BY GAIL BARNES
While many people are composting their food scraps and yard waste because they think it’s the right thing to do, in the US, about 95% of food scraps are still thrown away and eventually end up in landfills.
A just-released University of Washington study calculates the environmental benefits associated with keeping organic materials out of landfills. With compost, the model calculates how much methane is produced over time in landfills as organic materials decay. It also considers how much methane from landfills is currently captured in collection systems versus being released into the atmosphere.
“You should definitely pay attention to where you put your food waste, and you should feel good you live in a place where compost is an option,” said the University of Washington study author, Sally Brown, a UW research associate professor of environmental and forest sciences.
Brown’s study, which will appear in the January 2016 issue of Compost Science & Utilization, analyses new changes to a US Environmental Protection Agency model that helps solid waste planners estimate greenhouse gas emission reductions based on whether materials are composted, recycled, burned or thrown away.
With compost, the model calculates how much methane is produced over time in landfills as organic materials decay. It also considers how much methane from landfills is currently captured in collection systems versus being released into the atmosphere. The results are overwhelmingly in support of composting food waste rather than sending it to landfills.
“Putting your food waste in the compost bin can really help reduce methane emissions from landfills, so it’s an easy thing to do that can have a big impact,” Brown said.
Seattle and King County in the state of Washington were among the first municipalities in the US to adopt food waste composting and curbside pickup. Other leaders in composting include San Francisco, New York City and the states of Vermont and Massachusetts.
Commercial composting growing in North America
Commercial composting programmes are growing in cities across North America. More than 30 states in the US are now equipped with composting facilities, according to a 2014 survey conducted by BioCycle.
However many cities and, surprisingly, many rural areas still don’t have comprehensive composting programmes built into their waste management systems. BioCycle estimates that there are almost 5,000 composting services spread throughout the US in semi-urban areas to deep rural communities, but many don’t yet accept food waste, often as a result of fear of complaints about odours from nearby residents .
According to Robert Reed – a spokesman for Recology’s San Francisco curbside composting services – steady, patient education of the community is the key to San Francisco’s success in implementing a city-wide composting programme. Reed is adamant that it can work in other communities as well, but he advises that there is “no magic bullet” when it comes to incentivising communities on this issue.
Reed said that the tonnage of compost materials picked up by haulers in San Francisco has now surpassed the volume of recyclables picked up in the city. “Think about that,” Reed said. “Composting has surpassed recycling in San Francisco. The only city in North America where that has occurred.”
Composting with food waste could provide an end-of-life solution for flexible packaging
The growth of commercial composting programmes is good news for manufacturers of compostable flexible packaging who see these programmes as a solution to the difficulty of recycling flexible packaging and a way to keep this type of packaging out of landfill.
According to Daphna Nissenbaum, co-founder and CEO of Tipa, a company that manufactures compostable flexible packaging, “with regards to the technology, from the angle of the consumer, the angle of the brands and the angle of the manufacturer of the waste systems, we integrate fully with what already exists in the market. For the consumer, the package can go into the organic waste stream; you can treat it the same as organic waste or what we’d call ‘kitchen waste’ – which actually accounts for 30% of our household waste. Separate it, or don’t separate it. We don’t want to interrupt daily life too much, but either way, it will dissolve. It can then be used as fertiliser, so that rather than being a burden on the environment, it is again a resource.”
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