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Organic Waste Diversion: No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

should organic waste really go to the landfill?

should organic waste really go to the landfill?

We’ve looked at numerous efforts to keep food and other organic materials out of landfills through composting and/or anaerobic digestion. Lots of good things to say about such efforts – which, generally, we still support – but Waste360 published an article yesterday on some of the downsides of organic waste diversion. Among them:

They undermine landfill gas reclamation efforts: Many landfills now capture methane emissions and convert them into gas that can be used as an energy source. According to Waste360’s Rachel Zimlich, experts are taking note of flattening growth in landfill gas emissions. This can result from the lower amount of organics heading for landfills, and the loss of moisture from food scraps (which slows down decomposition). That means the investments made in such infrastructure may not recoup their costs, and that landfill owners may not be able to fulfill contracts for the gas.

The gas that is being produced may need further purification, as landfills might see greater concentrations of toxins in the gas they are recovering.

They increase costs for trash removal andΒ biogas: Of course, less methane being created is a good thing, right? Yes, if that’s what’s happening – and a well-run composting operation, for instance, will lower or eliminate the methane generated. If the wastes in question are going to anaerobic digesters, that gas is still being produced… and, because of the amount of control that exists over the process, at a higher level of quality. This results in a higher cost for the process, though. The loss of revenue for landfills, and/or the higher cost of anaerobic digestion, may mean higher fees for consumers… who may just start throwing that food and yard waste back in the trash.

Keeping methane out of the atmosphere has to be priority number one for these efforts, and it seems to me that all attempts to deal with organic waste do that pretty well. So, then, economics comes into play… and while most of us know that dealing with these wastes responsibly is the right thing, the market needs to reflect that.

Is continuing to send organics to the landfill the preferable alternative? I don’t know… it certainly seems counter-intuitive. But if a landfill has a working landfill gas system in place, that may just be the way to go. I’d love to hear from those of you who know much more about this than I do…

Photo credit: Shutterstock

3 comments
  1. Adam Long

    I am not more knowledgeable on this, but I have been composting at home for a couple of decades now. Here in St. Charles our waste goes to the Fred Weber landfill near the intersection of I-270 and I-70. They capture the gas that, as I understand, is used to heat the Pattonville High School next door during winter (I don’t know what happens to the gas during summer). I’d like to see the numbers as to whether they find it profitable to capture the gas or not.

    I look around my neighborhood and watch people all over throw trash out their car windows and the city spends money to send out the street cleaners to pick up all that waste along the roads. Very few of my fellow citizens actually even recycle much even with the easy single steam recycling that is offered. So….I can’t imagine that there will be much of a decline in food waste in my area. I have watched the grocery stores throw away “just past its prime” food while I have been standing right there. A big dumpster and in go the tomatoes and bananas. Right to the trash.
    My friends, peers and neighbors look at me as though I am strange when I encourage them to compost or even recycle. “Yeah….I guess I should” they reply without conviction. I doubt the reduction in food waste from the small efforts to curb that waste that do exist will go noticed by the gas reclaiming landfill.

  2. StateofReason

    One point you didn’t count into your calculations is the value of the compost created when you keep food waste separate. Depending on how that’s used you could be increasing food production, reducing the use of fertilizers and saving money on that end. I couldn’t begin to calculate the economic benefits and how they counter the other points you made but it’s worth noting.

  3. Sustainablog | Jeff McIntire-Strasburg has been blogging a greener world via sustainablog since 2003!

    […] Just over a month ago, I took a look at the argument that a landfill augmented with technology for capturing biogas may be a better alternative for organic wastes than separate pick up and composting/anaerobic digestion. I’m still not totally convinced by this argument (especially when, as a commenter pointed out, the value of the compost created is taken into account). A new technology (or, technically, a new take on an older technology – the anaerobic digester) that just came across my radar could make such arguments irrelevant: the HORSE, or “High-solids Organic-waste Recycling System with Electrical Output” system.Β This on-site organic waste to energy plant eliminates the need to transport materials to convert them to energy and fertilizer. […]

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