According to the US EPA, organic materials continue to be the largest component of municipal solid waste (MSW) – making up more than two-thirds of the solid waste stream. Total MSW generation in 2011 was 250 million tons – with paper and paperboard accounting for 28% (70 million tons), yard trimmings 13.5% (34 million tons) food waste 14.5% (36 million tons) and wood waste 6% (15 million tons). While over 65% of paper and paperboard and 56% of yard trimmings were recovered (recycled or composted), only 17% of wood waste and 4% of food waste were diverted from landfills and incinerators.
Organic waste materials, which also include food residues, grass clippings, agricultural byproducts, storm debris, bio solids, and residues from paper production and other manufacturing processes, take up space in landfills and generate methane as they decompose. Landfills are a major source of human-related methane – a greenhouse gas with 21 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide – accounting for more than 20 percent of all methane emissions.
Alternatively, recycling organic waste and turning it into compost (the dark, crumbly, earthy-smelling material produced by the natural decomposition of organic materials) has many environmental benefits. Compost can improve soil health and structure, increase drought resistance, sequester carbon in soil, improve plant growth, conserve water, reduce reliance on chemical pesticides and fertilizers, and help prevent nutrient runoff and soil erosion
Organics recycling and composting programs comprise all activities that collect, process, and use these organic waste-derived materials, including their managed decomposition, and can be both a resource or economic development strategy and a waste management mechanism. Composting is inherently local and part of the natural ecosystem. It is a place-based industry, which cannot be outsourced abroad.
For commercial users, on-site composting can be a logistical challenge, but many waste collection and hauling companies provide organics recycling services. As with other types of recycling, organics recycling won’t change the total volume of waste generated or collected. Rather, when organics are collected for composting, frequency of collection for waste materials should drop, but separation of materials will require signage, labeled containers, education and outreach, monitoring, and coordination with recyclers/haulers.
A Checklist for Off-Site Composting (Organics Recycling)
Organics Recycling Specification
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