Zeroing in on Organics


Courtesy of BioCycle Magazine

The months of January and February are data gathering time for BioCycle’s annual State of Garbage In America survey. For many state solid waste, recycling and composting officials, the year doesn’t get off to the right start if they don’t see one of our questionnaires coming across their fax or email lines! The data gathered from these state offices has enabled BioCycle to track the nation’s composting and recycling progress for 11 years. In 1999, the nation’s recycling rate (which includes composting) is 31.5 percent, an increase of 1.5 percent from 1998 — and almost four times the rate reported ten years ago.

The landfilling rate of 61 percent remained the same as 1998, while incineration dropped from nine to 7.5 percent. The results of this year’s survey, as well as those of the past several years, show that the original forces which woke up America to the need to recycle have been played out. Looking at Table 2 on page 63 (National generation, recycling, incineration and landfilling rates 1990-1999), we can see that since 1996, the breakout between landfilling, recycling and incineration has been changing in very gradual increments — versus the bigger jumps experienced in the first half of the 1990s. Furthermore, of the 37 states providing data in 1999 on remaining landfill capacity, 30 reported that they had ten years or more left.

mind: Are we just about there in terms of what percent of the MSW stream can be recycled efficiently and economically? Is there anything on the horizon that will cause dramatic growth in the national recycling rate? In our minds, the answer to the first question is no, and the answer to the second is nothing obvious — but we do have some recommendations!

First, an excellent recycling and composting infrastructure has been established in this country. Great inroads have been made in market development for recycled materials, compost, mulch and other products. Given this investment, we should be trying to pump as much through the infrastructure as possible as we continue to work aggressively on building markets.

Second, the majority of states probably will not meet the recycling goals their legislatures established by the deadlines set. Public and political pressure should be put on states to meet those goals, especially given the infrastructure we have. Meeting goals (or at least getting fairly close) is not an impossible task, nor is it one that requires another round of huge investments or a big jump in municipalities’ recycling and composting budgets.
 The key is to zero in on feedstocks that still are going into landfills in large quantities. Organics — yard trimmings, food residuals and wood — are a case in point. For the first time, BioCycle asked state officials about current recovery rates for these three feedstocks. Thirty-three states were able to provide some data (see Table 8 on page 70). Only a few of the 33 estimate recovery rates greater than 50 percent; the majority are in the 10 to 20 percent range. We are pursuing this data further and expect to gain more insights over the course of this year as to the origination and fate of the materials not being recovered, and to compare this data to the existing processing infrastructure. States may discover that with some tweaking here, a grant or loan for a piece of equipment there, etc., they will see stronger gains in their recycling rates. At the same time, it is up to all of us to continue market development endeavors so that the demand for processed organics keeps pace with the supply.

In a nutshell, we can’t hold our breath waiting for the next garbage barge to send the nation’s recycling rate hurtling toward the 50 percent mark. But we can do more than watch it crawl upwards, percentage point by percentage point. — N.G.

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