December 5, 2023 | AD & Biogas, Biosolids, Climate, Community Composting, Compostable Packaging, Composting, Food Waste, Policies + Regulations, Soil Health, Storm Water Management

Taking Stock Of 2023

Is organics recycling ending the year on a solid footing? Yes, for the most part.

Nora Goldstein

The end of the year is always a good time to take stock of what has, and has not, been achieved in the preceding 11 months. It’s a good reality check and lays the groundwork for how and where we want to hit the ground running in the New Year. The end of 2023 is especially poignant for BioCycle, as 2024 represents our 65th year as The Organics Recycling Authority. Launched in 1960 as the journal Compost Science, our print and digital archives are a treasure trove of the evolution of organics recycling and all of its related parts in the U.S. and around the world.

In 2009, BioCycle’s 50th Anniversary Commemorative Edition, we had a special section featuring editorial snippets from the first 20 years of BioCycle’s existence (1960-1979), when much of the foundational knowledge about composting and organics recycling was laid. The 1980s into the 1990s saw rapid growth in composting infrastructure — primarily for biosolids and yard trimmings. The 1990s also saw the launch of food waste composting operations as well as curbside collection of source separated organics, which has continued to grow over the past 30 years. In the 2000s and into the 2010s, there was a resurgence in anaerobic digestion of livestock manure, and the gradual introduction of food waste as a codigestion feedstock. That momentum has continued into this decade.

Throughout the decades, organics recycling has benefited from watershed research that has withstood the test of time, such as the plant disease suppression qualities of mature compost, the ability of biosolids to bind uptake of heavy metals in plants, the use of compost (or screened overs) blankets on newly formed composting piles to suppress odors and control emissions, and the “slam-dunk” effectiveness of compost and mulch as erosion control and storm water management tools. Watershed research continues to this day, as is noted below in the release of U.S. EPA’s report in October 2023 that quantified methane emissions from landfilled food waste.

It seems each year is action packed with new projects, programs, policies, and critical research to improve our knowledge and practices. As highlighted below, 2023 is no exception.

2023 Roundup

Plume of methane emissions at a landfill detected by a Carbon Mapper airborne survey using NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory Next Generation Airborne Visible Infrared Imaging Spectrometer (AVIRIS-NG).

#1 Methane emissions from landfilled food waste have been “officially” quantified.
In 2014, U.S. EPA’s updated WARM model recognized that food waste in the landfill was a significant emitter of methane emissions. The Waste Reduction Model (WARM) was first released by EPA in 1998 and provides high-level estimates of potential greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reductions, energy savings, and economic impacts from different waste management practices. The 2014 version gave us some confidence to say that food waste disposed in the landfill breaks down and releases methane before the cell is capped. But easy-to-find, concrete, citable proof that we could point to when advocating for keeping food waste out of the landfill (and reducing the amount generated in the first place) was a challenge to find — until EPA’s 2023 study, Quantifying Landfill Methane Emissions From Food Waste. “Food waste comprises about 24% of municipal solid waste (MSW) disposed of in landfills,” states the report. “Due to its quick decay rate, food waste in landfills is contributing to more methane emissions than any other landfilled materials. An estimated 58% of the fugitive methane emissions (i.e., those released to the atmosphere) from MSW landfills are from landfilled food waste.” Furthermore, an estimated 61% of this methane generated is not captured by landfill gas collection systems and is released to the atmosphere.

#2 FLW reduction and food waste recycling in Climate Action Plans is a no-brainer.
In June 2023, the U.S. EPA awarded $250 million in formula grants to states and metropolitan areas to develop climate action plans to reduce GHG emissions. This is being followed by $4.6 billion in competitive grants to implement those plans. Funding comes from the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act. Initiatives to reduce food loss and waste (FLW) and recycle organics are a no-brainer to include in an implementation grant proposal (due April 1, 2024). Write Katherine Blauvelt and Ellie Garland in their October article, “Why Waste Sector Strategies Belong In Climate Pollution Reduction Grant Applications”: “Strategies to reduce methane — by keeping food and other organic waste out of landfills and strengthening landfill emissions controls — are technically feasible, readily available, and cost-effective.”

Image courtesy of Closed Loop Partners and Biodegradable Products Institute, 2023. “Unpacking Labeling and Design: U.S. Consumer Perception of Compostable Packaging”

#3 Compostable packaging labeling confusion is real.
In July, The Composting Consortium, an initiative of Closed Loop Partners’ Center for the Circular Economy, the Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI) and Bellomy Research released the findings of their survey of 2,765 U.S. respondents that tested how different approaches to design and labeling affect how consumers identify, perceive, and dispose of compostable product packaging. The study, Unpacking Labeling and Design: US Consumer Perception of Compostable Packaging, found consumer comprehension and correct identification increases when multiple callouts communicate compostability on packages and products. Use of a larger “compostable” callout and the BPI certification mark were the two most important elements in driving the identification of certified compostable packaging. Across an array of product categories, color proved to be an effective indicator of compostability. A disjointed approach with local and state level policies and regulations that govern packaging design and labeling creates unnecessary friction and pain points for consumers, brands, and composters.

#4 Tapping federal funding opportunities for organics recycling.
The U.S. EPA announced the recipients of its first round of funding under its Solid Waste Infrastructure for Recycling Grant Program (SWIFR) this fall. Awards included grants to build composting infrastructure as well as to provide technical assistance. Funded by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, the SWIFR program is a multiyear initiative, with new grant opportunities to be announced. The U.S. Department of Agriculture offers Composting and Food Waste Reduction (CFWR) cooperative agreements to assist local and municipal governments with projects that develop and test strategies for designing and implementing municipal composting and food waste reduction plans. This website provides details on the program.

Source: 2023 BioCycle Nationwide Survey: Full-Scale Food Waste Composting Infrastructure in the U.S.

#5 Data is knowledge, and we’ve just scratched the surface.
BioCycle conducted two nationwide food waste surveys in 2023, as well as collaborated on a research project with the Composting Consortium to analyze all 50 states’ regulations related to retrofitting yard trimmings composting infrastructure to accept food waste. The 2023 BioCycle Full-Scale Food Waste Composting Infrastructure Survey Report, released in July, identified 200 facilities in the U.S. This database does not include numerous on-site and community composting sites that accept food waste. The 2023 BioCycle Residential Food Waste Collection Access Survey Report, published in September, noted significant growth in the number of curbside and drop-off programs — 710 communities in total servicing almost 15 million U.S. households. No sooner had we finalized and published the survey reports did we learn about new food waste composting facilities and residential access programs. Stay tuned in 2024 for data updates, as we’ve just scratched the surface given all the activity in the U.S.

Microsplastics, photo courtesy Oregon State University, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons, (cropped and adjusted by BioCycle)

#6 PFAS passive receivers and microplastics woes persist.
Among the more hopeful PFAS-related developments in 2023 was introduction of federal legislation to ensure industries and municipalities, including compost manufacturers and wastewater treatment plants, are not subject to liability claims if the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) designates per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) compounds as hazardous substances under CERCLA (also known as Superfund). The exempted entities in these bills are “passive receivers” that either do not contribute to PFAS contamination or are required to use PFAS-containing substances through regulations. On the subject of microplastics in incoming feedstocks and outgoing compost and digestate products, BioCycle Senior Editor Craig Coker wrote a three-part article series starting in April. Included are a microplastics “primer,” the latest research on measuring and characterization of these contaminants, and a new screening system to remove them from depackaged food waste streams.

Household food scraps drop-off at New York City Greenmarket. Photo courtesy of GrowNYC

#7 Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.
We were distressed to read that New York City Mayor Eric Adams has proposed budget cuts that will diminish or possibly wipe out community composting infrastructure in NYC, as well as threaten widely- used food scraps drop-off sites. The NYC Compost Project, which helps fund community composting infrastructure, and the GrowNYC’s food scraps collection network at greenmarkets, have been the city’s most reliable organics diversion initiatives — more resilient that the residential curbside collection program that comes and goes. Many thousands of New Yorkers have been trained on proper source separation practices and the beneficial use of compost thanks to the decentralized initiatives.

Dried and ground kitchen food scraps.

#8 Use caution with compost claims.
BioCycle columnist Sally Brown (What Is NOT Compost) and BioCycle editorial contributor Ron Alexander (Electric Kitchen Composter Confusion) captured the slippery slope of in-home food waste dehydrators that are marketed as “electric kitchen composters” or whose website pages call the dehydrated food waste compost or “like compost.” This leads to consumer confusion about these devices, which are not composting your food waste.

#9 Advocating on behalf of organics recycling and reducing food loss and waste.
Two national trade associations that advocate on behalf of organics recycling, composting and anaerobic digestion are the US Composting Council (USCC) and the American Biogas Council (ABC). Members of the USCC can participate in the Council’s Legislative and Environmental Affairs Committee, which tracks federal, state and local policies that can support or hinder the composting industry. Updates are available on the USCC’s Advocacy page. Similarly, ABC members can participate in the Council’s federal and state policy committees that closely track issues relevant to the anaerobic digestion and biogas sectors. ABC members receive bulletins with updates on current developments. New to the advocacy scene in 2023 is the Zero Food Waste Coalition (ZFWC), formed in May 2023 by ReFED, NRDC, World Wildlife Fund and the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic. ZFWC is a voluntary organization working to address food loss and waste, food insecurity and related issues.

#10 And 65 years later, still no “dream solution.”
In the inaugural Editorial in Compost Science (Spring 1960), titled “A Statement of Purpose,” BioCycle founder Jerome Goldstein wrote these prescient words: “As you will readily see from the articles in this first issue, we are not going to over-dramatize, misrepresent or in any way set composting up as a ‘dream’ solution. Experience in the past has shown that ‘dream’ solutions and waste disposal do not make for a satisfactory long-term combination. But we do propose to honestly report the practical potentials of the composting process.” Here’s to you JG — honestly reporting the practical potential and calling out false promises continue to guide us 65 years later.

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