobic digestion. And both come with challenges.
Consider anaerobic digesting. Municipalities can use this process to turn organic waste into a biofuel. The economics, though, don’t always work.
As Girard says, biofuels have to compete against natural gas. That’s a tough competition today considering that natural gas prices are at historically low levels.
There’s also not enough of an incentive from either the federal government or state governmental agencies to push anaerobic digestion, something that’s not the case in all other countries.
Girard says that recycling of all waste, including organics, is pushed more aggressively in Canada and throughout Europe than it is in the US. Different countries offer a wider range of grants and tax incentives to encourage waste recycling and to divert this waste from overburdened landfills.
Until governmental bodies enact more regulations to encourage recycling—such as the legislation now in effect in California—a greater number of municipalities won’t embrace the process.
“Regulations are most definitely a big driver in our industry,” says Girard. “It takes a lot of money upfront, and a lot of work upfront, to put together more extensive waste-recycling programs. But when you are forced to do it because of regulations, you’ll do it.”
Municipalities also face increased scrutiny today on how they spend their tax dollars. That, Girard says, also has an impact on the number of them that fully embrace recycling efforts.
“You have to be careful about how you spend your tax dollars,” says Girard. “Ask politicians. They know that. Say you’re a small town. I don’t know what an anaerobic digester costs, but I know it’s not inexpensive. It’s millions of dollars. I do know enough to know that this type of waste recycling costs millions of dollars upfront. Where does that money come from? Is this something that the residents of your town will appreciate their tax dollars being spent on?”
Some municipalities have other options when it comes to organic recycling. Instead of handling the recycling of organics themselves, they can rely on the network of private contractors serving their community to handle much of this recycling.
Some private contractors, for instance, might be happy to take on the wood recycling needs of a municipality. Others might be able to compost food scraps. With these private options available, some municipalities might not want to get involved as heavily in the process of recycling waste.
“They don’t want to compete against private industry,” says Girard. “That is one reason why some municipalities aren’t getting involved. The services are already offered by private contractors. Most taxpayers believe that if there is a private industry doing the job, the governments should let them have the work.”
Frank E. Celli, CEO of BioHiTech in Chestnut Ridge, NY, knows plenty about the efforts that municipalities are taking to divert waste from their landfills. His company specializes in providing solutions to municipalities that are looking to recycle more of all waste.
This includes, of course, organics such as food waste. BioHiTech provides companies with mobile digesters. These digesters, which look a bit like stainless-steel freezers, rapidly decompose any food that users toss into it. The food is then converted to liquid, which Celli says is essentially just water.
But what Celli says is as important as the mobile digesters? Working to change the habits of restaurants, grocers, and other users who generate a significant amount of food waste. That’s why BioHiTech also offers a cloud-based measuring system that calculates how much waste specific users are generating and how it compares to other similar users.
Armed with this information, users can determine if they are generating more waste than usual, and can then take steps to change their behavior as a way to reduce the waste they create.
“The key for me is that most people don’t understand what they waste and how much they waste,” says Celli. “Waste is a byproduct of inefficient behavior. If we can measure those inefficiencies by tracking that behavior in real time, we can improve the processes that users rely on in procurement or menu prep. The elimination of the waste we generate is the most environmentally sound and cost-effective way to handle waste.”
Celli points to a regional grocer that is a customer of BioHiTech’s. The ¬grocer installed digesters in several of their ¬locations. At the time of installation, the ¬customer provided BioHiTech with an estimate of how much waste their stores ¬generated. Once the digesters were in place and -BioHiTech’s cloud service began ¬measuring how much waste the stores actually did generate, the customer discovered that its original estimates were far too low.
The customer, in response, boosted its food-donation program as one way to reduce its waste.
“The measurement led to real awareness of the quantities of waste generated,” says Celli. “What a grocer can do is compare pounds of food waste generated per dollars of sales. They can then compare those figures across their entire enterprise.”
Celli, like others interviewed for this story, agrees that reducing waste, and diverting more of organic waste to landfills, is only going to become a more important task for waste districts in the future.
He also says that while the US is behind Europe when it comes to diverting waste, it is still moving on the right path.
“The United States looks a lot different today when it comes to waste diversion than it did five years ago,” says Celli. “And it’s going to look a lot different five years from now, too. It takes time. We are moving mountains here. It wasn’t that long ago when we threw all our garbage at home in just one trash can. There was no recycling bin. But people today are realizing more often that we can’t keep throwing our garbage in big holes in the ground. That’s not a great practice.”