Compostable products (polymers and fiber-based products that decompose safely in professionally managed composting operations) are transformative products that can make it possible to double or triple community landfill diversion and recycling rates. Rather than trying to sort out non-degradable plastics, waste generators are simply replacing plastics with compostable substitutes. No sorting, no screening at the composting facility and, most importantly, no contamination from non-degradable plastics. This, in turn, can make mixed organics composting much more efficient, unlocking dramatic increases in recycling and landfill diversion.
Have We Hit the “Recycling Limit”?
The chart above shows that the “Golden Era” of recycling rate increases has passed: recycling rates have only increased 10 points in the past 15 years. While it is fair to expect more growth in the overall recycling rate, unless states and communities undertake new initiatives, we can expect only modest incremental improvements in landfill diversion.
Recycling plays an important role in diverting packaging wastes from landfills. For example, of the 75 million tons of packaging generated in 2010, an impressive 48 percent was recovered. But the success of recycling is concentrated among a few, easy-to-recycle packages.
Part of the problem is that landfill diversion programs have focused on packaging but not what’s inside it. Comingled with household wastes is a lot of food: food processing residuals, grocery store trimmings and spoilage, and household scraps. Each year 33 million tons of food scraps are buried or burned in the United States, making it the single largest waste item the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency tracks. More food scraps are landfilled or incinerated each year than plastics or paperboard.
Once you remove the clean, easy-to-sort packages, you’re left with all of this food waste commingled with materials that are either too soiled or wet to be economically recycled: 25 million tons of wet, food-stained corrugated boxes, paper and plastic bags, boxes, towels and tissues, disposable plates and cups.
Worse, all this trash is predominantly putrescible (readily biodegradable under the appropriate conditions): paper, cardboard, food — all decomposing in an uncontrolled fashion in the landfills and creating methane, a greenhouse gas 21 times more potent than carbon dioxide.
In fact, landfills are responsible for 16 percent of U.S. methane emissions, behind natural gas and petroleum production, and so-called “cow burps.” As much as 30 percent of methane gas generated in landfills comes from discarded food, according to EPA. This unwanted decay also creates dangerous liquid leachate, which can damage local aquifers if not properly contained or treated.