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Organics program leaders share lessons learned

Waste Expo 2024 in Las Vegas featured multiple sessions focusing on food waste and other organics diversion. | Randy Andy/Shutterstock

Detailed data, strong community ties and a willingness to try something new are essential ingredients for a successful organics diversion program, speakers from across the continent said earlier this month. 

Multiple sessions at Waste Expo in Las Vegas dug into best practices, lessons learned and other details of local composting programs. Organics bring their own twists to several issues familiar to the broader recycling sector, panelists said, including sanitation concerns, convenience and simple bad habits on the part of property managers and the public at large. 

Jonathan Levy, project director at environmental consulting firm Go2Zero Strategies in California, recalled finding nine dumpsters behind one property during a site assessment; several were marked recyclables and food scraps, yet all but one were actually destined for the landfill.

“When it comes to waste, you have to do a lot more work,” he said. 

The refrain for getting started is data, data, data. 

“Nothing that you do that you don’t measure will ever be successful, so measure what you do,” said Gary Bilbro, director of U.S. sales at EcoSafe Zero Waste, which provides compostable film products and training and is based in British Columbia. 

Data has a role to play at every stage of a new organics-focused effort, said Meredith Danberg-Ficarelli, cofounder and CEO of WATS, a software startup that aims to help lower the carbon footprint of commercial buildings. At the start, detailed data can help identify specific streams in a community’s garbage that could be diverted from the landfill, for example. Then data can help refine effective messaging and track impact. 

“Data matters, I can’t say this enough,” said Patti Toews, sustainability and waste management solutions provider at APTIM, a Louisiana company providing sustainability-focused solutions for government and commercial customers.

Along the same lines, targeted, tailored communication with residents and civic leaders is essential, several said – “No more blanket messaging,” Toews declared. 

“You have to be out there, you have to be involved with the city and county,” said Kirk Steed, general manager at Recology, which processes tens of thousands of tons of compost annually in California. A strong community relationship helps address contamination and other issues and build trust in the system, he said. 

“All organics facilities should be advocating for more diversion of organics,” Steed added. “I think it is our responsibility.” 

Finally, it’s common for an organics program to require a leap into the unknown. Bilbro urged anyone interested in starting a program to lean on others in the industry, “and if you’re not sure you’re ready, do a pilot.” 

That’s exactly what the city of Durham, North Carolina, did in partnership with Duke University’s Center for Advanced Hindsight, said Wayne Fenton, director of the city’s solid waste management department. Durham’s residential composting collection program started with 80 households in 2022 and expanded to 180 last August, using resident surveys and checking for contamination at several stages to track its success. 

The pilot’s technically over, Fenton said, but the city has kept it going because residents have been so enthusiastic – and good at avoiding contamination. “We had no one drop out,” he said, and others are asking when they can join. 

Bigbelly, known for its solar-powered trash and recycling compactors, is also wading into the organics space with a high-tech, non-compacting compost receptacle already in use in New York City, said Jeff Satwicz, vice president of product strategy and innovation. 

An urban organics program needs high participation and low contamination and needs to be cost-effective and impervious to pests, he said, especially if it’s multifamily. The receptacles achieve this when they’re placed every few blocks, track their contents for efficient pickups and unlock with a smartphone app. With minimal advertising, 20,000 residents have been using them so far. 

“You can be up and running in weeks,” Satwicz added. 

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