The Next Wave of Recycling: Food Waste

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Recycling glass, plastics, metals and paper has become a part of every day life for most Americans. Recycling rates (including reuse, remanufacture, composting) have reached 32% nationwide, which is more than double what it was 10 years ago. Many municipalities have successfully added curbside collection of yard waste and are now posed to take the next step in this evolution – the collection of food waste scraps for composting.

Americans generated 33 million tons of food waste in 2010 of which only 3% was recycled. The remainder went to landfills or was burned. It’s the next major component of the waste stream to take on in the efforts to reach zero waste. Currently about 170 communities in 18 states offer curbside collection of residential food waste which represents a 50% increase since 2009. In 2005, there were only 20 food waste collection programs in the US. Most of the existing programs are on the west coast with California offering 53 programs and Washington offering 52. California pioneered organic recycling when it passed a law in 1989 to divert half its waste from landfills by 2000. The city of San Francisco took this mission even further when it set a goal of diverting 75% of its trash by 2010 and now has set a goal of achieving zero waste by 2020. One strategy employed by the city has been to charge residents and businesses based on how much trash they generate (known as pay as you go). By doing this, individuals and businesses have an incentive to find ways to reduce the amount of trash they generate, which in turn, has helped to boost recycling rates.

The primary limiting factor to starting a food scrap collection program has been and remains a place to take the waste.  There are not enough facilities that can process food waste into compost.  The city of Portland, Oregon which began weekly collection of food waste and yard waste in October of 2011 recently decided to send its commercial food waste to a facility in Washington more than 200 miles away. The city had no choice as the county that had been accepting this waste voted to no longer allow the facility to accept commercial food scraps because of numerous complaints about odors from nearby residents.

Changes are coming however as the big guys like Waste Management, the largest waste hauler and disposal company in the country gear up to get into the composting business.  In addition, companies have incorporated simple steps to make it easy for people to participate. Many companies provide buckets lined with a plastic bag for people to place their food scraps and organic waste. The bucket is placed at the curb along with a trash barrel and a recycling bin. Many communities are starting slowly with pilot programs, but others are already reaping the benefits. In the first year of its food waste collection program, for example, the city of Portland, Oregon reduced the amount of residential waste it generated from 94,100 tons to 58,300 tons, a 38 percent drop. Keep your eyes out for a food waste collection program coming to your community.  It’s only a matter of time.

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By Leanna Theam. I grew up in the suburbs of sunny Southern California then moved to the opposite end of California to a small college