How Organic Waste Bans Are Eating Away at Our Waste Problem

When you’re chopping vegetables in your kitchen, what do you do with the scraps? Do they go in your trash can? 

If you answered “yes,” consider the following. 

Your organic waste can be converted into clean energy. As much as 40% of the food supply is wasted in the United States. When it goes to a landfill, it releases methane gas. We’re also facing what my colleague Ben Hubbard refers to as a waste epidemic

Add up these facts and it makes tossing veggie scraps feel like a crime. Government policies are more or less making it one with organic waste bans

Right now, organic waste bans apply to businesses and institutions in some states and cities. They require entities to separate their organics from the rest of their waste to divert it from landfills. From there, it might be mandatory that they subscribe to a collection service or send it directly to a processing facility. 

California refers to its state policy as mandatory commercial organics recycling, which was rolled out in 2014. The policy requires that organics are sold or donated, recycled on-site, or that businesses subscribe to a mixed-waste or organic waste processing service. California’s municipalities will be required to provide organics recycling collection services to all residents and businesses in 2022.

Looking at organics as something that can be recycled shows that we’re collectively waking up to the fact that burying our waste is not a long term solution. Why should we ditch it when that waste can be converted into valuable resources like biofuel and electricity? 

Let’s turn trash into treasure.

With organic waste bans in effect, the diverted waste might end up at a composting facility. Of course, compost is valuable for farmers and we should be utilizing it to support our agriculture. But even at its most efficient, composting takes time, and we’re trying to accommodate a large portion of our municipal solid waste in a short amount of time—otherwise, it’s going to rot before we can harness its power. 

That’s why biochemical and thermochemical conversion technologies are other pieces of the waste management infrastructure puzzle. 

Anaerobic digestion (AD), pyrolysis, and gasification are all being used in California and across the country. Depending on its properties, each type of organic waste makes an optimal feedstock for each of these processes. 

When you have your feedstock dialed in, it makes converting it into biogas, biochar, and compost even more efficient. We just have to be able to appropriately sort the feedstock and in some cases pre-treat it, which organic waste bans and organics recycling policies are making way for. 

I mentioned on The Market and The Good that wind and solar can help provide renewable energy, but that’s just one piece of the equation. What you might call trash to gas is another. 

As Tanya Peacock, Public Policy and Planning Manager at SoCalGas highlighted on the Bigger Than Us podcast, we have an opportunity to decarbonize our energy system. 

It’s also another reflection of why I don’t believe sustainability has to be associated with the idea of “less”. If we can recycle our food waste, we can create valuable resources. If we can decarbonize our energy with a circular economy, we secure our earth’s abundance for future generations without sacrificing our consumer-based economy. 

Organic waste policy, meet clean energy incentives.

Further down the infrastructure pipeline, organic waste bans are countering the challenges waste-to-value operations can face by increasing the value of what they produce. 

Federal and state incentives like the low-carbon fuel standard (LCFS), renewable fuel standard (RFS) and BioMAT incentive programs have allowed for the commercialization of AD to renewable gas projects. This is even despite an increase in capital costs from the upgrades necessary for pipelines to meet quality specifications. California’s pairing of low-carbon incentives with organics recycling is a model to watch.

It’s really about organic waste awareness.

While it’s early days, there are some tangible positive outcomes of organic waste bans. 

Connecting the dots between the trash can and conversion technologies is creating jobs and increasing economic activity in Massachusets. Keeping perfectly fine food out of the trash is feeding the hungry in Vermont and creating an “ugly produce” trend. Less food in landfills is a good thing no matter how you look at it. 

Organic waste bans are also reinforcing the fact that trash doesn’t disappear at the curb.

Awareness about food waste has some great minds focused on preventing it in the first place. For example, Hazel Technologies has developed a natural and easy-to-use solution for prolonging produce shelf life.

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Image source: @hazeltech via Instagram

It’s becoming clear that organic waste bans are a catalyst for solving our organic waste problem. 

Brett Hogarth, Head of Business Development at Ecostrat, recently shared this insight on the Bigger Than Us podcast:

“All the growth that we’ve seen in these markets whether it’s anaerobic digestion, biomass power, wood pellets…they’re all policy-driven markets. Whether it’s waste bans or carbon reduction, the need for strong policy is clearly there.”

We all generate organic waste.

Policy plays a role, but we all have a personal responsibility to handle the waste we generate. We all need to reflect the change we want to see in our actions and communications with policymakers and institutions, and how we vote with our dollars.

Turn Compost is a great example of taking initiative. There aren’t organic waste bans in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, but Lauren Clarke founded Turn Compost to serve the area with an organic waste pickup and compost subscription service. 

Lauren shared her story about realizing the systemic behavioral problem in our society when it comes to food waste on Bigger Than Us. Turn is also dedicated to educating the public about food waste reduction and composting.

I’m on a compost education journey myself to be more sustainable. The photo below shows what was going into my trash can on the left, and what I’ve diverted to my compost bin on the right. I’ve also set up a compost tumbler bin and garden for my household and look forward to sharing this learning experience with my family.

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I asked earlier why we should ditch our waste when it can be converted into valuable resources. This isn’t just a question—it’s a mindset, and this mindset is key to solving the big problems we’re facing. 

My colleagues and I at Nexus PMG love to nerd out on solving big problems that involve complicated processes. That’s why we’re involved in waste-to-value infrastructure projects at Nexus PMG. It’s also why we understand we need to be a part of the solution in our personal spheres of influence. 

I encourage every individual, business and entity to use the incentives and resources available to them to reduce what they’re sending to landfills. Reduce as much as you can. Donate food and implement systems where you can. Be conscious about what you purchase and where your energy comes from. We may not be able to see our progress every day because the problem is bigger than each of us. If we all accept and unlearn what isn’t working, we can create a new relationship with our food and help to solve our waste problem. 

We’re on a mission to build a better world at Nexus PMG. Hear the voices that inspire us on the Bigger Than Us podcast.

Roshan Vani