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While zero-waste initiatives in the US gained momentum in 2019 and early 2020, myriad complications related to the pandemic brought many to a screeching halt. But as we transition from emergency mode, there have been restarts.
Zero-waste initiatives gained momentum in 2019 and early 2020; with more states
and cities supporting composting, enacting organics-to-landfill
developing municipal-scale food-waste collection and recycling programs. Though
not a nationwide movement — East and West Coast states are certainly ahead of
other areas in the US — in a Spring 2020 Yale Program on Climate Change
survey, 72 percent of US citizens acknowledge that global warming is happening,
and 78 percent agree that schools should teach about global warming.
Fast-forward almost a year, and much has changed because of the pandemic.
As a result of the pandemic, food-waste recycling programs were halted or
delayed in some cities and towns due to budget constraints, social distancing
requirements, or prioritization of financial and staffing resources. New York
City suspended its curbside food waste recycling through June 2022, citing
budget constraints; the same program in Cambridge, Massachusetts is still
suspended because of social distancing requirements for truck personnel.
Composting continues in California; but LA Compost — a network of
community composters who maintain compost hubs throughout Los Angeles County —
suspended new member additions and closed some collection locations. In
Portland, Oregon, the business food waste collection program that was set to
start in March was delayed until September and then delayed a year, until March
31, 2021. Organizers say it was poor timing to start a new program. The question
is, when will the timing improve?
There is still no nationwide standard for recycling, let alone organics
recycling. The Northeast Recycling Council’s July 2020 state-by-state
recycling report revealed that only 27 states have at least one mandatory
recycling requirement. The most frequent items to be cited for mandatory
recycling are lead-acid batteries (16 states). Leaves must be recycled in seven
states and grass in five. Nationwide, food waste and organics are not even among
the top 12 items that must be recycled.
Another obstacle to increased food waste recycling is a lack of state
infrastructure, according to Luann Meyer, President of the Solid Waste
Association of North America (SWANA) NY Chapter. Meyer says that New York
State, for example, lacks the infrastructure to fully support the commercial
food waste ban and that facilities will need to be built or expanded on to
support the law.
Image credit: Vanguard Renewables
The organic waste bans and mandatory recycling laws of six states — California,
Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York, Rhode Island and Vermont —
remain unchanged during the pandemic. Municipalities including Austin,
Texas; Boulder, Colorado; Hennepin County, Minnesota; Portland,
Oregon; New York City; San Francisco; and Seattle have all previously
passed residential food waste recycling measures; but in some cases, they have
postponed implementation or enforcement due to COVID.
New Jersey’s governor approved a mandatory food waste recycling bill in
April, following six years of debate. The measure requires food waste
generators with 52 tons or more of food waste annually to recycle if they are
located within 25 miles of an authorized recycling facility.
Vermont has the most aggressive food waste recycling measure in the US. In 2012,
the state implemented the Vermont Universal Recycling Law, which applies to
any individual or business generating food waste. The state held to its
scheduled July 1, 2020 launch of the residential portion of the law, which
mandates organic waste recycling — a bold move, considering others were backing
away from launch dates during the COVID outbreak.
Although many residents had already been composting on their own, according to
Bob Spencer — Executive Director of Windham Solid Waste Management
District in Southern Vermont — he has seen an increase in residential food
waste dropped off at the Brattleboro transfer station. However, he notes
that food waste recycling had already been growing steadily.
“Food waste recycling is a good financial move. Brattleboro has been doing
curbside food waste pickup since 2013. It saves $35 a ton versus landfill
disposal, which saves the town about $30,000 a year,” Spencer says. The
District’s composting site has experienced consistent volume compared with
pre-pandemic times; but there has been a shift — as residential and food
manufacturing sectors have increased, while commercial and institutional sectors
The good news is that we have transitioned from emergency mode to a “new normal”
and there have been restarts. In July, Cambridge, Mass. opened five expanded
compost drop-off sites. In September, the NYC Department of Sanitation
$2.8 million to fund community composting. It reopened multiple NYC Compost
Project sites across the boroughs, in addition to some drop-off sites. LA
Compost now accepts new members; and Arlington, Virginia restarted curbside
yard waste service after a four-month hiatus due to staffing issues.
As seen in Vermont, municipal waste programs have had to adjust to a shift to higher levels of residential waste with so many people at home. Coupled with continued high absenteeism in Atlanta and Philadelphia, lack of sanitation staff led to service issues and backlogs. While Atlanta continues to post delays in trash pickups, Philadelphia finally hired temporary workers to overcome the backlog; however, residential trash is still 25 percent above normal levels, and mixing of recyclables with regular trash may still occur, according to a spokesperson. Given that states and municipalities are primarily focused on maintaining essential solid waste services with minimal disruptions, and some deal with real budget shortfalls due to the pandemic, recycling ban implementation and targets for the foreseeable future will surely continue to be negatively impacted.
COVID will continue to impact consumer mindsets regarding food waste and its impact on climate change, but in which direction? Consumers may direct their focus on the immediate need for food, shelter and health. On the other hand, food waste recycling could be seen as a benefit to the global good and spur a renewed commitment to sustainability. Most likely, it will be a combination of the two — depending on the region of the country and the challenges of the pandemic at the local, fiscal level.
Published Jan 12, 2021 7am EST / 4am PST / 12pm GMT / 1pm CET
John Hanselman is Founder and Chief Strategy Officer of Vanguard Renewables — the U.S. leader in farm-based organics to renewable energy. John launched Vanguard Renewables in 2014 to connect farm-based anaerobic digestion to agricultural resilience and produce renewable energy. His work includes finding a decarbonization pathway for the food and beverage industry by enabling the repurposing of unavoidable manufacturing and supply chain waste into renewable natural gas. John’s strength is bringing together partners in the decarbonization journey and Vanguard has strategic partnerships with Dairy Farmers of America and Dominion Energy, among others. (Read more ...)
This article, produced in cooperation with the Sustainable Brands editorial team, has been paid for by one of our sponsors.