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Can We Keep Food Scraps Out of the Landfill?

Hardly any of it is being recycled now. But with California leading the way, there are signs of real progress.

Food scraps and a knife on a cutting board.
Americans generate a lot of waste. In 2014, solid waste totaled about 258 million tons, according to the Environmental Protection Agency's most recent report. Yard trimmings and food scraps make up the single largest component of the municipal waste stream: 28.2 percent. And when it comes to food waste, the recycling numbers are particularly discouraging: 95 percent of it -- some 38 million tons --- ends up in landfills.

However, there are signs of progress around the country. A recent study by BioCycle and the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR) reported that a record number of U.S. households, 5.1 million, now have access to food-waste collection services. The study, focused exclusively on programs offered or supported by local governments, showed that access to residential curbside collection programs had almost doubled over the previous three years and that drop-off sites were available to millions more.

"Collection of food scraps needs to be as convenient as trash collection, which for most communities means collection at curbside once a week in a specially provided bin," wrote Brenda Platt, head of ILSR's Composting for Community Initiative and director of the 2017 survey. "Food waste recovery is critical not only to cut waste flowing to dumps and incinerators but also to save the climate."

The study found that there were no dominant collection models; program designs varied widely across the rural, suburban and urban communities surveyed. Most of the food waste that was sorted went to composting facilities, and a handful of programs utilized the waste to run anaerobic digestion facilities to produce natural gas.

The researchers also found that California leads the nation, with the most households having access to curbside collection of food waste (1.74 million) and the largest number of communities (97) offering curbside collection. California's leadership position isn't surprising, given that the state's recycling agency, CalRecycle, is legislatively mandated to reduce flows of organic waste to landfills by 50 percent by 2020 and 75 percent by 2025.

One of the strengths of California's aggressive program is that local governments are encouraged to seek innovative solutions. The Costa Mesa Sanitary District (CMSD), an independent special district in Southern California, took up the challenge in a big way. "We're the first public agency in California to implement a food-scraps recycling program," recounted CMSD General Manager Scott Carroll in a recent podcast interview with Government Technology. "We use an anaerobic digestion system to convert green waste and food scraps into renewable natural gas." The gas is used to fuel the collection trucks, and the system that generates the gas produces zero greenhouse-gas emissions.

From inception, CMSD engaged with residents to find out if they wanted to increase food waste diversion from the landfill and whether they would be willing to pay for it. The district undertook a phone survey of a thousand residents, almost 1 percent of its population, and the response was clear: A strong majority wanted to increase food-waste diversion and were willing to pay higher collection fees -- an additional $1 to $5 a month -- to fund a new service. With this public support, CMSD launched the program and negotiated a contract with its hauler that guaranteed the district the lowest rate for the company's services into the future. And with the support of its customers and a state-of-the-art anaerobic digestion and natural-gas production facility, Carroll said, the district is well on their way to reaching its diversion goal.

The Costa Mesa Sanitary District project demonstrates that communities can be smarter about how they handle waste. Dramatic improvement is possible with the proper alignment of policy, citizen engagement and technology. However, it's worth noting for others interested in Costa Mesa's model that the success of the district's organic-waste diversion project is strongly tied to its's broader goal of achieving zero waste of all types.

Why is this so important? While one might think of zero waste only as an end goal, Costa Mesa's philosophy is that it's about being on the path to zero. And nationally, with 95 percent of food waste going to landfills, many more communities still need to take their first step onto that path. Engaging in a community-wide discussion around the concept of zero waste would be a great starting point.

Associate director of the Governing Institute and a co-founder of Governing's parent organization, e.Republic
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