September 21, 2010 | General

Expanding Diversion Of Food Scraps And Soiled Paper

BioCycle September 2010, Vol. 51, No. 9, p. 20
A study of residential source separated organics collection in the U.S. and Canada identified 121 programs, and suggests policy and operational changes to encourage more projects.
Peter Anderson and Gary Liss

THE Center for a Competitive Waste Industry recently completed a comprehensive study of organics collection programs that include food scraps and soiled paper (“source separated organics,” or SSO). The study, titled “Beyond Recycling: Composting Food Scraps And Soiled Paper,” identified 121 residential food scrap collection programs in North America, with 66 in the U.S. and 55 in Canada. This next generation of recycling has demonstrated it can raise diversion from one-third to more than two-thirds of the municipal solid waste that the U.S. generates. About one-third of respondents collect food scraps separately and about half collect them with yard trimmings. Some cities, including San Francisco, have banned organic materials from trash or landfills. The largest number of respondents noted that organics are collected separately, on a weekly basis.
Most of the food scraps and soiled paper separately collected at residences are processed at composting facilities capable of managing all SSO. The study found that the development of more organics recycling infrastructure (composting and anaerobic digestion) is imperative to the expansion of SSO programs in North America.

Until recently, the movement to divert food scraps from landfills has been more active in Canada than in the U.S. In particular, both the Greater Toronto region and the province of Nova Scotia experienced precipitating events, which combined with an environmentally concerned citizenry, to make them among the first major adopters of food scrap diversion programs, which they added to their recycling and yard trimmings separation programs.
In 2002, Toronto’s last city-owned landfill, Keele Valley, was closed down because too many people had sprawled out around it. As a result, all of the city’s garbage had to be hauled by truck, 10 hours each way, to Republic’s Carlton Farms landfill in Michigan. This increased disposal costs by more than 300 percent and created significant political opposition from the U.S., including the possibility that the border would be closed.
In anticipation of that closing date, the city considered a proposal to haul its waste 400 miles to an abandoned iron ore mine in northern Ontario, Canada, which fell through in October 2000. In June 2001, Toronto, which then had a diversion rate of 24 percent, changed course and set a goal of Zero Waste by 2010 (although that included as much as 40 percent going to waste-to-energy systems). Citizen participation was a key factor in the decision to pursue Zero Waste. To realize these goals, the city began a “Green Bin Program” in September 2002 to add a collection of food scraps placed in a separate container (a 12-gallon Norseman Green Bin). It was rolled out across the City through 2005 to involve 510,000 single-family households in the residential organics program, with the next focus on multifamily units. (For a comprehensive update of residential SSO programs in the Greater Toronto region, see “Greater Toronto At Full Steam With Residential Organics Programs,” August 2010.)
Initiation of SSO programs in Nova Scotia was environmentally driven. In the early 1990s, the Upper Sackville landfill experienced a catastrophic failure, exacerbated by the underlying fractured bedrock, leading to pollution of the river. Attempts to construct incinerators to manage the waste were rejected after citizen objections, as were attempts by Waste Management to open a new private landfill. As a result, a group of 500 citizens began developing alternatives.
In 1995, Nova Scotia began plans for diverting at least 50 percent of its waste from disposal. In 1998, the province also banned organics from the landfill. Halifax began its organics collection program in 1999, and today, all 41 municipalities in the province collect food scraps and soiled paper, in addition to their recycling and yard trimmings collection programs.
In comparison, the United States has had no similar precipitating events. For example, when New York City was forced to close its nearby Fresh Kills Landfill in 2001, long-hauling waste to Pennsylvania and Virginia was pursued instead of greater diversion. New York had experienced so many problems implementing its existing recycling programs that expanded diversion was not considered an option.
Although, San Francisco experienced no landfill crisis during this time, the city’s strong environmental ethic and California’s law mandating 50 percent diversion by 2000 (with $10,000/day penalties for noncompliance) led it to experiment with food scraps recovery in 1997 through 1999. As San Francisco had little yard trimmings and lots of food scraps (compared to other communities in California), it focused early on food scraps recovery. But, possibly due to the absence of the sort of external pressure that confronted Toronto and Nova Scotia, their program was not made mandatory until 2009.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 29.7 percent of landfill discards, or about 40.8 million tons, are food scraps and soiled paper. After adding in the other organic discards – including yard trimmings, lumber, textiles and miscellaneous items – total organics landfilled in the U.S. is approximately 66.3 percent of all discards. Food scraps alone account for 18 percent of landfilled discards and have a diversion rate of less than 3 percent. Since 2005 and the widely viewed movie, The Inconvenient Truth, climate change and the potential for organics diversion to reduce greenhouse gas emissions has increased the willingness in the U.S. to make greater investments in organics diversion.
Unfortunately, the existing composting infrastructure permitted for and accepting food scraps is far more limited than the 41 million ton potential for the streams of SSO nationwide were it all diverted. BioCycle’s 2008 nationwide survey of composters accepting food scraps found 143 such facilities, of which only 70 had more than 1,000 tons/year of processing capacity. Moreover, those totals are almost entirely windrow operations. As the number of SSO programs increase, today’s generation of windrow facilities will be challenged to manage nitrogen rich streams. A new generation of more advanced operations may eventually be needed.
The changes needed to bring about the necessary expansion of residential organics composting fall into several categories: Policy changes that will shift the economics of organics processing; Operational changes that will improve system efficiencies; and Public awareness to develop political will for sustainability and combating climate change. The following sections provide suggestions on how to advance implementation of these changes.

Raise Disposal Fees: It is difficult for residential organics programs to flourish in states where landfill tip fees are low. Nationwide, landfill tip fees average slightly under $35/ton. By contrast, European landfill tip fees typically exceed $100/ton, and can reach as high as triple that amount. Most European nations have instituted $20-$40/ton surcharges on landfills in response to the European Directive of 1999 to phase organics out of landfills. These surcharges make waste reduction more attractive; revenues are used to support reduction, composting, and recycling programs. Similar surcharges could be placed at the federal, state and local level in the U.S.
Full Cost of Landfills: Another policy measure to shift the economics of organics recycling would be to require landfill owners to account for the full cost of the post-closure period and beyond, including bearing the cost of risk of landfill liner failure well into the future. In addition, local governments that own landfills could choose to price their use at the discounted value of future landfill capacity at a new landfill, rather than at the current operating cost.
Eliminate Recycling Credit for ADC: Millions of tons of yard trimmings are counted as “diversion” when used as alternative daily cover (ADC) for landfills in California. This has undercut the development of composting facilities because ADC can be made for lower costs than quality compost, By eliminating this recycling credit, the State could stimulate greater interest in the composting of yard trimmings, and, by extension, residential organics. Alternatively, if California cities commit to composting food scraps to get all organics out of landfills for climate change purposes, organic materials would no longer be able to be used as ADC, eliminating this hurdle to expansion of organics composting.
Streamline Permit Processes: States could reduce regulatory complexity and uncertainty in obtaining permits to operate organics composting. States could also promote on-farm composting of organics to help develop more local uses to decrease long-distance hauling of materials.
Give Carbon Trading Credits: At present, EPA does not assign a carbon trading value for compost, even though landfill gas to energy systems are given credit. The Climate Action Reserve and the Chicago Climate Exchange have protocols that provide carbon credits for composting.

Restructuring Collection To Reduce Costs: There may be significant savings in costs and increases in volume of organics diverted by reducing the frequency of collecting the trash that remains after recycling and organics separation. By collecting trash on a less-than-weekly basis, organics diversion can be less expensive than landfilling by offsetting collection costs. Also, by collecting food scraps together with residual waste or recyclables, collection costs can be greatly reduced. In Toronto, a house receives just one pass per week. One week, food scraps are collected in combination with recyclables. The next week food scraps and residual waste are collected in the same pass.
Enclose Composting Operations: By enclosing composting operations, and using forced aeration systems, facilities can reduce air emissions, leachate and use of potentially scarce water resources. Enclosures can include, among others: plastic
covers or elongated bags; metal boxes; drums; or indoor concrete bays. The use of “breathable” fabric covers or plastic bags are expected to become a standard technology for processing minor volumes of SSO. For those incremental programs, these systems are generally reported by users to be lower in cost and easier to operate than more mechanized in-vessel composting technologies.
Consider Anaerobic Digestion at POTWs:. Another approach being pursued is the addition of food scraps to anaerobic digesters at publicly-owned treatment works (wastewater treatment plants). Dedicated digesters may be considered, especially in programs with less frequent rubbish collection or areas where disposal costs are high.


Emphasize Resource Conservation: The framework for waste reduction, recycling, and composting over the past 30 years has been based on diverting materials from disposal in landfills and incinerators. Opinion leaders need to put greater emphasis on recycled municipal organic materials’ role in soil conservation and water conservation. The application of mulch and compost can greatly reduce the need for watering, and helps to hold soil in place.
Use Appropriate Terms: Given the negative reaction among most people to the term “waste,” it is important to redefine “yard waste” as “yard trimmings” (or landscape trimmings) and “food waste” as “food scraps” or “discarded food.” These slight semantic differences act to change the public impression of these materials as “wastes” and that they are truly natural resources that should be returned to the soil to help reduce greenhouse gases and increase soil health. Moreover, changing the definition of certain materials from being included in “municipal solid waste” to being source-separated resources can, in some circumstances, allow for collection by nonfranchised haulers. The City of Oakland, California, for example, allowed Recology of San Francisco to collect commercial food scraps to pilot the innovative processing of these materials in the East Bay Municipal Utilities District digester in Oakland. This decreased the amount of materials landfilled, and provided an additional service to restaurants in Oakland that was considered legally as recycling so these materials were not kept under the exclusive franchise of Waste Management.

Peter Anderson is Executive Director of the Center for a Competitive Waste Industry in Madison, Wisconsin (anderson@competitive Gary Liss is principal of Gary Liss & Associates in Loomis, California (gary@ The study was funded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Pacific Southwest Regional Office, covering California, Arizona, Nevada, Hawaii and Pacific Island territories. The report is available for download at

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