At least five states have imposed bans prohibiting the disposal of organics in landfills. Some states and cities imposed mandatory organic waste recycling laws that target generators of anywhere from 1 ton of food waste per week to 104 tons of food waste or more per year.
These actions are outcome-oriented rather than process-oriented, allowing businesses, residents, and municipalities to determine the most effective method of diverting organics from the landfills. It works: the year after Vermont instituted an organics ban, donations to food banks increased by 60%. Some generators are able to compost or anaerobically digest the organics onsite. The more common approach, however, is to send the waste to a processing facility—if one is conveniently located.
The laws in Rhode Island and Connecticut apply only to generators within 15 and 20 miles, respectively, of a processing facility that accepts food waste. Vermont’s law currently applies to generators within 20 miles of a facility, but in 2020 it evolves into a total ban on food scraps in landfills without exemption due to distances. Since 2016, California has mandated that businesses generating at least 8 cubic yards of organic waste per week must either recycle the organics onsite or subscribe to a recycling service and that local jurisdictions create organic waste recycling programs to divert organic waste produced by businesses and multifamily dwellings with five or more units (AB 1826 Chesbro [Chapter 727, Statutes of 2014]). The amount changed to 4 cubic yards in 2017 and could be cut in half by 2020 if the amount of organics being disposed of hasn’t been cut by 50% of the 2014 level.
It’s happening at the local level, too. In 2016, New York City began requiring hotels with 150 or more rooms, food vendors in arenas and stadiums with a seating capacity of over 15,000, food manufacturers with an area of at least 25,000 square feet, and food wholesalers with at least 20,000 square feet to source-separate their organics and send to a processing facility if they do not process onsite.
Types of Organic Waste
While the goal of diverting organics from the landfill is noble, accomplishing it is difficult, confusing, and costly. Organics are heavy. They’re wet. They’re smelly. They require special handling. Those in the business are familiar with the “yuck factor.” As decomposition commences, odor proliferates. Organics contaminate other waste if not separated and create a mess even when they are.
Organic waste consists of food or kitchen waste, green waste, landscape waste (grass clippings, leaves, flower and hedge trimmings, branches, and weeds), nonhazardous wood waste, and food-soiled paper waste that gets mixed in with food waste (both uncoated products like napkins, paper towels, tissues, formed paper packaging such as egg cartons, and some paper plates and cups, and coated paper products like food-service wrappers, to-go containers, pizza boxes, cardboard boxes, and other materials that contain liners made of polyethylene or other synthetic grease/water-resistant components). It can also include manure and some forms of textiles that can be recycled at organic recycling facilities. As defined by the State of California, food waste typically consists of solid, semisolid, and liquid food, such as fruit, vegetables, cheese, meat, bones, poultry, seafood, bread, rice, pasta, and oils; coffee grounds, filters, and tea bags; cut flowers and herbs; and any putrescible matter produced from human or animal food production, preparation, and consumption activities—and food-soiled paper.
The challenges of organics collection relate to the challenge of organics recycling. Finding markets isn’t easy. Dian Sommers, national account manager of refuse and utility for Snyder Industries, reports that one county recycling center claims that the only way an organics recycling program will work is if a food manufacturer cooks down the waste and sells it for food for hogs. She knows of a company in Quincy, IL, that buys organics waste to make dog food.
The lack of markets has hindered progress, Sommers believes. “Are municipalities and businesses doing it? Organics are not developing as fast as expected. It’s limited, mainly used by businesses like restaurants and nursing homes. There’s just not much out there.”
She attributes that to the difficulty of collecting organics. “You would need a vacuum truck; a regular trash truck doesn’t want the moisture or sloshing. No one wants to pick it up or lift it.”
The carts are huge, Sommers continues: 300-gallon is the most popular. That makes things difficult for companies with a limited footprint. It also complicates things, she says, because customers prefer one cart for everything, not three or four carts for different types of waste. The carts must also be sealed. “No holes, no leaking. The EPA won’t allow toxic drainage in the sewer.” And because organics waste is heavy, it can’t be put in a regular trash truck. “You need a special truck to lift it.”
The Toronto program changed things, claims Dennis Monestier, sales manager for Rehrig Pacific Co. The Canadian city moved to a fully automated organics collection that uses a larger container because it’s more efficient, he says.
It’s more than just efficient. Switching from a manual load to an automated load with proper grab bar placement reduced repetitive injuries, and thus, workers’ compensation issues. “Organics are just too heavy for manual disposal,” observes Monestier.
Rehrig was tasked with developing a raccoon-resistant container, Monestier explains. The one-handed latch features a lock that works in windy areas and is sturdy enough to thwart Toronto’s raccoon population. Their solution has resulted in decreasing the population by eliminating one source of food.
While raccoons may be Toronto’s problem, bears are prevalent in western Canada, Florida, Alaska, and Colorado. For those areas, Rehrig developed an IGDHC-certified 95-gallon cart with a pliable body that bounces back from impacts, a reinforced lid to withstand heavy weights, and a patented lock that opens easily with clips, but stays closed even when picked up by a bear. “It’s actually bear-tested,” says Monestier. “The bear can pick up the container, but the container won’t open because it’s a different motion than the lifter.”
Cart specifications had to match the lifters in width and height. Rehrig’s design team complied with ANSI standard size, but beyond regulations, Monestier says the program drives the size of the container. “Some want a 65-gallon cart. You have to look at it holistically: who uses and who services the containers.”
Toronto actually uses four sizes of containers by design. The customer pays for the container, with rebates on the smallest one in order to drive habits for recycling. Recycling is driven by ethics, legislation, or cost, Monestier believes. “If you roll out the program, you won’t be successful if it’s not already a habit in that area.” Toronto hopes to create habits through incentivizing customers.
Their organics program currently collects only kitchen scraps, diapers, and plastic bags. Monestier says there’s a smaller volume of kitchen scraps, so the smaller container is OK for weekly collection. “If you add leaf and yard waste, you need a larger size.”
Cart size depends on what is collected and the frequency of collection. “You can adjust for weekly collection when needed due to odor, maggots, and decomposition, or save money with bi-monthly pickup—as long as they comply with provincial legislation that says you must retrieve X by (date).”
Either way, he says there’s “not much difference” between public versus private collection. “Toronto outsources half the city to private haulers,” elaborates Monestier. “They must follow the same guidelines – have the same types of vehicles, containers, lift mechanisms, and schedule. But they have no union workers, so workers’ comp claims are fewer, resulting in less cost.” But even if Toronto was to go all private, they would still have the same expectations in regards to trucks and containers.
Orbis Corporation revised its 12-gallon container 3 years ago, due to Toronto, says Art McKenzie, national sales manager. “We wore out two molds,” he confesses. The 12-gallon is popular because it’s versatile and the right size for most jobs, but it just became even better.
Although the material—high-density polyethylene—is not changing, many things did. Orbis took into account input from the municipalities regarding stacking, handling, handles, and locking mechanisms when designing their containers.
“In Toronto, the drivers wanted a bigger handle at the back, sides, and bottom for dumping,” explains McKenzie. They wanted easier stacking for shipping: nesting brackets for easier separation. They wanted a secondary lock—a clip on the front under the lock to keep out animals. And they wanted a wheel and axle system, not casters, to prevent wobbling.
Although the US is farther ahead in recycling, McKenzie says Canada leads with organics. However, some parts of the US are catching up. Orbis has been rolling out 12-gallon bins in New York City for a couple of years, along with 21-gallon organics containers for multi-residential buildings. “We’ve been delivering 270,000–300,000 bins from April to October, and next year, we’ll be delivering for 3–4 months.”
The Big Apple is challenged for space, so the city required a smaller bin to be hand-dumped. McKenzie estimates 10–12 pounds weekly—15 pounds max—for residential collection. “That fills a 12-gallon container halfway. It’s not a lot of weight, so fully automated collection doesn’t make sense.” Different municipalities have gone to bi-weekly collection, which will move the parameters of recycling.
The Green Bin Program—a bit of a misnomer because, while green bins are used in Canada, Massachusetts, and Seattle, brown bins are the color of choice in Quebec and New York City—has contributed to the 30% diversion rate in organics. McKenzie sees more interest developing, illustrated by numerous pilots in Massachusetts and along the eastern seaboard. But he says it’s area-specific and is not common in the Midwest.
Go West, Young . . . Recycler?
California is one area that’s on board with recycling organics. Consolidated Fabricators Corp. is one of the largest container and roll-off manufacturers on the West Coast, selling directly to customers that include government correctional facilities, stadiums, municipalities/cities, and waste management companies.
Although the state is big on recycling, Kerry Holmes, vice president of sales, says the California market “is difficult in regards to size,” estimating that “70% of the market uses 3-yard front loaders.” Consolidated also offers 1-, 1 1/2-, 2-, 4-, and 6-yard containers, as well as a 1-yard flat-top for restaurants.
Another offering from the California manufacturer is bin liners. “The single biggest cost to haulers is maintenance,” says Holmes. Metal is preferred in some areas because animals can chew through the plastic carts, but the metal containers come with their own set of problems: rust, due to moisture from organics. Most haulers repair or refurbish them by welding a new bottom. “It’s a pain,” he says—and an expense. But, if the bin is rusted, it leaks, it smells, and it attracts pests, so options have been few . . . until recently.
“Our solution for organics is bin liners for 1-, 2-, and 3-yard containers,” says Holmes. They are formed to the bin, like a 1/4-inch thick sheet. Used inside the bin, they prevent leakage and preserve the containers, which have a 3–5-year lifespan without a liner or more than 10 years with a liner.
Laws in California for organics waste are driving sales of bin liners, Holmes states. “The liner reduces odors and pests and is more sanitary.” The liner is a great option to use in the existing container, he adds, making maintenance simpler because it’s easy to power wash and it unloads more easily since waste doesn’t stick in the corners.
For roll-offs, Consolidated provides an easy-slide lid that keeps out flies and pests and reduces odors. Made of Impact Plastic, they are lightweight, which eases the problem of picking up heavy, wet organics.
Why Size Matters
How big should a container be for organics collection? Some experts advise no larger than 2 yards because they get too heavy. “Size depends on local laws and regulations, which vary wildly,” declares John Greenway, product manager for Busch Systems International, distributor of carts and containers for public spaces and residential collection. Basically, he says, it comes down to what the program can accept—both in capacity and types of material.
Other factors in determining the necessary size of a container are who the hauler is, where the nearest facility is, any state or local weight and size mandates, and whether collection is manual or automated. Busch suggests 12- or 13 1/2-gallon containers at the curb for manual collection because it’s the maximum crews are allowed to lift, Greenway says. For public spaces collection such as stadiums, colleges, and universities, he advises checking the maximum weight listed in the contract.
Weight is tricky. While it’s accepted that organics are heavy, there can be hidden surprises inside the carts. “The challenge with cart selection for curbside programs is that carts hide what’s inside,” acknowledges Greenway. “With blue box [a waste management system used by Canadian municipalities to collect source-separated household waste materials for the purpose of recycling], it’s easy to see what’s inside.” That overcomes a common cart program risk: namely, no accountability for the resident. Because haulers don’t check the carts before dumping, anything can be lurking in them, contributing to higher contamination rates and extra costs.
One solution for public spaces is centralized collection: one-stop collection where all streams are at one location. If it’s not easy, you get the “lazy toss” that leads to contamination, Greenway explains.
The increase and improvements in public space collection (airports, libraries, museums, etc.) have allowed municipalities to lead by example for residential collection. “Organics collection is growing slowly and evolving,” believes Greenway. Acceptable materials may differ in areas; they don’t accept the same things in all markets and they may have a different focus—like durability versus cost—but it will become an industry trend, despite barriers to entry such as the high cost to process, scarcity of markets, large initial cost for municipalities, and the challenges of collection.
Breaking it Down
There are many developments with organics containers as more and more states institute laws to divert organics from landfills, states Paul Palazzo, vice president of sales and marketing for IPL Environmental.
The development of organics collections goes hand in hand with the development of containers, which has centered around the collection of source-separated organics, or food waste, that is not mixed with less dense green waste (yard waste), according to Jim Pickett, vice president of sales for Toter.
“Since food waste is much denser than refuse or recyclables, organics containers must be designed and rated for a significantly heavier load rating,” he explains. Refuse and recycling carts are typically rated for up to 3.5 pounds of material per gallon in capacity, while organics carts need to be 6.25 pounds of material per gallon in capacity.
Checking the load rating is key since rolling and hoisting heavy carts can pose the risk of injury to workers who may be lifting or maneuvering carts that are too heavy and do not meet the load rating requirements, resulting in overexertion, injury, and workers’ compensation claims. “Associated claims from customers could also arise from similar safety hazards of transporting too much weight,” adds Pickett.
To ensure that each cart can handle the weight that is required for organics waste streams, look for carts with a higher strength-to-weight ratio for improved safety and maneuverability. To ensure user safety, the logical method of testing organics carts is to follow the ANSI standard. Rotationally molded carts offer superior reliability and performance versus the standard injection molded carts marketed as organics carts; they only meet the standard ANSI load rating for garbage and recyclables. By selecting a durable cart with an excellent load rating, haulers will ensure customer satisfaction by providing customers with carts that are safe for organics waste collection.
Haulers face many choices when it comes to their carts, but organics carts require a more specialized set of considerations. “The purchasing process can be daunting,” observes Pickett, “but smart haulers will do their homework to create a simple checklist of needed features and options.”
One of the first considerations for both private and public sectors is the volume necessary to provide service according to the frequency of collection. Pickett points out that nearly all garbage is collected weekly from households with a 96-gallon cart. “Some jurisdictions require twice weekly collection and, therefore, specify a smaller 64- or 48-gallon cart.”
Nearly all buyers require carts that comply with ANSI cart safety and truck/lifter compatibility standards. Private sector buyers are often conscious of price when buying carts that will be included in their bids for municipal collection contracts, which means it is important for them to focus on the lowest total cost of ownership. Pickett advises considering service life and the cart manufacturer’s warranty, which may range from 10–12 years.
Both municipal and private haulers defer to ANSI specifications for cart design and manufacture to ensure compatibility between carts, trucks, and auxiliary collection equipment, Palazzo explains. Since both sectors purchase the same carts designed to ANSI specifications, there really is no major difference. “ANSI is the key metric to comply to.”
Another aspect all haulers comply to is cost. Municipalities and private haulers usually seek the lowest total cost of ownership when purchasing carts, with the realization that carts will have to be replaced. The duration of the cart manufacturer’s warranty is an indicator to buyers of the cart’s durability. “Warranty choices range from 10 to 12 years,” says Pickett.
Rotationally molded cart bodies, as opposed to injection molded carts, add value because they have a significantly longer life expectancy, with one-third of the failure rate. “Injection-molded cart manufacturers claim a 10-year service life, while rotationally molded carts claim a 15- to 20-plus-year lifespan,” he continues.
“Durability comes down to providing a 10-year warranty in support of all our carts,” Palazzo says, “and ensuring there are no major issues during that period.” He says IPL’s carts have an expected service life of 15 years.
Local market preferences and requirements for service levels generally determine the necessary size of the cart. “Size depends on the stream being collected,” believes Palazzo. He says that 95-gallon and 64-gallons carts are used primarily for recycling and waste collection, depending on the municipality’s diversion goals, landfill life expectancy, and any organic diversion goals. “Some municipalities can include 32-gallon for waste if this fits into the demographics of their population base. Organics collection carts are usually using the 32-gallon, 21-gallon, or 64-gallon if yard waste is included.” He notes that the frequency of pickup also plays a key role in cart size selection: weekly versus biweekly.
Pickett says that most carts are “universal” in design: i.e., compatible with both semi- and fully-automated collection equipment. They are uniquely identified with a visual serial number stamped on the cart to allow for asset tracking. “Cart identification has become more automated with the use of radio frequency identification tags permanently attached to the carts. RFID technology allows automated asset tracking (scanning) of real-time service verification from when the cart is delivered to a home and then throughout the complete life of the cart. These RFID capabilities help to track real-time data, which improves fleet productivity, safety, and availability.”
Palazzo considers RFID tags standard on carts. “RFID tags enable door-to-door distribution [because they] allow for each cart to be linked electronically to a home address [with] GPS coordinates [and they create] a database that is transferred to the city at the end of the distribution. Additionally, the city can use RFID technology to manage cart inventory, cart exchanges (for a different cart size), new deliveries, etc.” RFID readers can complete all these tasks, updating the database automatically with the new information and instantly linking to the home address. The final step in this system is to outfit the automated collection vehicles with software and hardware that enables the truck to record each pickup at every address being serviced.
RFID allows haulers to track participants. “It adds visibility,” says Monestier. “It saves money by allowing you to target education programs and marketing. Technology is vital to the program.”
A Better Way
Technology is vital for managing public collection. Bigbelly started 14 years ago with the idea that there has to be a better way to manage public waste space, says Leila Dillon, vice president of marketing.
Their solution to overflow and knowing when to collect is solar-powered waste compactors. “They handle five times the amount of waste, are enclosed to avoid overflows, and feature lights to signal pickup: the red light means full; the green light means not full,” explains Dillon.
She says this technology has led to 80% efficiency gains, which they’ve documented by capturing the diversion rate. “Some colleges require it,” points out Dillon, adding that some haulers use the historical data to predict scheduling needs.
The previous solution for Bigbelly customers, most of whom are municipalities (cities and towns, college campuses, corporate campuses, stadiums, and amusement parks), was a cloud-based system that reported the fullness level through the cloud so that trucks weren’t sent out needlessly. This also eliminates overflow, keeps pests out, and reduces collection time.
But the solar-powered compactor can reduce collections even further because sensors trigger compaction and send a signal at 80% capacity—or less. “Some customers want to know at 60%,” says Dillon. “You can change the threshold.”
Some customers save 90% (98% in Rhode Island) of all costs—labor and fuel—due to less frequent pickup, but other customers still pick up as often and some unions require pickup daily. “Each city has different priorities. New York City has a rat abatement program; they like the containment aspect. Some want a beautiful city and environment, but most customers want efficiency.” On average, this system leads to an 80% reduction in collections.
ADA-compliant, it works for automated lift or manual collection. Dillon says they’re durable, too. “Trucks and bikes run into them, people stand on them . . . They’re street tough and can take a lot of beating.” She estimates their street life at 5–10 years, although she says several customers swap out a fleet after 5 years to get the new advancements.
They’re also available in different configurations; there are compactors for high-traffic areas and non-compactors for low-traffic areas. “All do smart reporting, but if they don’t fill up as quickly, you don’t need as much capacity,” elaborates Dillon. “One size does not fit all.”
One of the benefits of the Bigbelly container is that it hides Wi-Fi hot spots inside, giving Wi-Fi to an entire park and adding bandwidth at the street level. “Many cities can’t provide enough bandwidth,” says Dillon. “A small cell is a mini tower where needed; it can be put inside Bigbelly and generate enough power to provide bandwidth.” Every city must have public waste containers; she thinks this is a better use of that real estate. “It’s a hot topic.”
Another hot topic is the idea of charging by weight. However, Monestier says, “the scales on the trucks aren’t there yet.” Even if they were calibrated weekly, he envisions disputes. “What else can we do? For now, we use the size of the container to incentivize [diversion].”
His wish for the future is sensors to recognize organic matter and container options such as ventilation and a floor grate for inorganic composting. “You need air to circulate to prevent rotting and maggots. You could keep material above the moisture with ventilation on the side—but it’s a huge extra cost.”
Greenway says that a charcoal filter on top, allowing air flow so the contents dry out, can reduce odor for organics, and some containers have vented airflow to combat smell.
Ultimately, the best way to extend the life of a landfill is through diversion. However, just because a municipality wants to recycle organics doesn’t mean the residents do, Greenway observes. “It’s easier to onboard businesses.” Multi-unit dwellings are especially hard, he says, but many implement programs to encourage participation.
Similarly, municipalities are doing education on the benefits of source-separating organics for collection, hiring environmental coordinators and green teams to spread the word. Recycling of organic waste is mandatory in California as one step toward achieving its aggressive recycling and greenhouse gas emission goals to combat global climate change.
California disposes of approximately 30 million tons of waste in landfills each year, of which more than 30% could be used for compost or mulch. Organic waste such as green materials and food materials are recyclable through composting, mulching, and anaerobic digestion, which can produce renewable energy and fuel.
Without mandates and regulations, people resist change, Greenway acknowledges. He believes the younger generation buys in before the older generation, but providing accessibility and ease of use are a few ways to establish new habits. Following the lead of role models such as universities also encourages change.
Doing the right thing isn’t always the right financial thing. There are costs involved with organics collection—and challenges. But, Monestier concludes, “it’s the right thing to do. Just because it’s hard, don’t shy away.”