2021 Trends: Rise of the private compost hauler

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2021 Trends in sustainable waste management: Rise of the private compost hauler
Part two of a three-part series  

One of the most exciting trends to watch for in the sustainable waste management sphere in 2021 is the rise of the private organics hauler. Call them a hauler, a composter, a waste management provider, a champion of soil; it doesn’t matter. These often small, local or regional-serving businesses have their hands deep in biodegrading food scraps and their fingers on the pulse of the new and oh-so-necessary material recovery infrastructure in the U.S.

 

OUT with 2020 is the U.S.’s outdated and underperforming community recycling sorting, processing and reuse infrastructure. INTO 2021 is the growing sophistication of private organics waste diversion businesses and their new strategies for generating revenue, creating jobs and keeping methane-producing, nutrient-rich organics waste out of landfills and back into the soil.

 

My education in community organics (food scrap) programs began with hearing the torturous story of Madison, Wisconsin’s decade of attempts to bring their residents an organics diversion program. It was painful to hear. Current Recycling Coordinator Bryan Johnson, his predecessor and other city officials gave everything they had to get and keep the program going for years. Changes or lack of haulers and processors and too much contamination eventually shut down the program in 2018.

 

Why was this municipal-led organics diversion program model just not working?

 

The barriers behind Madison’s failed attempts at implementing a community-wide curbside food scrap program are some of the very same reasons community recycling programs have broken down:

 

– Too much contamination (consumers don’t know how to properly recycle or compost);

– Lack of local processing capacity (lack of upgraded, high functioning sorting/processing equipment);

– High logistical costs (hauling costs not economically feasible for financial ROI)

 

Here is where the story takes an exciting turn.

 

In 2020 I met some really smart, passionate innovators in the private organics hauling and composting space. My networking adventures began with a brief intro to Melissa Tashjian, founder of Compost Crusaders based in southeast Wisconsin. Somehow, in the part of the state with the least amount of farm fields, Tashjian figured out how to monetize a residential and commercial composting program. I apologetically simplify her hard work. The point, however, is that Tashjian and her team have been successfully diverting organics from Milwaukee landfills for years now, while the progressive City of Madison sputtered for a decade trying to make their food scrap program work.

 

Before I get too far, I would be remiss if I didn’t congratulate Bryan Johnson’s efforts to implement three new food scrap drop-off locations for Madison residents in 2020. He worked tirelessly to bring this resource to Madison residents. With COVID-19 (hopefully) slowing down, I know his program will see more participation and more organics diverted from the landfill in summer 2021. Municipalities in some of the more eco-progressive nooks-and-crannies of our country have similarly been slowly growing successful organics programs.

 

Growing even faster, however, are the 350-or-so innovators in the private organics hauling and composting space.

 

After Tashjian, in 2020 I met (via zoom, of course) the founders and team members of private organics haulers The Compost Crew (Bethesda, MD area), Rust Belt Riders (northeast Ohio) and CompostNow (Raleigh, NC area). Card-carrying U.S. Composting Council members may have known these teams and businesses for many years. To anyone outside of the national composting community, these businesses are unknowns.

 

You’ll get to know these players and more like them in 2021. And don’t for a second think of these businesses as people riding around picking up rotting food scraps trying to turn a small profit while doing good for the earth. These are entrepreneurial earth stewards. They are strategically creating new business models, using technology to optimize efficiency and rallying their members around the concept of personal responsibility for waste generation. Ultimately, these haulers are building the new waste management economy in the U.S. And they are having a ton of fun doing it.

 

Here are just a few ways private organics haulers are revolutionizing the waste hauling industry:

 

– Use household or business pay-for-service membership models for both pick-up and drop-off services

– Use of logistical software to optimize pick-up routes (Stopcheckr)

– Use of digital membership sign-up and account management

– Use of chatbots on their websites and SMS messaging to cost effectively and effortlessly communicate with new and existing members.

– Use of an app to educate and incentivize their members to properly compost (Betterbin – full disclosure, that’s us).

– Use pick-up routes to double as delivery opportunities for sustainable products

– Process and sell their own private-branded soils

– Pick and choose what materials come into their operations, instead of focusing on volume, alone.

 

The need for private compost haulers and processors is only going to grow. Communities large and small across the U.S. are beginning to talk seriously about diverting food waste from landfills. Even the federal government stepped in and the EPA set a goal to reduce food loss and waste going to landfills or combustion facilities by 50 percent by 2030. Thankfully, we have a cohort of business savvy haulers and processors who are building the infrastructure to meet this goal.

 

Maybe the most important thing private compost haulers have done is establish a norm that consumers want to take responsibility for the waste they generate. That is an incredibly powerful cultural standard that does not yet exist en masse in the U.S. as it does in other countries. Thanks to private compost haulers, we see this exciting paradigm shift really taking root in 2021.

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Michelle Goetsch
Founder and CEO
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2021 Trends in sustainable waste management: Food waste prevention education

2021 Trends in sustainable waste management

March 2020 set a new tone for my work in the sustainable material management space. Not because that’s when COVID solidified itself as a force in our lives, but because that’s when I listened-in on Oregon Department of Environmental Quality Waste Prevention Impact Analyst David Allaway’s webinar presentation Rethinking Recycling. Give yourself an hour and check it out. You will not be let down.

From that presentation I realized that my passion for recycling and composting had unintentionally minimized my perspective and assumptions of the average consumer’s knowledge base around food and packaging waste. Nine months of learning later, I’m seeing three trends in the sustainable waste management and material recovery space to look out for in 2021.

Trend #1: Growth in food waste prevention education and infrastructure

Food waste prevention education is a blip on the average consumer’s radar. I was no different until I met Corvallis (OR) Sustainability Coalition’s No Food Left Behind (NFLB) Director Jeanette Hardison. The reality is that food waste makes up 24% of the materials in U.S. landfills (EPA). Even worse, 43% of food wasted happens in our homes (ReFED). According to ReFED, households are the largest source of food waste in the U.S.

Let’s take a moment to establish the difference between food waste and wasted food. Wasted food (the focus of this article) at home is the stuff that gets forgotten about in the refrigerator for three months until it ultimately spoils and gets tossed in the trash. Food waste is the rind from your orange, bottom of your celery stalk or avocado peel leftover after you’ve prepared a meal. Composting both wasted food and food waste is an important means of sustainably diverting food from landfills. The trend we’re focused on for 2021 is wasted food prevention education that reaches a consumer before composting even becomes an option.

Americans waste about 25 percent of the food and beverages they purchase, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). That equates to about $1,365 to $2,275 annually. Household wasted food prevention education has begun to trickle into the lives of consumers in the Pacific Northwest and Northeast Atlantic. Most consumers in the middle of the country have yet to hear much about the topic in any meaningful way – but they will in 2021.

Why? The environmental and economic implications of wasted food are surprisingly substantial. Globally and in the U.S., GHG emissions are enemy No. 1. In the U.S., the EPA estimates that more food reaches landfills or combustion facilities than any other single material in consumer trash receptacles. All of those organics contribute to the methane emitted from U.S. landfills, making up 20 percent of the country’s total methane emissions. As a reminder, methane is a problematic GHG given its aptitude for absorbing the sun’s heat and warming the atmosphere (Environmental Defense Fund).

The economic tribulations of wasted food are just as severe. According to ReFED, food waste in U.S. homes costs consumers $114B, annually. Add that to your New Year’s better budgeting resolution.

In 2020, wasted food bubbled to the top of some waste management discussions because of the magnifying glass COVID had on our nation’s lack of infrastructure to get produce off of farm fields and into stores in a timely manner during the pandemic. Lack of mechanisms for dealing with grocery retail food spoilage and getting edible food to donation networks also surfaced. Some of the awesome companies working on food waste prevention before food gets to a consumer include:

Flashflood – An app that connects consumers to grocery stores offering discounts on certain food items that must be sold due to sell-by dates.

Apeel – A company that designs natural barriers applied to fruits and vegetables using edible materials that can slow down the rate of produce spoilage

Pinpoint Software – A company whose software Date Check Pro is an expiration date management system for grocery stores allowing for the tracking of inventory expiration dates.

The advent of new infrastructure and technology to prevent food waste before groceries make their way into the home will simultaneously extend to consumer-facing publicity around household wasted food. You’ll see more of this in 2021.

The focus on household recycling behaviors over the years has prevented household wasted food from receiving the attention it deserves. The rise in home meal prep fueled by the pandemic and heightened consumer frustration about the state of recycling (check out part three of this series for more on this topic) make 2021 the perfect time to make preventing household wasted food the new norm.

The new year is a ripe opportunity for solid waste management professionals to put serious effort into promoting household wasted food prevention education. Our team at Betterbin is excited to be a part of this important work.

 

Weston, WI: Fight cancer, fuel recycling

Valerie Parker photo

Great communities don’t just fall on a map. It takes great people to make great communities. Great people like Valerie Parker.

Weston friends, you need to know about Valerie Parker. Valerie gifted us the ability to test launch our app in Weston. Now it’s time for us to do her solid. And we’re asking you to get involved in a super easy way.

Valerie’s official title is Village of Weston Planning Technician. We’re going to zero in on her role as Weston’s Recycling Coordinator. Actually, we need to go even further. We are going to dig into Valerie’s role as one special human being who is so passionate about doing the right thing—especially when it comes to recycling right.

Many communities have individuals who oversee refuse and recycling contracts. Valerie took that role to heart when she began her tenure with Weston more than a decade ago. She didn’t just review new contracts. She made sure Weston went after grant funding available through the state to keep recycling costs lower for residents, developed an annual recycling and refuse newsletter, and hosts a calendar of events such as an electronic waste drop-off, home composting event and bulk-item drop-offs that is capped off with an annual recycling audit that awards prizes to the community’s best recyclers.

When we approached the Marathon County Solid Waste Dept. Director Meleesa Johnson about needing a community to beta test the ERbin app, Meleesa sent us straight to Valerie. Valerie eagerly agreed to bring any tool to residents that would make recycling right easier.

Now, Valerie is battling against a reoccurrence of endometrial cancer. We wanted to help with her battle against cancer and support her mission to help Weston residents recycle right. To do that, we are hosting an ERbin app scan challenge. Here’s how you can get involved.

For the challenge, simply download (Google Play; App Store) the ERbin app and start scanning the UPC barcodes of products to see if they are acceptable in Weston recycling bins. For each scan or search up to 2,000 scans/searches, we are contributing $0.25 toward a total donation that will go to the Foundation for Women’s Cancer (FWC) at the end of the scan challenge on Earth Day, April 22. The goal is to raise $500 for FWC. That means we need 2,000 scans from you.

Will you accept the challenge?

 

 

Finally, innovation in college campus recycling education

Digging through campus recycling and refuse bins can certainly draw strange looks and laughs from a crowd of college students. The costs are much higher for NOT digging deeper into the challenges that come with university recycling programs.

Fluctuations in market prices for recovered materials have impacted everyone—even college and university campuses. At Edgewood College in Madison, Wisconsin, the campus is now paying extra monthly fees for the contamination (trash) leaving their campus recycling bins.

The increased costs are fair. It costs Edgewood College’s recycling service provider, Waste Management, extra time and resources to sort and dispose of the unacceptable materials. The counter attack is no less expensive. Establishing a successful recycling education campaign on a college campus is an extraordinary feat. Turns out, recycling isn’t top-of-mind for college students.

But age and priorities aren’t the only problem. Students are constantly coming-and-going from campus; leaving in the summer for home or jobs, or enrolling for the first time at an institution that has different recycling guidelines than a student’s previous home-town. Re-education year-after-year is time-consuming and costly for facilities departments. Signage isn’t always reflective of year-to-year changes in acceptable material lists. Contracts change with service providers. Employees come-and-go and require re-training about recycling right.

The constant change of multiple variables wreaks havoc on campus recycling programs. Even Waste Management, sponsor of the app launch at Edgewood College, is interested in finding new ways to combat contamination and reduce costs to customers.

That’s why ERbin turned its attention to a better solution for campus recycling education. As much as we hate calling it education, it is what it is—but way cooler. Edgewood College is the first campus in the nation (with the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point a close second) to implement the ERbin app for students and staff. A collaboration with a group of students in Edgewood’s Social Entrepreneurship course allowed ERbin to pair its data-driven technology with advice from students about how to best engage college students with use of the app, and interest in recycling, in general.

ERbin will spend the next few months promoting the app to students and staff, tracking use of the app, and finishing up the semester with a post-app implementation waste audit to measure any impact on contamination and volume of materials recovered.

One week into launching the app and it’s looking like free coffee might be the key to recycling right on college campuses 😉

Recycling education needs to go digital

It’s 2020. Estimates say that the material recovery industry loses $300M annually because consumers simply don’t know what materials to be tossing in residential recycling bins. How did we get to this point? With at-will availability of all kinds of information via our mobile devices, it’s baffling that consumers still don’t have the information they need to recycle right.

We’re going to change that. (You knew that was coming, right?)

First, let’s address the fact that many variables impact a consumer’s ability to recycle right. Markets for recovered materials have changed. Packaging has become complex – it’s not just glass, paper, cardboard, and aluminum/tin cans, anymore. Processing equipment has become antiquated and unable to meet the demands of new packaging materials. All of these variables create constant changes to local recycling program guidelines.

Yet, when you talk to the average consumer, the vast majority of people say they do recycle and want to recycle. Our waste audits in the City of Wausau and the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point campus provide all the evidence we need that consumers want to recycle.

The problem is that the load of groceries you just brought home doesn’t look anything like the general messaging you’re seeing in local guidelines

The industry is working hard to make recycling work. Taskforces are researching new market opportunities for use of recovered materials. Processing infrastructure upgrades are slowly taking place across the country. But communicating with the public about how to recycle right?

So far, the solution has involved simplifying and generalizing messages: No plastic bags or plastic wrap. Plastic #1 and #2 containers-only. Cardboard boxes – yes.

The problem is that the load of groceries you just brought home doesn’t look anything like the general messaging you’re seeing in local guidelines (if you’re seeing those guidelines at all).

We’re coming at this problem from another angle: Be as specific as possible.

What if your grocery receipt told you exactly how to properly recycle all of the products you just purchased? What if you could give your kids your phone to scan the UPC barcodes of products in your pantry to learn how to recycle products you buy? What if your grocery delivery app told you exactly how to recycle all of the packaging for the products you just purchased?

It’s 2020. We have the technology. Would you use it?