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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OUT with 2020 is the U.S.’s outdated and underperforming community recycling sorting, processing and reuse infrastructure.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.

 

The composting communication conundrum

Educating compost program participants at-scale about what materials are acceptable/unacceptable in their program is a substantial burden on your time and bottom line. So is contamination in your feedstock. So is the diversion of fewer materials because participants simply don’t know what biodegradable materials they can compost in your program. What gives!?

Continue reading “The composting communication conundrum”

Madison wraps successful food scrap program for 2020

COVID-19 disrupted many things this year. Despite the obstacles, Madison Recycling Coordinator Bryan Johnson charged on with implementing the city’s food scrap drop-off program. Residents diverted over 7,260 pounds of food waste in this first year of the May-October program. Congratulations to the Madison program and their residents!

There’s an important reason Madison called this a food scrap program. The materials are processed at an anaerobic digester, primarily used to process manure from dairy farms. Therefore the program had very specific requirements for what items could be accepted. Materials such as eggshells, yard waste or certified compostable packaging acceptable in traditional outdoor commercial composting facilities could not be processed by the digester. 

Johnson was well-prepared to help residents avoid confusion about acceptable and unacceptable program materials. Residents had access to custom, material-specific disposal directions on the Betterbin app. Johnson also sent monthly emails to participants that reviewed common search queries in the app. 

“I think it was a real benefit to have the Betterbin app,” Johnson said. “Residents seemed to like how easy it made participating in our food scrap program.”

Madison’s program always intended on closing down in the fall so that the City trucks used to haul the materials could switch over to leaf pick-up. The program ended a few weeks early due to some pesky wasps and hornets. Johnson hopes to begin the program again in April 2021.

Congratulations, Madison for a great year of food waste diversion! Learn more about Madison’s food scrap program here.

Fighting food waste at the fridge

With 52 million tons of food going to U.S. landfills annually, it’s no wonder that many communities and businesses have initiated food waste diversion goals. According to ReFED, organic materials make up  21% of U.S. landfill volume!

The impact of landfilled food waste doesn’t stop at the space it consumes at landfills. Food waste globally contributes 8% of total anthropogenic GHG emissions. This makes landfilled food waste contributions to methane emissions near equivalent to that of all road transport emissions! Continue reading “Fighting food waste at the fridge”