While it is easy to think about waste management as a nationwide problem, it is only possible to address at a city or county level. Municipal solid waste is a locally managed issue, and cities and counties have the most knowledge about their specific local challenges and how best to address them.
By Keith Edwards

The U.S.’ generation of municipal solid waste has been increasing for decades, with no signs of slowing down. As of 2018, the most recent year for which data is available, 292.4 million tons of municipal solid waste were generated in the U.S., according to the EPA—roughly 4.9 pounds per person per day. In comparison, our country generated just 88.1 million tons of waste in 1960. Put simply, our attitude toward waste has generally been to discard it, bury it, and forget about it.

However, with more and more cities running out of usable landfill space, there is a growing sense of uncertainty about what will happen if we continue at our current rate of waste production. In some areas of the country, like Florida, the shallow water table and the influx of new residents have created a unique waste management problem. Historically, waste has always been taken to the highest points in the state for disposal, since if you dig a big hole in Florida, you create a lake. Given its geography, the state is rapidly nearing the point where it runs out of space to build new landfills, which means that its trash may need to be transported out of state for disposal. And the further that waste must be hauled, the more expensive it will get for municipalities, who will pass the cost on to taxpayers.

The Pros and Cons of Recycling
Though a small percentage of our waste stream gets recycled, the vast majority continues to flow toward landfills. This is partly because recycling programs, despite frequently being touted as the solution to the waste crisis, often do not work that well in practice. Residents typically participate on a voluntary basis, meaning there are no real levers to ensure that people do it the correct way. Even the most well-intentioned of us make mistakes, leaving recyclers to extract any usable material out of the items they receive, costing time and robbing them of potential profit.

While not without their own set of challenges, organic waste recycling programs represent a missing piece of the waste management puzzle that, if conceived and executed properly, can make a sizable impact on the U.S.’s overall level of landfill diversion. In doing so, they can also have a domino effect on the success of traditional recycling programs by making sorting easier and reducing contamination.

Organic waste—food scraps, yard waste and any other biodegradable material that comes from a plant or an animal—represents somewhere between 20 and 40 percent of total municipal solid waste destined for the landfill, second only to paper. Keeping organic waste out of landfills can help extend their life by decades, while greatly reducing emissions of methane, a significant greenhouse gas that must be carefully managed.

The Role of Government
The complexity of operating an organic waste recycling program means that to succeed, active participation by municipal and county governments is a necessity. Starting a citywide organic recycling program is not as simple as giving everybody a bin and asking them to take it to the curb once a week. Numerous decisions need to be made by planners to work out how residents will set aside their organic waste, how and when it will be picked up, and how it will be transported to the composting site with as few opportunities for contamination as possible.

The programs around the country that have been most successful in diverting waste away from the landfill all have a couple of things in common, in my view. The first is that the cities themselves are deeply engaged in understanding the problem. They do their research in advance, talking to the haulers, the composters, the recyclers, and the industry to understand the potential barriers to success and learning what solutions are practical and possible, then developing their programs to address those concerns.

These programs also spend a lot of time and effort on public education—in particular, developing easy-to-understand graphic signage that makes it clear where different types of waste should go. Skipping this step not only exponentially increases the cost of a program due to the cost of equipment and/or human labor, but it also increases the amount of contamination, dramatically impacting the value of organic waste that can be composted.

Lastly, successful programs collaborate across the value chain to agree on identification colors, logos and labels, and sometimes pass local legislation to ensure certain types of products are always made with certified compostable materials and not with traditional plastics.

Progress in Jacksonville, FL
While West Coast cities like San Francisco and Seattle have been diverting their food and yard waste away from landfills for decades now, the Southeastern U.S. has been slower to adopt initiatives. However, there have been recent encouraging signs of progress.

In one promising pilot program now underway in Jacksonville, FL, the city has partnered with a local composter, Sunshine Organics and Compost, to begin picking up food waste at certain restaurant locations in the city.
Thus far, Jacksonville appears to be applying lessons from programs that have gone before. They have opted to start small, and in a setting where active participation is more or less guaranteed because the waste separation is being done at restaurants by paid employees. To ensure that the organic waste has as little contamination as possible, Sunshine Organics and Compost provided in-person training to the workers to teach them best practices, and only accepts compostable items that are third-party certified by reputable organizations such as the BPI.

This program’s early success bodes well for it to be expanded to additional businesses and perhaps residences as well. Meanwhile, the composting company itself recently received a $4.9 million USDA grant allowing it to add equipment and expand its facilities and services.

It is noteworthy that local city policymakers in areas like Jacksonville are concluding that the current rate of landfill waste cannot continue. That part of the country historically has not focused on managing organic waste, so the fact that they are launching these programs shows a new cultural awareness that this is a problem that must be addressed.

Like preceding West Coast programs, the new Jacksonville effort is focusing on organics as one of the largest fractions of municipal solid waste that can be diverted from landfills and recycled into a very valuable product: compost. The economic viability of organics recycling can be a challenge to manage, and these new programs are demonstrating that organic residues can be managed sustainably and help cities achieve higher levels of landfill

Tackling the Plastic Waste Epidemic
If you talk to composters, they will tell you that the biggest risk of contamination for organic waste comes from plastic—not just because of how much of it there is, but also how many variations in products exist. From bags to molded containers to paper products coated in thin layers of plastic, it can be extremely challenging to keep traditional plastics out of finished compost products. This is a major issue for all programs to manage, one that needs new solutions to help reduce contamination and increase the value of finished compost products. Additionally, many composting operators certify their products for organic agriculture use via the National Organics Program, which adds another important hurdle to accepting materials along with organic residues.

Achieving wider success with organic waste composting programs depends on addressing the problem of plastic packaging as a major contaminant, along with paper products. Some cities in the Western part of the country have not addressed it well, leading to higher rates of contamination, higher costs and, ultimately, less successful composting programs.

It sounds logical to say the solution to plastic pollution is to ban all plastic, but recent bans by composters of all plastic packaging, regardless of material type or certification, miss the point. While this strategy could certainly solve some of the problems we are currently facing, such as plastic fragments in the environment, it would lead to new problems and make daily life much more difficult, dangerous, and expensive. Whether we like it or not, plastic packaging is the reason we have such safe, efficient, low-cost, and stable delivery of food everywhere. Any changes to the current structure of packaging solutions would negatively impact cost, shelf stability, transport efficiency, breakage, and food safety. Moving to glass, metal, or paper packaging solutions as an alternative to plastics moves society in a costly direction, both economically and environmentally.

But there is a way to address the contamination problem that hampers organic recycling, and it is as simple as swapping out molecules. Instead of using many types of traditional synthetic plastics, we could be making many packaging products using PHA, a biopolymer material that is created naturally by feeding a food source, such as canola oil, to microbes or plants. Because PHA is fully compostable, and biodegradable even in soils and aquatic environments, food packaging made from PHA could be managed along with any food waste for composting, eliminating the need for organic waste recyclers to distinguish between traditional versus compostable plastic products. Industry efforts to address concerns about certified organic compost have been underway for more than a decade, and extensive field studies—such as the soon-to-be-released 5 Gyres Ban 3.0 report—continue to be conducted, which helps consumers have confidence in the market claims of PHA-based packaging solutions.

Fort Myers and Key West, FL Change Course
In 2017, Fort Myers, FL joined many other coastal cities in enacting a citywide ban on plastic straws. City leaders expressed concern about conventional straws’ persistence in the environment and their impact on wildlife, as well as its residents’ quality of life. Paper and reusable straws were allowed as part of the new ordinance, but city leaders came to realize that paper straws were an inadequate alternative, and in 2021 voted to amend the ban to allow certified marine biodegradable straws made from PHA.

Earlier this year, a similar series of events played out across the state in Key West. In 2019, city leaders banned restaurants from selling single-use plastic straws and stirrers on the island. But in response to community feedback, the Key West City Commissioners voted unanimously in April 2023 to update the ban to allow for straws made from certified marine biodegradable materials, such as PHA.

I applaud these local governments for taking action to address plastic pollution, and I encourage them to take the next step by developing plans for organic waste recycling programs in their respective cities. With these first steps at regulating food delivery products, they have created an ideal environment for these programs to expand and thrive. The most successful organic waste recycling programs around the country are in cities that have regulated the types of products that are offered to the consumer. Because they have taken the important step of considering what kinds of packaging fit into the program, they have lower contamination rates as a result.

A Problem with a Local Solution
While it is easy to think about waste management as a nationwide problem, it is only possible to address it at a city or county level. Those local governments decide what is allowed in their landfills, the fees associated with pickup, and fees associated with waste diversion programs. Municipal solid waste is a locally managed issue, and cities and counties have the most knowledge about their specific local challenges and how best to address them.

Since people must be able to consume food to live, and food must be packaged for delivery, safety, and storage, the only option to significantly reduce what is going to the landfill as packaging waste is by separating it and recycling it—whether it is glass, metal, plastic, paper, or food residues. The question we should be asking ourselves about any kind of waste is: can we divert it and give it a new life? As policymakers consider ordinances to address waste and landfill diversion, they should recognize that there are new materials on the market, such as PHAs, whose performance in packaging products and end-of-life properties make them a natural complement to food packaging and organic waste recycling programs.
Putting public policies in place to ensure a clean organic residue recycling stream can result in a huge savings of time and money for cities and counties. And even more importantly, they will help extend the life of our landfills, avoiding the need for new ones and beginning to put us on the path toward a more circular bioeconomic future. | WA

Keith Edwards is Vice President of Business Development at Danimer Scientific. Danimer is a pioneer in creating more sustainable, more natural ways to make plastic products. For more than a decade, its renewable and sustainable biopolymers have helped create plastic products that are biodegradable and compostable and return to nature instead of polluting our lands and waters. For more information, visit www.DanimerScientific.com.

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