From the produce we buy to our skincare and other consumer goods, organic options have become increasingly popular. In its simplest term, “organic” is anything related to or derived from living matter, but from an expanded viewpoint, the organic signifier extends to methods of production for food or other products and materials without the use of chemicals, artificial agents, fertilizers, or pesticides. These organic materials and products will filter through waste streams in one way or another, but the term organic takes on a new definition within the waste management industry.
Waste generated by consumers or businesses is typically classified into two main categories: organic and inorganic. Organic waste consists of any material that comes from a plant or animal and will eventually decompose. Things like food scraps, tree branches, leaves, lawn clippings, and other yard trimmings are all considered organic waste and can take on a new purpose or use within the environmental ecosystem when disposed of through organics recycling or composting programs. When disposed of properly, organic waste can be reused or repurposed through composting to create new soil or mulch to then regrow healthy plants or vegetables while simultaneously reducing dependence on fertilizers. Organic waste can also create new energy and power sources when donated food scraps are used to produce biofuels that then generate electricity and renewable energy.
Like organic products, organics recycling programs may not always appear to be the most cost-effective option at the outset, but implementing a proper organics recycling program within your waste management infrastructure is a strategy that will eventually pay dividends in the long run and will produce both economic and environmental benefits. It is also a disposal method that has gained traction across the U.S. in recent years and may soon become a requirement for most businesses and organizations. As organics recycling becomes more commonplace, there are several key areas and considerations to keep in mind—disposal options, specialized equipment, education, and other factors—to conserve your resources and set your organics recycling program up for success.
Delving Into the Data: Evaluating Your Waste and Recycling Streams
Before any company makes a major decision or investment, first consider all options and refer to any available data or research around key impact areas to determine the most optimal outcome that will best fit its needs. Outlining an organics recycling program is no different, and before you determine which disposal equipment you will need or specific or measurable goals for your organics waste practices, you need to understand your current baseline and diversion percentage.
Undergoing a waste audit is a recommended first step—it will take a holistic look at your operations, including recycling-to-waste ratios to help your organization establish a baseline. An audit reviews the types of trash or organic waste that is funneling into your organization’s waste and recycling streams, estimates current diversion percentages, and offers a detailed glimpse into the overall volume of waste being generated per week.
The most efficient way to conduct this evaluation is to rely on a managed waste services provider to thoroughly review your operations and work alongside your team to co-create short- and long-term diversion goals that reflect your business’ needs and reduce impact over time. A dedicated managed waste services partner will also use that data to inform and outline an organics recycling infrastructure specifically designed for your organization, including necessary equipment and training to ensure a successful program.
Once you have a turnkey system in place, the volume you produce will also indicate how often you should re-evaluate your organics recycling program. By rule of thumb, organizations should be re-evaluating their organics recycling services every six to 12 months. Ideally, if there is any major fluctuation in head count at your organization, that shift also should be communicated to your managed waste services provider for further consultation. Any shift in capacity or total waste generated per week may indicate relevant enhancements or reductions to your current program or waste removal services, which may save you on costs and equipment and even lessen emissions with fewer trucks on the road following streamlined pickup schedules.
Finding the Right Equipment
Considering how organic waste can be reused in various ways (e.g., soil, mulch, biofuel, etc.), specialized equipment is needed to collect and recycle organics, including compost bins, compactors, and heavy-duty shredders. Using this equipment ensures that organic waste—especially food waste—is diverted from landfills, where the material is unable to break down and can produce harmful greenhouse gases.
Composting is a popular and cost-effective method of organics recycling. Organic waste is collected in a compost bin over time to eventually break down into fertile soil that can be used to regrow plants and vegetables. I recently observed a terrific success story of composting in action at a farm on the east coast. The farm recycled its organic waste—including food scraps, bones, and other organic material—and turned that organic matter into soil with the help and expertise of a local provider. The farm then bought back the soil to create a community garden, growing fruits and vegetables to serve in its cafeteria. It brought the “farm to table” experience to life in a full-circle way.
Compost bins tend to be smaller and take up less space than other recycling equipment or containers, and they are ideal for organizations that produce only small amounts of organic waste. However, if your business tends to generate large amounts of organic waste, larger collection containers and compactors that do not need to be emptied as frequently as a compost bin should be considered instead. However, regardless of the container, regularly emptying, cleaning, and power washing bins and totes should become a practiced habit to reduce odors from organic waste that may attract pests, bugs, or other unwelcome creatures.
Compactors are also specifically designed to handle organic waste and most machinery is equipped with pre-crushers to aid the process of breaking down organic material once it has been recycled. After the waste has been pre-crushed, it decomposes much faster than the composting method, allowing you to generate and use the end result as a new organic product much faster and at higher volumes. Some compactors are also enabled with technology that allows you to consistently monitor and deliver cohesive data at your organization or across several locations, allowing for remote tracking of all waste, including the total number of pickups, to streamline operations.
Heavy-duty waste shredders are the most effective way to recycle large amounts of organic waste and are suitable for large-scale operations or companies (like grocery stores and restaurants) that generate high volumes of organic waste through front or back-of-house operations. The machinery shreds the organic material into fine pieces for the fastest method of decomposition. However, shredders are the most dangerous disposal equipment option and should be handled with care and proper training.
All organics recycling equipment comes with benefits and drawbacks, but enlisting the expertise of a provider in the managed waste services field will help you navigate the pros and cons by tailoring selections that are unique to your current and future business operations.
Regardless of the equipment you choose, continuous education and training about your organics recycling procedures is key to successfully implementing your business’ recycling program. Ensure that all team members are aware of how your organics recycling program minimizes environmental impact and their unique individual role in impacting sustainability efforts.
Consider developing and placing placards or signage around high-traffic areas and near recycling equipment, with key messages about organics recycling to further awareness and retention. Continuously reinforcing these messages and protocols will increase the chances that organic waste is disposed of appropriately and transported to a facility where it will be converted and given a new purpose. You can then take that education one step further by establishing an internal “green team” that is committed to these efforts and will foster an internal culture of action and accountability around organics recycling.
If you are unsure how to get started or which organics recycling equipment may be most suitable for your organization, consider consulting with a professionally managed waste services provider to review your options and design a program that addresses your recycling needs and goals. While your business’ needs may be complex, your organics recycling program does not have to be.
This article was originally published in Waste Advantage Magazine