Organic Material Recycling Momentum Builds

As more systems come on line in jurisdictions where there are financial incentives for biogas, competition is increasing for organic material, the feedstock that provides these systems with their source of energy and provides a critical revenue strea
By Stephanie Thorson | September 02, 2014

As the biogas sector grows, it is faced with a new challenge. Biogas systems convert decaying organic material into useable energy and a soil amendment. As more biogas systems come on line in jurisdictions where there are financial incentives for biogas, competition is increasing for organic material, the feedstock that provides these systems with their source of energy and provides a critical revenue stream.

Securing a steady supply of organic material can be a challenge in jurisdictions where there is a thriving biogas sector, such as Ontario. Ontario’s waste diversion policy does not address organic material other than leaf and yard waste, and since organic material can be sent to landfill at very low cost, less of this material is available as feedstock for anaerobic digestion (AD).

In some landfills, methane from decaying organic material is captured and flared. A small percentage convert methane into useable energy. The greenhouse gas emissions impact of methane released from landfills is significant. Furthermore, organic material sent to landfill cannot be used to enhance agricultural soils, create green jobs or decrease our reliance on conventional fuels.

Fortunately, policymakers are starting to understand the value of organic material, and are watching what’s happening in the U.S. and some Canadian provinces. Momentum is building for restricting the movement of waste organic material. Biogas production provides multiple environmental and economic benefits, and helps enable policymakers to consider organic material as a resource instead of a waste material. Several organizations such as the American Biogas Council and the U.S. Composting Council have worked together to influence state decisionmaking. Progress in the U.S. includes:

• Connecticut was the first state to ban commercial food waste from landfills. In 2011, it passed a state law requiring generators of two or more tons of food waste per week to recycle the materials rather than sending them to a landfill if located within 20 miles of a suitable recycling facility. In 2013, the state passed a law following in Vermont’s footsteps that expanded coverage of its landfill food waste ban to facilities generating a ton of food waste per week, starting in 2020.

• In Vermont, a 2012 law banned food waste from landfills. Like Connecticut, the law limited the ban to large generators located within 20 miles of a recycling facility. The Vermont law gradually expanded coverage in a series of steps. Only commercial generators of two tons of food waste per week or more were required to comply at first. By 2020, however, all food waste will be banned from Vermont landfills.

• Massachusetts moved to ban commercial food from landfills by July 2013. At that time, the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection proposed requiring commercial food waste generators, defined as those producing a ton or more per week, to donate or repurpose food instead of sending it to the landfill. Any waste that could not be donated would have to be used for composting, anaerobic digesting or animal feed. That ban took effect July 1.

• Rhode Island is the latest state to restrict the movement of organic material. In June, the government passed a law requiring large producers of food scrap to send it and other organic material to composting facilities and anaerobic digesters instead of to landfill. However, there will be a phase-in period while infrastructure that can process the waste is built. No food waste producer has to comply with the law until there is a composter or anaerobic digester within 15 miles able to accept that producer’s material.

In Canada, progress is more mixed.

• Nova Scotia banned compostable waste from landfill in 1998. It currently has the highest diversion rate in Canada, at 68 percent, and the lowest per-person waste disposal rate.  Most municipalities have curbside organics collection, which is coupled with policies that include mandatory use of clear bags for garbage.

• While the British Columbia government has not placed restrictions on organic material disposal, some progressive municipalities have moved ahead with policies of their own. For example, Metro Vancouver will have a landfill ban on organics in place by 2015.

• In Quebec, a graduated waste diversion plan is in place, and organic material will be banned from landfills by 2020.

Organizations that value organic material should speak up and voice their support for policies such as those listed here, or levies on landfilling organic material. Until progressive policies are in place, these valuable resources will end up in a place where their value can’t be accessed, and the organic material won’t contribute to lower GHG emissions, green jobs, improved soil and greater energy security and sustainability.

Author: Stephanie Thorson
Associate, Biogas Association