Director of Australian Environemental Consultancy, MRA Consulting Group

Commercial Organics Recycling - Success Some Way Off

BLOG: Mike Ritchie on Australia’s Potential to Boost Organic Waste Recycling

MRA’s Mike Ritchie explains that organics recycling, both at the household and commercial level, represent a significant opportunity for resource recovery.

When people think of recycling, the first thing that usually comes to mind is commingled recycling. And more often that not, it is the one happening at the household level, at the kerbside. However, MRA’s Mike Ritchie explains that organics recycling, both at the household and commercial level, represent a significant opportunity for resource recovery.

Food and Garden Organics (FOGO) diversion from landfill is one of the cheapest global warming abatement options. Admittedly organics to landfill and the resulting methane emissions, represent only 2.7% of Australia’s current greenhouse gas footprint (534MT/yr). But it is a relatively easy and cheap abatement option. Certainly cheaper than Clean Coal (were that ever to work).

So the question is why isn’t it prioritised by Government?

It doesn’t matter if the organics are recovered for compost, MWOO (Municipal Waste Organic Output from Advanced Waste Treatment facilities (AWTs). I will write about MWOO in a separate article) or Anaerobic Digestion (AD).

The important thing is to stop it decomposing into methane in landfills. While well run landfills can capture a significant component of the methane, best estimates are that Australia’s total landfill stock captures no more than 50% of the methane over the life of the landfill emissions. Keeping organics out of landfill also has the added benefit of making the landfill much easier and cheaper to operate. Less odour, less leachate and fewer gas capture costs.

Don’t get me wrong. There will always be a place for well run landfills capturing the gas from organic decomposition. For starters it takes 40 years for organics to fully decompose. That means organics put in the ground since 1979 are still decomposing to methane which needs to be captured. Plus there will always be communities or households for whom FOGO is not easy or appropriate.

But the broad principle of diverting FOGO waste back to our degraded agricultural soils as compost, is so obvious it is negligent that we are not doing more of it.

Domestic FOGO
The simplest way to divert household organics from landfill is via a 3 bin FOGO system. There is movement on that front across Australia. Melbourne and Adelaide were the early adopters. The WA Government has just announced a requirement for 3 bin systems in metro Perth. Regional NSW has stepped up to the plate with FOGO rollouts across NSW.

But Sydney has only one Council out of 40, doing FOGO. Brisbane has no FOGO services (Ipswich allows food in the Garden Organics bins but few people use it or know about it). Hopefully the new landfill levy in QLD will drive a reassessment of FOGO collection services for households, by Councils.

To make this happen we need to encourage Councils to include some options for commercial food collection in domestic contracts. There are lots of issues around probity and cost allocation but they can be overcome.

What about commercial organics?
Why did I spend so long looking at household FOGO in an article about commercial organics?

Because it is significantly cheaper to piggyback commercial food collections off a domestic FOGO service. The marginal cost of flipping the bakery or restaurant organics bin is very small if you are already in the street doing FOGO collections for households.

It is much more expensive to do a “milk run” for commercial organics. The costs per lift of an organics bin via a dedicated “milk run” truck can be double or triple the cost of collecting the food in a garbage bin. Confused? The reason is that garbage bins are ubiquitous. They are everywhere so if you are a garbage truck you can do lots of lifts per hour, spreading the fixed costs over lots of lifts. On the other hand food generators (e.g. cafes and restaurants) are about 1/8th as dense as general waste generators (e.g. car yards, hardware stores etc).

Therefore the truck collects fewer bins and has to drive further between lifts. The cost per lift reflects that. The potential savings in disposal (landfill for general waste vs composting or AD for food) doesn’t offset the additional costs of collection. Hence the net charge for collecting a restaurant food bin can be significantly higher than collecting a garbage bin. Café and restaurant owners are rational business people.

That is why food only recycling collections are generally purchased by businesses that want the green credentials or are really big food generators (for whom a truck can do lots of lifts in one location). Mum and Dad restaurants and cafes tend not to want to spend big $ for food bin collections (not to mention the costs in labour of keeping the food separate back-of-house).

So lets not blame the café and restaurant owners nor the waste collection companies. They are all acting rationally given the market costs and benefits. Collect/Landfill remains considerably cheaper than Separate/Collect/Compost for most businesses.

Europe and the USA have overcome these issues with regulatory and pricing intervention. In the EU it is essentially a blanket ban on “unprocessed” organic waste going to landfill (whether and how this is enforced, depends on the country). You must compost it, AD it or AWT it before you can landfill it. That encourages more source separation and reuse in agriculture (compost) or energy generation (AD).

Many American cities have introduced local laws requiring organics generators over a certain size, to have organics collection systems. For example, many west coast jurisdictions require restaurants and cafes generating more than 300kg/wk of food waste to have a food collection service. It is up to the collector to decide whether to compost it or AD it.

Very few such controls exist for commercial food in Australia. That is one reason why we are so bad at commercial food recycling.

Big companies such as Woolies and Coles have stepped up to the plate with their own food waste programs but it is lonely at the front. A few Councils subsidise commercial food collections and processing.

Ultimately, Government must fix this market failure. It is Governments who have set the various State Waste Targets and Governments who commit to Paris Agreements for greenhouse gas abatement. If the market can’t fix food waste given the existing market and regulatory settings (which it can’t) then it is up to Government to change the frame. Industry is keen to invest but can’t.

Over to you Government.

As always, we welcome your feedback on this, or any other topic on ‘The Tipping Point’.

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