May 23, 2005 | General


BioCycle May 2005, Vol. 46, No. 5, p. 6

Paul Schwab and Kathy Banks, Purdue University agronomy and civil engineering professors, are experts in reme- diating field sites contaminated with organic compounds such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs -by-products of oil refining or gasoline combustion). In an article titled “Pollutionbusters” in the April 2005 issue of Resource, Purdue science writer Jennifer Cutraro explains that their combined expertise in fields like microbial degradation of organic compounds has led to successful cleanup of sites all over the U.S.
Their latest project uses plants to decontaminate dredged sediments – that have been removed from Wisconsin’s Milwaukee Harbor. Schwab and Banks – along with a Purdue plant molecular physiologist named David Salt – use plants known as metal hyperaccumulators, which take up and store amounts of metals in their shoots and leaves. These plants are ideal for phytoremediation. More details on the research – and implications for contaminant removal will appear in a coming issue of BioCycle.
“Hampshire Gardeners who send their green waste for recycling into compost are helping to contribute to the success of new organic farming practices, pioneered by leading grower Vitacress Salads,” begins a report in the latest issue of Britain’s Composting Association magazine. To control weeds on its organic baby leaf salad farm, Vitacress used recycled trimmings as a mulch. In the last three years, the company has used 30,000 metric tons of compost – made by the Onyx Environmental Group – the equivalent of a whole year’s output from every single garden in Hampshire. Adds the UK Composting Association: “To complete the organic cycle, Vitacress sends its own waste salad leaves back to Onyx for recycling.”
Results are described as spectacular – weeds have been controlled, soil is bursting with fertility, and more than 250 metric tons of baby leaf spinach, lollo rosso, wild rocket and tango salads (1.5 million supermarket bags) are produced annually under Soil Association standards. Most cost-effective and easiest to apply mulch is the Pro-Grow product from the partnership between Onyx and Hampshire County Council. Explains Peter Mills, Onyx composting manager: “This is a fantastic example of sustainability, with further environmental gains coming from the significant reduction in vehicle miles due to the local composting and utilization of green waste.”
Dr. Timothy Jones of the University of Arizona’s Bureau of Applied Research in Anthropology may soon launch a series of articles in BioCycle “on food loss throughout the food industry.” Jones recently completed a USDA project with goals to quantify food losses at major stages of the marketing system: Harvesting, processing, storage, retail distribution, food service and household. The data is being used to: 1. Provide new estimates of food losses; 2. Estimate the dollar value of those losses; 3. Evaluate the environmental and social impact of food loss in the U.S. “These estimates will provide up-to-date measures of food loss, to improve reliability of U.S. food consumption and nutrient data, construct means for reducing loss or facilitate food recovery and gleaning effort.”
According to the data compiled, American households throw out 467.2 pounds per year – not including what goes down the garbage disposal or into compost piles. Annual cost of food waste is more than $43 billion per year, broken down roughly as follows: Meat – $14 billion; Grains – $10 billion; Fruit – $9.6 billion; and Vegetables – $9.1 billion.
Convenience stores have the highest percentage of food loss at 26.3 percent. Fast food restaurants come in second at a 9.6 percent food loss, observes Jones based on his professional and academic investigations: “Losses in the retail sector, farming and in the home are unnecessarily large, easily reduced and represent a significant negative impact on the national economy.” As BioCycle continues its emphasis on ways to reduce food loss, maximize recovery and get composting done in institutions, supermarkets, homes, etc., we are most pleased to publish the series by Dr. Jones in the pages of this magazine.
A new report by Helen Spiegelman and Bill Sheehan of the Product Policy Institute shows how waste disposal and recycling have failed to promote sustainable production and consumption. In their study, Unintended Consequences: Municipal Solid Waste Management and The Throwaway Society, they suggest that public policies have actually subsidized corporations that make toxic and hard-to-recycle products. “On the other hand, municipal management of ‘nonproduct’ biowastes has been a success. We conclude that the emerging policy approach known as Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) may be more effective for sustainable product waste management, and that communities should shift focus to nonproduct wastes (yard trimmings and food scraps).”
Spiegelman and Sheehan analyzed EPA waste characterization data from 1960 to 2001 to compare generation, recovery and discards. The dramatic growth was almost entirely in product wastes, while generation of biowastes grew slowly. While the product recycling rate has plateaued at around 30 percent, yard trimmings recovery is the big “success story.” “Although it did not begin until 1988, it has risen steadily to a recovery rate of 56.5 percent. Food scraps recovery is in its infancy, with less than 3 percent collected.”
They also point out that despite significant public investment in product recycling and biowaste composting, our waste management system “continues to bury or burn most of the materials and products that enter the system. In 2001, 70.3 percent of U.S. MSW generated was disposed in landfills or waste incinerators.” In their view, waste prevention lies outside of the solid waste management system, actually providing services that acted as a perverse subsidy to production of short-lived products and excessive material flows.
In their list of recommendations, they stress that over time, product wastes should increasingly be managed through infrastructure provided and funded by producers. Meanwhile, municipal solid waste management should focus on environmentally sound management of biowastes and other biodegradable materials. Government at all levels can assist industries to prepare for EPR by sending clear policy signals. And finally, they urge, “government policy in North America should direct the solid waste management system to provide separate collection and treatment of organic materials and encourage research and development in this area.” (The complete report can be accessed at: (Bill Sheehan of the Product Policy Institute can be contacted via e-mail at
At last month’s Organics Recycling Summit 2005, Greg Cooper of the, Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection supplied these statistics on processing/composting capacity: Of the 280 registered composting sites, there are 178 municipal projects processing leaves and yard trimmings; 38 commercial sites; 63 agricultural sites; and 5 federal and state sites. In 2003, 680,000 tons were composted. At 28 sites, mostly agricultural, estimated food waste capacity was 130,000 tons; currently more than 55 supermarkets have food residuals composting projects, with a goal of reaching 100 by summer; more programs are developing at hotels, hospitals, colleges and large institutional generators. Expanding capacity is predicted in on-site (residential backyard composting and anaerobic/aerobic digestion); and off-site (commercial, municipal and farm-based). New state policies include waste bans to spur capacity development, hauling investments, and memorandum of understanding for commercial food residuals. Financial grants will provide funds for project development, supermarket programs, and leverage support through partnerships and incentives. In addition to market development to increase use of compost by state agencies and other end users, regulators would oversee cocompost standards and extend waste ban enforcement to haulers and generators – now only for cardboard and other recyclables, but future potential for commercial organics.
At the BioCycle West Coast Conference in March, Judy Friedman of the California Integrated Waste Management Board presented the Board’s zero waste and sustainability goals, providing these statistics: 40.2 million tons disposed in 2003; Organics represented 30.2 percent; C&D – 21.7 percent; Paper – 21 percent; 24.4 percent is rated compostable, while 20.1 percent of disposed waste is recyclable; an additional 16.1 percent is recoverable C&D material; Organic materials plus lumber equals 40 percent. Evaluating diversion potential, CIWMB declares that processing of disposed organics would be 71 percent; with conversion (renewable energy) technology, (including paper), rate would jump to 82 percent. Total feedstocks processed (tons) rose from 6,108,000 in 2001 to 9,868,112 in 2003. Key findings presented were: 10 million tons diverted; ag is largest single market for urban compost at 27 percent; CalTrans remains an untapped market; Large increase in ADC to 8.4 million cu yds; ADC use has impacted compost facilities in some regions of California; 28 percent decline in compost production in state; Still only one-third of what’s collected is being composted and recycled.
In Oregon, Gov. Ted Kulongoski released a five-step strategy that promotes its opportunity to be a leader on the front end by developing new technologies, investing in renewable energy and practicing conservation – which will “reduce greenhouse emissions in our state.” As in other Northwest states, a proposed Renewable Fuels Requirement (HB 3033) for 10 percent ethanol by 2010, and 2 percent biodiesel by mid-2006 rising to 5 percent biodiesel by 2010, triggered a lively public debate. Other bills would expand property tax exemption to include biodiesel production as well as ethanol plants; provide tax credits for biofuels crop production; authorize issuance of renewable energy bonds by public utilities.
In Montana, Gov. Brian Schweitzer and legislators established Renewable Portfolio Standards requiring utilities to reach 5 percent by 2008, 10 percent by 2010 and 15 percent by 2015. Ethanol fuel legislation would require a 10 percent ethanol blend in gasoline by 2006. Other bills would extend the state’s alternative energy revolving loan program to local government, universities and nonprofits; extend renewable resource grants and collecting or processing reclaimable material.
In Washington, renewable energy bills would encourage the alternative fuels industry through tax exemptions; exempt school districts from the state’s 28 cents/gallon special fuel tax on the biofuel portion used in school buses; provide tax incentives for using and purchasing alternative fuels and refueling equipment. In Idaho, one measure would provide sales and use tax exemptions for purchases of fuel cells, landfill gas, etc.
In the Illinois Sustainable Energy Plan, Gov. Rod Blagojevich proposed an RPS that would require electric utilities to provide 2 percent renewable energy by 2006, increasing 1 percent annually to 8 percent by 2012, enough to serve nearly 1 million Illinois households. Both of the state’s largest utilities – Commonwealth Edison and Ameren Corp. endorsed the Energy Plan.
Meanwhile the Governors Ethanol Coalition (GEC), representing governors from 30 states is trying to expand a proposed federal mandate for use of ethanol as a vehicle-fuel additive. Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, chair of the GEC urged Congress to support a renewable fuels standard of 8 billion gallons by 2012, providing 10 percent of the nation’s fuel from ethanol and biodiesel with a growing share from biomass-derived ethanol. Additional biomass resources such as corn fiber, wheat straw, rice hulls, paper mill waste and agricultural residues can expand ethanol production.

Sign up