May 5, 2015
In honor of International Compost Awareness Week, today’s article is, of course, on one of my favorite topics….composting! It’s exciting to be working in organics and to have seen the changes in organics management over the years to today’s focus on food scraps.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, about one-third of food produced for human consumption around the world is lost or wasted each year. The US Environmental Protection Agency states that 96 percent of the wasted food in this country ends up thrown away into landfills or incinerators. EPA’s cost estimation on this waste—about $165 billion a year. Meanwhile, even in our wealthy country, people go hungry every day; more than 17 million households in this country are food insecure.
Fortunately much of the focus on food scraps looks at the hierarchy of reduce, reuse (recover), and then recycling (composting or anaerobic digestion). If you are not up on the facts and research on wasted food around the world, check out a blog I wrote entitled—Food Wasted—Opportunity Lost.
In many communities, it’s easier to get businesses onboard with food scrap diversion. Due to the concentration of food generating businesses that can typically be found in downtown hubs, haulers can focus on creating route densities needed to make hauling food scraps cost-effective. Also, the comparatively lower levels of contamination found in diverted food scraps from commercial establishments (especially when starting with pre-consumer or “prep” wastes) make the commercial food scrap stream more appealing to both compost and anaerobic digestion operations. Food reduction and food recovery can easily be adopted by commercial establishments as well.
Municipalities can benefit from using and promoting the resources available through EPA’s Food Recovery Challenge. Also, government agencies and other entities can post a link to the Good Samaritan Food Donation Act on their websites, along with food recovery organizations providing local services. Many businesses are still fearful of liabilities and the requirements to donate usable food for recovery; providing critical information on the benefits and ease of food recovery can help persuade businesses to participate.
Residents can benefit from the promotion and social media tips afforded through the Food Too Good to Waste Toolkit. Consider posting reduction tips on agency/organizational websites and starting a Facebook page on what can be done in your community to reduce, recover, and recycle food scraps.
If a food scrap collection and processing program has yet to be initiated in your community or is facing challenges, consider low cost alternatives, such as promoting backyard food scrap composting. Also, consider promotion of the Green Cone. For many rural and smaller communities these options can handle much of the residential organic waste stream. For urban areas, they serve as a valuable education tool to help get residents into the mindset of food scrap diversion and can effectively reduce volumes destined for organics drop-off or curbside collection. Master Composter programs present an excellent way to promote composting in any community.
Also, community composting offers a low cost way to develop a residential composting mindset—helping to educate residents about food scrap composting, separating out materials, and learning about the benefits of compost. Urban agriculture is growing in popularity and provides an outstanding connection with composting.
Food scrap composting at any size operation has to be done correctly. Composting is a basic process, however, parameters must be followed or disaster will result. We’ve unfortunately seen many spectacular failures in composting food scraps. There are also great operations out there--Onondaga County’s Compost Facility (OCCRA), AgRecycle, and Green Mountain Compost—are three of my favorite examples in the Northeast.
Compost training is essential for any operation—the Maine Compost School and the US Composting Council offer excellent training and resource opportunities. Compost operators, government regulators, code enforcement agents, and even government officials can benefit from attending a compost operator training course.
Finally, to coin an old cliché, don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Promote the food recovery hierarchy whenever composting is discussed. Consider backyard composting and community composting as viable components of a successful organics management program. Remember while food scrap diversion is the goal, there are many options for getting there. Relying on one single facility or option leaves programs vulnerable to disruption as we’ve seen recently with the closure of the Wilmington Organics Recycling Center. Also, as this is the International Year of Soils, it’s important to remember the valuable potential food scraps and other organics afford in returning critical nutrients to soil through compost.
Athena Lee Bradley