At the end of a long, rural road 22 miles east of Washington, Prince George’s County’s composting facility is chewing through thousands of tons of leaves and tree branches that are trucked in daily from across the region.
In the past three years, the county has added a new ingredient to its compost: food scraps. Pizza boxes, coffee grinds, and vegetable peels from 25 commercial customers lie in neatly piled rows on this 55-acre, open-air site. They are working through a natural digestion process boosted by hungry microorganisms and freely available oxygen from the air.
On a frigid winter day, fresh from the decomposing routine, a rich-brown, almost clay-like humus was still steaming. “We can’t grow fast enough,” says Adam Ortiz, director the Prince George’s County Department of the Environment. The facility will double its food-processing capacity next year to accommodate 30 more customers on the waiting list, including a university and an airport, and it could grow 10-fold in the long run. “We knew that there would be interest, but we didn’t realize the amount.”
This Prince George’s facility offers a peek into the next frontier of recycling. Food and yard trimmings account for a bigger share of America’s trash than anything else – about 28 percent – slightly ahead of paper and cardboard and twice the level of plastic. And while the US recycles more than half of its yard trimmings, food composting is in its early and costly stages.
But a dearth of landfill space, friendly public policies, social pressures, and other factors are beginning to spur industrial-scale efforts to turn trashed food into something useful. For example: California, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, and Rhode Island have banned some large food producers and other large businesses, such as convention centers and supermarkets, from throwing away food, making composting a popular alternative.
Cities including San Francisco, where composting food waste has been mandatory since 2009; New York City; Austin, Texas; Cambridge, Mass.; and Milwaukee are piloting residential food composting programs. In all, more than 180 communities now collect residential food scraps up from only a handful a decade ago, according to a 2014 report from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.
From an environmental point of view, composting is a much better option than the alternative: overstuffed landfills, often located in poor neighborhoods, where rotting food spews greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. The third largest source of United States emissions of methane, a greenhouse gas significantly more potent than carbon dioxide, are landfills, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency. If diverted from trash, compost produced from leaves, branches, and food scraps can help fertilize soil on gardens, farms, gold courses, and elsewhere. But barriers remain to making food composting widespread.
The Chicken-and-Egg Problem
One challenge is the chicken-and-egg problem, says Samantha MacBride, Director of Research and Operations at New York City’s Department of Sanitation. “Firms are not going to invest in plants unless there’s a guaranteed supply, but cities won’t start [composting] until they know there’s a processor” to handle the waste.
To read the full story, visit http://www.csmonitor.com/Business/new-economy/2017/0101/Next-frontier-in-recycling-food.