January 19, 2007 | General

Municipalities Roll Out Source Separated Household Organics Collection

BioCycle January 2007, Vol. 48, No. 1, p. 33
In several regions of the U.S., municipal governments are offering residents curbside collection of source separated, household organics beyond only yard trimmings. Part II
Nora Goldstein and Robert Spencer

PART II of BioCycle’s annual update on municipal solid waste composting focuses on source separated programs that involve collection of household organics beyond only yard trimmings. Typically this includes food scraps and food-soiled paper. The 2006 survey conducted in late fall found 30 municipalities and counties with source separated household organics collection programs. Table 1 lists those municipalities and counties. Table 2 provides a list of the composting facilities servicing these programs. Part I of BioCycle’s annual municipal solid waste composting survey, which included mixed waste programs, appeared in the November 2006 issue.
A significant portion of households and food service industries (including grocery stores) in the San Francisco Bay area and King County, Washington have access to collection of food waste and yard trimmings. Municipal agencies have made significant investments in collection infrastructure and outreach and education to establish these programs. Still, participation is lagging. To better understand and help address this situation, the 23rd Annual BioCycle West Coast Conference to be held in April 16-18, 2007 in San Diego will feature several sessions on how to build participation in source separated organics collection programs targeted at residents and commercial and institutional generators. Many of the municipal agency officials interviewed for this article will be involved in these sessions at the BioCycle West Coast conference.
Twelve jurisdictions in Alameda County offer residents the opportunity to put food waste and food-soiled paper and corrugated in their 96-gallon green waste carts. The food scraps recycling program was initiated several years ago by StopWaste.Org, the public agency comprised of the Alameda County Waste Management Authority and the Alameda County Source Reduction and Recycling Board. StopWaste.Org funds the purchase and distribution of kitchen containers for food scraps; all households in the county already have 96-gallon green waste carts that are serviced weekly. StopWaste also does the media and outreach and educational campaigns. Individual jurisdictions oversee their own programs; haulers servicing the jurisdictions take the collected organics to several different composting sites, including Allied/BFI’s Newby Island facility in San Jose, Grover Landscaping, Inc. in Modesto and Z-Best Composting in Gilroy.
StopWaste does audits as each program rolls out on a quarterly basis the first year, and then annually after that. “We go to houses with green cart setouts and see if they are putting food scraps in,” says Robin Plutchok of StopWaste.Org. “We also assess how many households are not putting carts out. Participation varies dramatically from city to city, as well as season to season; it is up in the summer, and lower in the winter.” The agency plans to conduct a waste characterization study in 2008, which will help determine the quantities of food scraps still in the waste stream.
Oakland and Fremont are the two largest cities participating at this time. Other jurisdictions (out of a total of 17) include Alameda, Albany, Castro Valley Sanitary District, Dublin, Emeryville, Livermore, Newark, Pleasanton, San Leandro and Union City. Berkeley and Hayward are expected to start programs soon. Fremont’s curbside organics program services 46,500 single-family homes each week. The green waste/food scraps are cocollected in split trucks with recyclables. The participation rate for food scraps diversion averages about 25 percent. “StopWaste.Org is performing an audit of several cities in the County, including Fremont, to determine the average weight of food scraps that residents put in their green carts,” says Cynthia Virostko in the City of Fremont’s Environmental Services Division. “This information will help us determine the effectiveness of the residential food scrap program.”
When asked about the top three challenges since rolling out a food scraps recycling initiative in 2003, she responded: “First is motivating residents to use the program. That includes getting over the ‘yuck’ factor, the ‘One more thing I have to do’ factor, and the ‘It’s going to attract pests’ factor. Second is decreasing/eliminating plastic bag contamination. Residents are wrapping food scraps in plastic bags and placing them in the green carts. We’re not sure if this is related to convenience or a sanitary problem. Third is the educational outreach issue related to either a lack of exposure/getting the word out to the community, or a language barrier. Most likely it is a combination of both.”
In January 2004, the California Integrated Waste Management Board determined that the City of Arvin had not made a good faith effort to implement its Source Reduction and Recycling Element (50 percent diversion of all solid waste on or after 1/1/2000 through source reduction, recycling and composting). The city was told to work with the Board to develop a Local Assistance Plan, with expanded and new programs designed to achieve a 50 percent diversion rate (the rate calculated for 2000 was 28 percent). Among the measures Arvin took to boost its diversion rate was to allow households to add food waste and soiled paper to their 96-gallon green waste carts. “We do weekly pick-up from 2,900 residents,” says Ray Scott of Price Environmental Services in Arvin, which services the collection program. “We do mailings to residents to remind them about the program and what they can put in the carts. There is a high rate of participation. Roughly 1,800 tons of materials were diverted in the green carts last year; we estimate the food waste comprised about one-third of that.” Recently, a local grocery store joined the collection program, he adds. “They have twelve 96-gallon carts that we empty twice a week.” The source separated organics are taken to Community Recycling and Resource Recovery’s composting facility in Lamont. David Baldwin of Community Recycling noted that the City of McFarland is also allowing residents to add food scraps and soiled paper to their green waste carts. That material, collected by Pena Disposal, is coming to the facility as well.
BioCycle has covered the City and County of San Francisco’s Fantastic Three residential recycling and composting program a number of times since it was launched as a pilot project close to 10 years ago. San Francisco has by far the most comprehensive residential organics collection program in the country, serving 150,000 households with weekly cart-based service. All household organics, including soiled paper and cardboard, are allowed in the carts. Jack Macy, Commercial Recycling Coordinator with the City and County of San Francisco’s Department of the Environment, provides this update: “Fantastic Three organics are collected from households as well as many businesses and institutions (generally small) that also use wheeled toters for organics collection. For the rate year ending June 30, 2006, we roughly estimate that about 40,000 tons were diverted through the green carts, of which about one-third is food scraps and two-thirds are yard trimmings. For commercial and institutional dedicated route collection – a separate program from Fantastic Three – organics tonnages diverted in the last fiscal year are about 47,000 tons. About 3,200 of the 47,000 tons are from green waste self-haul and dropoff customers. The commercial collection continues to grow, and we expect it to pass 60,000 tons by the end of 2006.”
In terms of the residential program, participation levels appear to have flattened out to roughly 35 to 40 percent weekly on organics. “A waste disposal composition study done for us in 2005 found about 38 percent of the single family household waste going to landfill was food scraps,” says Macy. “We were surprised by how high that number was and it clearly shows that we are getting much better recovery for other recyclables and that we need to do a lot more outreach and promotion of our composting program. The Department of the Environment is planning several pilot outreach campaigns, including distribution of aerated kitchen pails and compostable bags to some targeted neighborhoods. As part of that we will be doing a before and after participation count. We also will be doing more outreach and work setting up organics collection in apartment buildings; about 200 are being serviced now.”
On the commercial organics side, one big development is the significantly increased financial incentives for participants in the composting program. A new commercial rate structure was implemented starting July 1, 2006. “The new rates provide a discount up to 75 percent based on the generator’s service volume diversion rate, such that a business with recycling and/or composting service volume at 67 percent of total service volume would get a 67 percent discount on their variable service charges (5 percent are fixed),” explains Macy. “This is a big change from the previous 25 percent discount provided for composting participation.”
The majority of diverted residential, commercial and institutional organics are taken to Norcal Waste Systems, Inc.’s Jepsen Prairie Organics composting facility in Vacaville. Roughly 300 tons/day of material are processed from San Francisco’s programs. Two Norcal companies, Sunset Scavenger and Golden Gate Disposal, have the waste collection contract with the City and County of San Francisco.
Not many places prohibit motor vehicles from their community, but there are probably even fewer that have a motor vehicle ban and commercial/residential source separated composting. With just 546 residents, this historical community features museums, horse drawn wagons, shops and restaurants that draw 18,000 to 25,000 visitors/day during the summer. The 5 tons/day aerated static pile composting program that serves this tourist destination, recently received state renewal of its license to compost for another three years, reports Bruce Zimmerman, Director of Public Works. The food residuals stream, which includes soiled paper, is mixed with horse manure and composted. Residents are given an economic incentive to participate in the program by purchasing compost bags for $1.50 each, or bright blue trash bags for $3 each.
The City of Hutchinson reports no significant changes in its curbside residential organics collection program since starting in 2001. Doug Johnson, Compost Site Coordinator at Creekside Organic Materials Processing Facility – the public entity that operates the composting facility – says that “the December 2005 BioCycle report on our facility is still accurate.” BioCycle conducted a food residuals composting survey during the summer of 2006, and learned a bit more about the City’s operation. The facility is permitted for 2,500 tons/year of food/organic waste, and estimates it handles about 2,200 tons/year. Collection of the organic waste is in 90-gallon “organic carts” that have a bar code sticker linked to the address where the cart belongs. This allows the City to credit $2/month to the homeowner’s waste/sewer/garbage bill for participating in the organics program. The same applies to the recyclables bin. The city delivers biodegradable bags (Eco Works) every four to five months, based on participants using two bags per week.
As one of the first and longest sustained source separated composting facilities in the country, Swift County continues “to do everything just about the same each year, except our numbers change by a small percent,” says Scott Collins, Director of Environmental Services for Swift County. Clear bags are used for curbside trash collection, with the driver determining if a bag is organic waste or mixed trash. Collins notes that the current recycling rate in the county is about 65 percent – 27 percent recyclables and 38 percent organics. The County receives state recycling grant money each year to help operate the program. Collins speculates that the county recycling rate could increase to 80 to 90 percent if more residents complied and the hauler was more careful in picking up bags of contaminated organics. If just a few residents on a route put inorganic materials in the organics bag, and it is not noticed by the curbside collection person, it will contaminate the entire truck load, he says. “This is because the county does not hand sort bags on the tip floor. Once the load is dumped and determined to have an unacceptable amount of trash, it is pushed to the landfill pile. Waste Management takes the trash and compost facility residue to two different landfills at a cost of about $56/ton.”
In the spring of 2005, the City of Wayzata in Hennepin County approved adding food waste and soiled paper to its curbside organics collection program. Wayzata had conducted a successful pilot program for several years with assistance from Hennepin County. Residents set the organics out in biodegradable bags for weekly collection; trash is collected biweekly. “Wayzata is the only city in the county with a curbside program that includes food waste, but there are several other cities that are very interested,” says John Jaimez of Hennepin County. “Overall in terms of organics diversion, there are 35 schools and four school districts that are diverting food waste at this time.”
According to David Frischmon, former finance director for Wayzata, the program has resulted in a 16 percent reduction in the city’s residential MSW and a 23 percent increase in collected tonnages of recyclables. He notes that the program is self-financed by an increase in the recycling fee charged to all residents. Residents can save money, or at least breakeven, as a result of the higher fee by switching from weekly to biweekly garbage collection and/or switching to a smaller garbage can, e.g., from 90-gallons to 60-gallons.
Materials from Wayzata as well as the schools are composted at the Empire Processing Facility in Rosemount. “We get about 50 tons/month on average of these source separated organics,” says Judy Purman of Resource Recovery Technologies, which owns and operates the Empire facility. The material is ground with yard trimmings and processed in enclosed, aerated bags. To address issues related to plastics contamination, Resource Recovery Technologies announced in late December that beginning March 1, 2007, the Empire Processing Facility will only accept biodegradable bag and foodservice products that are certified by the Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI). A list of approved products is on the BPI website (
Western Lake Superior Sanitary District (WLSSD), based in Duluth, provides wastewater and solid waste services for a 530 square mile area in northeastern Minnesota. In 2001, WLSSD opened a source separated organics composting facility in Duluth adjacent to its wastewater treatment plant. The site is permitted to handle 7,900 tons/year of material – about half yard trimmings and half source separated organics from commercial and institutional generators and residents. While WLSSD does not offer curbside collection to households for organics, residents can bring food scraps, including meat and dairy products, to several dropoff locations. “We only take bagged food waste in approved compostable bags – BPI, DIN, CERTO and BPS (Japan) certified,” says Susan Darley-Hill, Environmental Program Coordinator for WLSSD. “We now have four dropoff sites operating across Duluth, and are preparing to add food waste drop sites at remote rural recycling shed locations in 2007. We received about 2 tons from households and small businesses participating in 2006.” She adds that a large food waste manufacturer that had been sending its residuals to the facility closed over the past year, which reduced the volume of commercial and institutional organics from about 2,225 cubic yards in 2005 to 1,250 cy in 2006. A new Solid Waste Ordinance approved in 2006 requires mandatory source separation of organic waste by large generators in the WLSSD service area beginning in 2007, which should boost the flow of materials to the site (more details to follow in a separate BioCycle update). WLSSD sold about 5,000 bags of compost last year, and about 2,000 cy of bulk material.
Over 60 percent of King County households (not including Seattle) have curbside organics collection service available. There are weekly and biweekly programs across the county. In the weekly program residents can add all food waste, including meat, cheese and bones, food-contaminated paper, milk cartons and carry-out containers to their 96-gallon green waste carts. Until recently, biweekly programs were not allowed to put meat, cheese and bones into the carts due to Health Department requirements. However that policy is under review. The following cities offer the program: Bellevue, Bothell, Carnation, Issaquah, Kirkland, Newcastle, Redmond, Sammamish and Woodinville. Five of those nine offer weekly collection from March through November, and biweekly from December to February (see Table 1 for break-out). The rest have weekly collection year round. The City of Seattle currently offers biweekly collection and meat is not allowed. “There are a couple of different ways that food scrap recycling service is being offered by Waste Management and Allied, the two franchised solid waste haulers in the county – weekly where the rate is imbedded and residents pay whether or not it is being used; weekly pickup with a subscription service; and biweekly subscriptions,” explains Josh Marx, Project Manager for Residential & Commercial Food Waste Collection Programs in King County. “It is very exciting to see how quickly the infrastructure for residential collection has taken off in the County after a few pilots were conducted several years ago. Now food waste has become a standard service as the cities’ collection contracts are renewed.”
The big task now is to build participation in the organics collection service, he adds. “We are basically getting two levels of participation. There are people who are signed up and maybe throw in a banana peel or pizza box on occasion and then there are people who are putting in everything.” King County is planning a substantial regional educational outreach initiative, building on its “Recycle More. It’s Easy” to do campaign ( No formal participation audits have been conducted, although an assessment will be possible after the county conducts an organics waste characterization study in 2007. “That will help establish a county-wide baseline for current participation,” says Marx.
Curbside collected organics are taken to Cedar Grove Composting, which has two sites in the Puget Sound region. Yard trimmings with food scraps have to be composted using an enclosed technology; Cedar Grove uses the Gore covered composting system. While Cedar Grove allows commercial generators to utilize biodegradable plastic bags in their programs, it has resisted the practice on the residential side due to concerns that it is harder to control contamination from noncompostable plastic bags. Recently, however, King County was able to institute a program with the City of Issaquah, where biodegradable bags approved by Cedar Grove for use in the organics collection programs are available to residents. “Our plan was to give them a three to four month supply of the right bags, send information on which is the right bag to use, and then work with retailers to carry the right bag,” says Marx. “We did a waste sort before and after the biodegradable bags were distributed and didn’t see a lot of increase in regular plastic bags. The results of the program convinced Cedar Grove that with proper infrastructure development and good education, bags in the residential program shouldn’t be a problem. Our plan is to promote biodegradable bags as one alternative to managing food waste in the kitchen. As part of our outreach campaign, we will provide a menu of ways to put food into a kitchen container. At the top of the list is no bag, then roll the food scraps in newspaper, followed by putting them in a paper bag. At the bottom of the list we suggest using biodegradable bags and provide instructions on where to get them.”
On January 1, 2006, Seattle Public Utilities (SPU) began enforcing an ordinance requiring residents to recycle glass, paper, cardboard, tin, aluminum and some plastics. If a garbage can set out for collection contains more than 10 percent of the recyclable items, the trash is not taken and a “warning” tag is placed on the can. Households need to remove the recyclables in order to have the trash collected. The ordinance does not include yard trimmings or food scraps, but SPU decided to roll out a more extensive curbside organics collection program at around the same time to maximize diversion potential. “The major changes we made to our residential curbside yard waste program were to include fruit and vegetable peelings, bread, pasta and grains, coffee grounds and food-soiled paper, and to distribute 96-gallon carts citywide to all curbside subscribers,” says Gabriella Uhlar-Heffner of SPU. Meat, fish and dairy products are not allowed primarily because of a biweekly collection schedule, which raised concerns with the public health agency.
As of November 2006, there were about 101,141 total yard/food waste signups citywide – 99,214 cart customers and 1,927 dumpster customers (mostly apartments). “This is out of 155,872 total eligible accounts,” she adds. “Total tons for the curbside program – yard trimmings and food scraps – was about 26,000 for the first six months of 2006, although the average tonnage diverted per month is always highly variable due to the large amount of yard trimmings compared to vegetative food scraps during the spring, summer and fall.”

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