Beyond the Yuck Factor

Municipalities share their best practices for integrating food waste into landfill diversion programs.

June 11, 2012

Increasingly, municipalities are moving beyond curbside collection of leaves and yard waste to include food scraps and other organic materials. In many areas, this step is necessary to achieve state-mandated landfill diversion rates.

For instance, organics diversion helped Oregon reach its goal of recovering 50 percent of the solid waste generated in the state in 2010. According to the 2010 Oregon Material Recovery and Waste Generation Rates Report, Oregon recovered 2.17 million tons of its municipal waste stream and disposed of approximately 2.52 million tons. Organics, including yard debris, food waste and wood waste, represented the largest segment at 39 percent, followed by paper at 29 percent, metals at 19 percent, glass at 5 percent, “other” materials at 5 percent, plastic at 2 percent and electronics at 1 percent.

These figures are similar to what the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found in its 2010 study of municipal solid waste (MSW).

Increasing Diversion
According to the EPA, in 2010 food scraps accounted for 13.9 percent of the MSW generated in the United States, while yard waste equaled 13.4 percent. These materials comprise a large portion of the solid waste stream compared with traditional recyclables, with the exception of paper, which accounted for 28.5 percent of MSW in 2010. (See chart on the right side.) Therefore, the removal of food scraps from the waste stream has been a growing priority for some municipalities.

“As a public agency dedicated to promoting resource conservation and recycling, we want to ensure that our residents have as many avenues as possible to move materials out of the waste stream,” says Monica G. Devincenzi, recycling outreach and sustainability manager for RethinkWaste, San Carlos, Calif.

Also known as the South Bayside Waste Management Authority, RethinkWaste is a joint powers authority of 12 public agencies in California’s San Mateo County.

Willma Bureau, contract and collections supervisor for Simcoe County in Ontario, says, “The organics program was necessary to increase waste diversion and extend the life span of our existing landfill sites.”

Jack Macy, zero waste coordinator for the San Francisco Department of the Environment, adds that the diversion of organic material from landfills also can help to combat climate change. “Organic waste that ends up in our landfills creates methane, a potent greenhouse gas,” he says. “In order to reduce our use of landfills and fight against climate change, it’s imperative that we collect organic waste from all our residents and businesses in San Francisco. In addition to avoiding the creation of methane, producing compost actually sequesters carbon out of the atmosphere,” Macy adds.

“Additionally,” Bureau says, “in the landfill environment, the contact of water with organic material results in the production of leachate, which if not managed properly may result in impacts to groundwater resources.”

For a growing number of municipalities, the collection of organics complements existing curbside recycling programs and has been implemented using a number of common best practices.

Complementing Recycling

Many municipalities have integrated the collection of organic material into curbside garbage and recyclables collection programs by adding a third cart.

“The CartSmart residential weekly recycle, compost and garbage collection services comprise a comprehensive program that was rolled out on Jan. 3, 2011, to all residents in the RethinkWaste service area,” Devincenzi says.

She adds that collection frequency was changed from every other week to weekly as a result of the new single-stream recycling program. This change was extended to the agency’s organics recovery program, which also was expanded to include food scraps along with the already collected yard trimmings.

“The rollout of the CartSmart services, including organics and food waste, was done in collaboration with our 12 member agencies, franchised hauler, facility operator and processors to ensure that there would not be any issues with the program,” Devincenzi adds.

San Francisco has taken a similar approach. “We simply have three bins that are serviced curbside: one blue bin for all recyclables, one green bin for all organics (yard plus household food scraps) and one black bin that goes to the landfill,” Macy says. A single truck collects the blue and black bins, while a second truck collects the green bins.

Simcoe County collects organics with garbage using split trucks, Bureau says.

Addressing Issues
Simcoe County’s approach to organics collection led to a misconception among some residents. “As co-collected with garbage, some residents thought that organics were simply being disposed of,” Bureau says.

Other issues that Simcoe County encountered in collecting organic material were the need for additional liquid sump capacity and confusion with other municipal jurisdiction programs, she says.

To address the first issue, the county required contracted service providers to increase sump box containment capacity.

Go-To Solution

Wastequip, Charlotte, N.C., has introduced its Organics2Go™ program, which is designed to offer safe and easy collection, storage and transport of organic material. The Organics2Go line includes containers, carts, cart lifters, biofiltration systems and digesters.

Anne Brantley, containers product manager for Wastequip, says a key part of the Organics2Go program is a waste audit, which allows Wastequip to customize solutions to its customers’ needs.

The BioGreen360® digester can be used where food is being prepared, Brantley says. The digester can be fed continuously and produces a dry compost additive with a pH of 4.5, she adds.

“Wastequip’s BioBin® air filtration system works in conjunction with Wastequip containers and can accept any compostable material,” Brantley says.

“BioBin’s air filtration system mimics the action of traditional composters that turn material,” she says. This aerobic environment minimizes odor.

More information on Organics2Go is available at

Bureau says Simcoe County used educational materials and signage on the collection trucks indicating the organics and garbage remained separated in the trucks to allay confusion. Green bins are embossed with common acceptable and unacceptable materials, and the county also uses ongoing promotion and education to inform residents of what is and is not acceptable for composting.

Macy says establishing the appropriate infrastructure to implement an organics collection and composting program can be challenging. “We worked with Recology, the city’s private hauler, to obtain a permit for their composting facility that would allow for all food scraps and yard waste,” he says. “Yard waste composting is very common, but having a facility as inclusive as ours is less so.”

Devincenzi says residents have responded favorably to RethinkWaste’s organics program. “Some residents had concerns over the ‘ick’ factor of adding organics with their yard trimmings,” she says, with some fearing rodents or insects would be attracted to the carts.

“Allowing the use of BPI- (Biodegradable Products Institute-) approved compostable bags eliminated the issues for most residents,” Devincenzi adds.

Macy also says residents often believe separating food scraps is “gross” or “inconvenient.” San Francisco has tried to combat that perception by implementing a color-coded container system, he says. “We have created special green color-coded kitchen pales and allowed for the use of compostable plastic bags.”

Macy adds, “And, of course, we have focused on education, reaching out to residents and businesses to help them understand the three-bin system.”

Bureau and Devincenzi also claim that education and convenience are keys to the successful implementation of organics diversion programs.

Residents and businesses in San Francisco have responded positively to the city’s organics program, Macy says, adding that the city now diverts 78 percent of its waste from the landfill. “It also helps that there are financial incentives for recycling and composting,” he says. “The smaller your landfill bin is, the more money you can save.”

Bureau adds, “Restriction on garbage collection is a best practice to drive participation and capture rates.”

San Francisco has made composting and recycling mandatory citywide, Macy says. “It’s a law,” he says. “Financial incentives are important. It costs less to recycle and compost more.”


The author is managing editor of Recycling Today and can be reached at