Editor’s note: To add to the waste and recycling industry’s dialogue about food-scrap management, we are presenting a lengthy perspective on the issue that was submitted to our publication by the former head of materials recovery programs for New York City. All opinions are those of the author.
The role of the collector is frequently overemphasized with regard to the ultimate success or failure of an organics recovery program. This is especially true when the collections are instituted and performed by a government agency. Government services are far more vulnerable to political forces than the private sector, and government services are often targeted by organized political groups that represent political constituencies that have evolved over time to advocate on behalf of particular causes.
If services are provided privately, the generator is likely to pay directly for the program’s cost based upon its level of efficiency. To the degree to which participation is high and in compliance with the program’s set-out requirements, program costs will be lower and therefore the generator will pay less for service. There is a direct feedback between generator compliance and the program’s cost. Government operated programs are much more likely to be subject to political factors than market forces, in which case there is less of a direct feedback loop between the collector and the generator with regard to cost. Because of this fact, government programs have fewer options for addressing poor generator participation than programs operated privately.
While the private or commercial operator of a source-separation organic program can utilize such options as increased charges or refusal to service a particular stop to bring the generator’s compliance into greater alignment with program requirements, these same options are not easily available to government operated programs. While such options may be operationally available to government, the factors that will be weighed in, determining whether or not to institute them, will be primarily political rather than whether or not they may or may not be operationally feasible.
Government’s toolbox to motivate compliance is limited basically to public education and enforcement. Public education is usually the first option chosen by government because it seeks in the least confrontational manner to educate the public into compliance through appealing to each citizen’s civic duty – this is the carrot rather than the perceived stick. In fact, the last quarter century of recycling in America can be seen as a vast experiment in social engineering to evaluate the ability of public education alone to motivate significant behavioral change within the anonymous confines of individual households and businesses. Whether or not this experiment has been a success or a failure varies greatly, depending upon the community and the various constituencies that make up each community. I will leave it to the reader to make up their own mind with regard to the verdict for their own community and themselves. However, I would just point out that to find the evidence for making that determination one need look no further than the street on which you live on the day of recycling set-out or even closer to home in front of your own home.
Knowledge varies within household
To paraphrase H.L. Mencken, many of the most zealous crusaders for recycling are often those with a trash can full of recyclables. A possibility I discovered quite serendipitously when we conducted a series of local random waste characterization studies in the early 1990s, as part of a backyard composting pilot study. During which we collected resident’s trash and recyclables in the pilot area between 4 am and 6 am prior to regular refuse and recycling service which began at 6am. Once the samples by household were collected and sorted, the data by household was used to determine the actual impact of supplying backyard compost bins to households, rather than just projecting diversion, as many municipalities have done, based solely upon the number of compost bins supplied to individual households and the assumed capture rate per household.
Neighborhood activities which were followed by urgent and frantic phone calls to my office to explain that what I might find as a result should be understood properly as the result of the failures of family members and not a lack of recycling enthusiasm on the part of the family member I was most familiar with through their advocacy. I only bring this up because the real failure on the part of this “recycling enthusiast” was his/her failure to understand that each household contains one or more similar reluctant recyclers and in that regard his/her household was not at all unique.
Enforcement is an option but again one that is pursued reluctantly by any party whose relationship basis is anything but purely commercial, in which case denial of service is the most powerful motivator available to a commercial service provider. The predominant perception on the part of participants in anything but commercial relationships is that the generator is doing the collector a favor, perhaps even the collectors own work, by participating as instructed; and not that they as participants through their compliance are ensuring the program’s success and lowering operating costs or taxes. Municipal charges for such services are rarely tangible to the average participant, as the costs for such programs are borne by the general tax funds rather than being called out separately and explicitly.
What is the role of the collector? As indicated above the role of the collector varies depending upon what type of entity is instituting and operating the organics source-separation program. For the private sector, the responsibility of the collector may stop simply at the point of providing the infrastructure that will allow all of the affected stops to participate, along with some basic guidelines or details as to how each stop is expected to participate or rather to set out the targeted materials on the day of collection.
While the private collector may have some additional responsibilities for reminding the pool of participants of their duties in maintaining the success of the organics source-separation program, once the effort is instituted, the primary responsibility for compliance falls upon the generator. This is not the case with government instituted and operated programs. Again, this is due to the very different nature of the relationship between government and its citizens, taxpayers, and commercial companies and their customers. What some on the political right often describe pejoratively as the “nanny state” is illustrated in the dramatic difference between the manner in which a government collector, in comparison to a private collector, must handle the noncompliance of members of its customer base. While the categorization of such treatment as babying citizens is usually associated with one political party rather than another, this is not the case when it comes to recycling, which knows no political affiliation and where such kid glove treatment is instead universally recommended and applied to citizens by members of both political parties when it comes to citizens’ recycling compliance.
Infrastructure does not equal participation
A frequently overheard refrain in government from both environmental advocates and elected officials with regard to source-separation programs is “if you build it, they will come.” While this bit of wisdom borrowed from a Hollywood fantasy may be true in such instances as when a program is created and deployed based upon demand in the commercial sector, where customers then have little or no choice but to comply, as compliance is the basis of continued service provision, it has little or no applicability in government instituted and operated programs.
While it is indeed a simple truth that without a program being instituted no one will have the opportunity to participate, having the opportunity to participate does not simply translate into participation, especially not on the scale necessary to ensure cost-effective program provision. At some point, one must also ask what is to be done when, after being implemented, not enough or too few participate or properly comply? This is the situation in which government can sometimes find itself when collection programs have been instituted to meet social, environmental or political goals, which to be successful in meeting those goals require robust participation by a substantial portion of the population served; but the program has been instituted before a broad consensus of public opinion has adopted those new requirements as a social norm and has yet to embody those norms in their daily habits.
The questions that then arise for the collector are how to sufficiently motivate the population served to overcome the lack of robust participation and ultimately how long to maintain such programs, which as a result of insufficient participation are running less efficiently than desired? For government instituted and operated programs the answer is almost always that the lack of compliance is due to a failure of public education and therefore more public education is needed. Public education can take many forms depending upon the size and financial resources of the particular political subdivision, from frequent multi-media reminders to the public of both why and how to fully participate, to a simple flier left at each stop that has the same educational goals. However, while many cities, counties and states have invested heavily over the last three decades in public education campaigns to increase public participation in various recycling programs, to date, there is little to no evidence to demonstrate that funds spent on public education have any impact upon actual recycling participation. This may not be that there hasn’t been an impact but rather that it is extremely difficult to demonstrate a statistical causality or even a correlation between the two. Failure to make either illustrates why it is frequently difficult in a competitive funding environment to secure public education funds.
The ‘yuck’ factor and contamination
By now it should be fairly well understood that even in what Candide’s Dr. Pangloss would describe as the “best of all possible worlds,” public education and promotion can encourage only marginal increases to both the quantity and quality of source-separated food waste set-out. This is due to a number of factors but chief among them being the “yuck” factor which inhibits a greater volume of participation from participants due to their possible revulsion to the putrescible nature of their food waste, and the reliance by participants upon plastic bags as a non-organic kitchen-to-curb conveyance mechanism for participation.
One reduces active participation and the other contributes to greater contamination and greater challenges for the processor. In dense urban environments the plastic bag situation is further exacerbated in multi-family dwellings wherein tenants will use all varieties of plastic bags as the mode of transport and containment for their source-separated food waste, from their apartment to the internal point of aggregation prior to curbside set-out by their building’s superintendent; possibly in yet another larger plastic bag. Though “biodegradable bags” are sometimes suggested as a possible solution to this contamination problem, such a suggestion in addition to adding a new cost burden for consumer/participants fails to understand the fundamental change that must take place in the processing of post-consumer source-separated food waste, if such programs are to be successful.
From the collector’s standpoint, when program participation is less than required to maintain affordable program costs, the question is, how long can the costs associated with this level of inefficiency be tolerated? The answer is simple, at least for government operated programs: as long as they can be afforded both politically and financially. While funds are plentiful and the program is looked upon favorably by both the public and the press, inefficiency can be tolerated. However, should for any reason either the financial situation change significantly or the public’s belief and political support for the program diminish – despite their demonstrated lack of support via less than full active participation curbside – then what was formerly tolerable will quickly become intolerable.
The possibility of the financial situation changing can be anticipated by anyone who has had any experience operating a less-than-efficient program beyond the time when funds were plentiful. Eventually, high program operating costs will subject a program to suspension or elimination. For government programs, the diminishment of public and political (particularly from the legislative branch) support can occur quite quickly when a program’s high operating costs force program operators (the executive branch) to hold participants more accountable for their lack of compliance through mandatory enforcement. In a volatile political atmosphere, nothing is less sustainable than a program that requires participants to actively participate daily in practice, rather than just in theory, and is backed up by tangible enforcement efforts.
The collector is also under constant economic pressure to operate in the most efficient manner possible. The failure of participants to set out the volumes needed to achieve sufficient efficiency cause collectors – and the designers of the collection programs they operate – to incorporate or allow additional organics to be targeted. To do so, the collector may allow the addition of more problematic materials like yard waste, soiled paper products, diapers, biodegradable plastic packaging and other more challenging items.
While adding all varieties of organics to collections to increase tons and reduce the cost per ton for collection is understandable, doing so increases the processing complexities of receiving and handling the organics post-collection. Each alteration at the program design and implementation phase has an impact upon the complexity of collection and processing and limits the potential end-use outlets available for the feedstock being produced and its marketability. Program designers need to be fully cognizant of the interrelationship that exists between the organic items targeted and their ultimate effect on collection, processing and marketing.