Written by Catherine Bolgar
Are we recycling all we could? Organic waste, such as food scraps and yard trimmings, accounts for between a quarter and a third of the solid waste generated in cities—the largest single municipal waste stream, according to Eric A. Goldstein, waste expert at the Natural Resources Defense Council in New York.
If you had to identify one key area of growth for recycling, it would be organics,” he says.
Organic waste in landfills becomes mummified or decomposes anaerobically (i.e. without oxygen), producing methane, a greenhouse gas whose impact on climate change is estimated to be 25 times greater than that of carbon dioxide.
Composted organic waste though becomes a natural fertilizer that helps soil retain moisture and hold carbon. A University of California Berkeley study found that a single application of compost led to a metric ton of carbon capture and storage per hectare annually, for three years.
However, “composting if done well isn’t cheap,” says Glenda Gies, principal of Glenda Gies & Associates Inc., an Ontario-based recycling consultancy. “It requires the right temperature, moisture levels and bacteria populations.”
There’s also the question of who’s responsible for the recycling. With plastic or electronics products, the brand is usually identifiable, even on discarded goods. The manufacturer may then be legally required to recycle them. But by the time organics become waste it’s no longer clear who the brand owner is, and recovery costs then pass to the municipality, consumer or business, “who have been reluctant to pay,” Ms. Gies says.
This hasn’t deterred some city and state authorities from taking a lead. San Francisco has introduced mandatory separate collection of compostable materials, which applies to all residences and businesses, says Kevin Drew, residential and special projects zero-waste coordinator at the city’s department of environment. Massachusetts banned food waste disposal by companies in 2014, sending organics to 49 processors.
Once there, organic waste is processed into methane through digesters (like at sewage treatment plants). And unlike landfills where the methane escapes, the digesters trap it and convert it into natural gas, while the residue is turned into compost. San Francisco and its service provider are building digesters, with the resulting gas used to fuel collection and transfer vehicles, Mr. Drew says.
There’s complete recovery of the energy and compost value in the waste,” he says. “I would argue that this program will be coming to every city in the world.”
Other materials also have strong recycling potential. Only 15% of used clothes, towels, bedding and other textiles in the U.S. is donated or recycled, according to the Council for Textile Recycling, with the rest ending up in landfills. In the U.K., about 40% of clothing is re-used or recycled. But more can be done.
“There’s an enormous amount of textiles that are recoverable as clothing,” says Mr. Drew. “There are markets around the world that will take that material. We’re on a quest to recover more textiles.”
Cost is key. With traditional recycling streams, such as paper, plastics and glass, changes in technology and commodity prices affect the willingness to recycle.
“Companies want to recycle to save money,” says John Daniel, president of Federal International Inc., a St. Louis recycling firm. “In general, companies will increase recycling to the point where it costs them money, and then they stop.”
Consider glass recycling. When collected along with other waste materials, broken glass has to be sifted out at sorting facilities. This may have been worth doing when glass prices were high, but today, “at many facilities, it’s not cost effective to separate out that glass. A significant amount of glass put in recycling doesn’t get recycled,” he says.
Similarly, “when the price of oil was much higher, carpet was able to be recycled,” he notes. “Now it is almost impossible to recycle without the cost being higher than landfilling. The cost of recovering, transporting and processing the material is significantly higher than the value of the material.”
Virgin products may seem cheaper, Ms. Gies says. But if one were to factor in environmental costs—reflected in, say, greenhouse-gas taxes or obligations on manufacturers to recycle returned products—the resulting higher price might be more realistic, and potentially uncompetitive.
“The industry naturally will recover all material demand, provided it is cost effective,” Mr. Daniel explains. “As the price goes up, then recyclers have the ability to dive in deeper and start recovering higher-cost material. The best way to increase recycling rates is to improve the demand for products made from recycled materials. Our industry will take care of filling the supply.”
Catherine Bolgar is a former managing editor of The Wall Street Journal Europe. For more from Catherine Bolgar, contributors from the Economist Intelligence Unit along with industry experts, join the Future Realities discussion on LinkedIn.
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