Organics are a hot waste and recycling commodity. And that popularity has generated a sometimes heated business, political and philosophical debate about their best end-use.
Some argue that composting food and yard waste is the clear environmental choice. “Composting is the highest and best use of these residuals,” says Stu Buckner, former executive director of the Bethesda, Md.-based U.S. Composting Council and now CEO of Buckner Environmental Associates in East Islip, N.Y.
But others contend that, at least in certain cases, putting organics in landfills that have a methane gas collection and an energy conversion system in place makes the most sense — environmentally as well as economically. “You really need to look at the situation,” says Devin Moose, a director for the Shaw Group in St. Charles, Ill. He has consulted on dozens of both composting and landfill gas-to-energy (LFTGE) projects. “You really need to look at the situation,” he says. “There are times when composting certainly makes sense. The majority of time it doesn’t make sense.”
The discussion has intensified in the political arena. More than 20 states currently have bans against disposing of organics in landfills, Buckner says. But Florida repealed its ban in 2010 and Georgia followed suit the next year. Michigan and Missouri are considering ban repeals. But conversely, he adds, Delaware recently implemented a yard waste ban. Vermont earlier this year passed a law that will ban all organics from its landfills by 2020, and Massachusetts is considering an organics ban beginning in 2014.
Buckner says the waste management companies are working to repeal the bans because they want more tip fees. Houston-based Waste Management Inc. is invested significantly in both LFGTE and organics recycling. Company officials take issue with being labeled as an advocate for organics in landfills. “We’re really focused on finding the highest and best use out of all the materials we manage,” says Eric Myers, director of organic recycling for the company. “A lot of folks are misconstruing what we’re doing.” He argues that Waste Management isn’t against landfill bans so much as a ban without a plan. “Some states with landfill bans have horrid management because the regulatory structure isn’t there.”
The success or failure of organics landfill bans can depend largely on the economics and demographics of the area, says Dan Jameson, vice president, municipal services and government affairs, for Phoenix-based Republic Services Inc., another company with a large stake both in LFGTE and organics recycling. Composting advocates claim that landfill operators need the organics for sufficient methane generation, but Jameson says Republic didn’t see huge volume growth at its sites in Georgia after the state repealed its organics ban. “We haven’t made a conscious decision to politically push [repealing landfill bans],” he says. “I’m not a big advocate of putting grass back in landfills to improve methane quality.”
Still, he acknowledges the difference with organics for landfill gas projects can add up over time. “If we measure short term it won’t be as comprehensive as it would be over five to 10 years on the impact on the landfill.”