Knowing yourself is important. It’s important for young adults as they try to figure out their place in the world. But it’s also important for campuses as they adopt recycling and sustainability efforts. It’s important to know yourself and to know that what worked for someone else won’t necessarily work for you. Learn from their success. Share your own successes. But understand that with all of the information sharing, you still need to adopt stuff to suit your own needs.
Every campus is a little bit different. Ironically, if you break a campus down into individual parts (e.g. traditional dormitory-style residence halls, apartment/suite style residence halls, faculty offices, departmental offices, cash-operations dining, dining commons, etc.), each individual part is actually pretty darn similar. But what makes each campus completely unique is the combination of parts, scale of the parts, the overall academic philosophy, and the fundamental business model of the campus. For the next few blog posts, I am planning to focus on some of the biggest differences and some fundamental changes those differences bring:
For the purposes of this blog, I am not limiting this to strictly the % of students living in campus owned housing, but also including as residential campuses those campus-centric areas for which the preponderance of full-time students living off campus are living concentrated in apartments immediately surrounding the campus; apartments that are geared specifically to students and that would likely not exist without the campus.
One of the obvious differences between residential and commuter campuses is the difference in residence hall waste. Residence halls and the concentrated apartment complexes immediately surrounding campus are a huge portion of the waste shed of a residential campus. They are a big enough portion of the campus waste stream that seasonal variations in the residence halls can impact the overall recycling percentages of the campus. On a residential campus, you see huge spikes in total campus cardboard generation when students move in at the start of the fall semester and huge spikes in the generation of everything else when students move out at the end of the spring semester. Those move-in and move-out spikes can become almost the entire focus of your program that time of year on a residential campus. At a commuter campus, those spikes are hardly a blip on the overall campus total, though they might exist for the handful of residence halls (if any) that exist on campus. The bigger spikes on a commuter campus tend to be around office moves and retirement-related office cleanouts. And without residence halls demanding all the attention, there is often a chance to pay more attention to office-related diversion opportunities.
But having residence halls means more than just the waste generated in the residence halls. Having residence halls typically means having a residential life department, an important part of the co-curricular education on a residential campus. As such, for many residential-campus recycling programs, educational efforts in the residence halls are a major component of the campus recycling program. This typically includes not just information about how to recycle in the residence halls, but is also one of the primary vehicles for overall promotion about recycling and sustainability. Presentations at floor/hall meetings are often a major component of recycling and sustainability education at a residential campus. On a commuter campus, most of your students do not live in residence halls and are not exposed to that residential life experience. Thus you must either find other ways of delivering that educational and promotional information, do more partnering with the local municipal or county government to deliver that message, or drop those facets of your program.
Another huge aspect of a residential vs. commuter campus is foodservice. On a residential campus, the preponderance of your dining comes via one or more dining hall(s), with most students eating multiple meals per day in a dining hall. If you do not yet have a composting program, food waste from the dining hall(s) may be one of the biggest remaining slugs of readily-divertable material in your residential-campus waste stream. Although more is happening with to-go dining on all campuses, dining-services-related food waste on residential campus is generally concentrated in the dining halls. Thus, the majority of food waste can be captured from a few collection locations. Residential-campus dining is also typically based on a buffet-style or food-station-based all-you-can-eat dining model. As a result, especially at the beginning of the year, there is likely to be some excess food waste as students adjust to this style of dining and their eyes start to better align to the size of their stomachs. As a result, there may be numerous opportunities on a residential campus to affect food waste generation by looking at how food is served (portion size, dining hall layout, trayless dining, etc.).
On a commuter campus, a significant number of students may not eat a meal on campus at all. Of those that do, lunch is typically the most frequently eaten meal on campus, and is generally eaten from some sort of cash operations, whether a café run by Dining Services or food-court style private to-go enterprises operating on campus. Often these meals are taken to-go and eaten elsewhere. From a diversion standpoint, the food package may be as important as the food item itself. The fact that food items are taken and eaten elsewhere also limits the number of concentrated areas from which food waste is generated. However, if there is a primary café or food court is located in the campus center, such that it makes sense to add compost collection there, it may open opportunities to offer composting in the other meeting rooms in the campus center.
Another significant difference between residential and commuter campuses regards student clubs. I have worked with residential campuses where meetings of student groups routinely took place at 9pm because that was the only time they could meet among all of their other on-campus activities. Conversely, I have worked with commuter campuses where the campus is a ghost town after dark and at 9pm, you are more likely to encounter a feral chicken or a wild coyote than a college student. So, if your plan for success involves a lot of late night meetings of the environmental club, know that on some campuses that is likely to be a non-starter.
Another aspect of a commuter campus that cannot be overlooked is traffic flow to and from campus. The majority of students are coming to and leaving from campus every day. Depending on how many of them are doing so via public transportation, vehicle access around campus can be a real issue between classes. As a result, scheduling the pickup of containers and responding to service calls can take on a degree of difficulty that is not seen at most residential campuses. Timing a pickup wrong can lead to crews and vehicles stuck in traffic for an hour longer than expected. But this congestion can also present opportunity. If you are advocating for the use of low-speed/neighborhood electric vehicles for service staff as opposed to traditional vehicles that are too-often left idling on campus, the added congestion of a commuter campus may present an opportunity. Often these low-speed/neighborhood electric vehicles can maneuver through pathways or road shoulders than traditional vehicles cannot, presenting advantages on a commuter campus that may not be as much of an advantage on a residential campus and leading to a higher adoption rate on a commuter campus than you would see on a residential campus.
With so many differences between residential and commuter campuses, it is important to recognize that each of these campuses likely have different priorities and different pathways to success. As we often tell the young adults on our campuses, focus less on what other people do and focus more on achieving your own potential.]]>
Please, for the sake of all that you consider sacred, when you start to move out do not leave the pile of stuff that you are planning to take home with you unattended next to the trash dumpster or the donation pile. It will not end well.
I know you have to go get the car, or go back up to the room to get more stuff. Just, please, please, for your sake, and for the sake of the person running the solid waste and recycling on your campus, please find somewhere else to leave your stuff when you do so.
Yes, moving out is hard. Yes, parking is really really horrific this time of year. I can’t sugar coat that for you. And yes, I know you are in a rush because you are about to be stuck on a highway, freeway, or back road with thousands of other families all moving out the same time you are. You have my condolences for how much of a pain this process is. I have done it myself and I have been a part of that process for decades. And I know that if you hurry, you will get out of that mess several car lengths earlier. I appreciate all of that.
But for the love of all that you hold holy, I beg of you, do NOT leave the pile of stuff that you are planning to take home with you (you know the pile that invariably has a family heirloom in it) unattended next to the trash dumpster or donation pile while you go to get the car. I know that at the time it will seem like an OK idea. I know that it seems like the only patch of land that is not covered by someone else’s pile of stuff. I know that you will tell yourself that you are only going to leave it for a few minutes. But it won’t be. It will be more than a few minutes and a lot can happen in that time.
Unfortunately, you are not the only one who is busy and for whom this is chaotic. The crew that is picking up the trash has likely been working overtime all week. If yours is like most campuses, they have had to haul an extra month’s worth of trash in the past few days. Do you see that mound of trash bags, broken furniture and cracked plastic desk organizers, the pile that is burying the trash bin or dumpster? They have had to haul that from every residence hall all week. By the time they get to your hall, they have seen too many nice things deliberately thrown away. I know that you think it is easy discern your pile of wanted items and family heirlooms from the tons and tons of stuff they have seen deliberately thrown away or left for charity over the past few days. But I can assure you from first-hand perspective, it is not. The only way with certainty to tell the difference is to not leave your pile of stuff anywhere near the trash pile or the donation pile.
In more than 20 years of doing this, I cannot even begin to recount how many Mays I or the people working with me have had to comb through tons and tons of donation items looking for a family heirloom that was left too close to the donation pile. I cannot even begin to recount how many times we have had to dump the trash in a special area to sort through it looking for something that was not intended to have been thrown away. Sometimes we found it, sometimes we didn’t. But either way, it never went well for anyone.
So please, I want you to be able to get home as smoothly as possible. I want you to get through this quickly so you can get to the front of the line on the highway, freeway, or back road and get to wherever you are going as soon as possible. I want you to begin a wonderful summer vacation or exciting start to the rest of your life. I don’t want you to have to waste any time yelling in disbelief at the fact that you came back and found your pile of unattended items gone. I do know how much you have paid for tuition over the past year and you deserve for the year to end better than standing in a parking lot yelling at a custodian or campus administrator about missing stuff. But for you to get the smooth trip home that you deserve, I beg of you: do not leave the stuff you are taking home with you unattended anywhere near the trash or donation pile.
Wishing you the best for a safe and speedy trip home,
Not everyone knows how the system works. Not everyone knows where every closet or lounge in the residence hall is located. That’s easy to overlook because your student residents have lived there continually for the last 9 months or so. Some of your housekeeping staff may have done this every year for half of their lifetime or more. But keep in mind that you have a lot of family and friends coming to help your residents move out. Often, it is those family and friend helpers that are given the task of bringing unwanted items down to the donation area, recycling area, or trash bin. And many of those helpers are not at all familiar with either the residence hall or the system. Some may never have been inside the residence hall. Some may have only been to a couple areas or only been there a couple times since the start of school.
Put yourself in their shoes. If you didn’t already know everything, could you figure out how the system works and where to put stuff?
If you want to test this, partner up with a peer school near you. Go to one of their residence halls you have never been to before. Now, try to figure out where every unwanted item from a student room should go. Amid the labyrinth of unmarked doors, try to figure out which one is the basement trash room or basement lounge. If you struggle, imagine how much people struggle on your own campus. Imagine trying to figure it all out with the added degree-of-difficulty of knowing that you are double parked, knowing that you have to rush to avoid the traffic jam on the road out of town, knowing that you are rushing to catch a flight, or knowing that residence life staff is outside the door insisting that you hurry because they are closing the entire building for the season in five minutes.
To help ensure that unwanted items end up in the right area, you might want to think about adding extra signage for the end of the year. If you’re standing in the middle of the hallway, is there a sign directing you where to go with unwanted items, with recyclables, or with residual trash? How about when you get to the base of the stairs or when you get off the elevator? Is there a sign there directing you which way to go?
If you don’t have signs, how are people supposed to figure out where to go? Is there an app for that? Are you relying on telepathy or their attunement to the Force? Is the campus that your students are moving out of secretly Hogwarts, where people just have ways of knowing those things? Are you planning to have volunteers to help direct people? If your answer to the above questions is no, how are the rest of us Muggles supposed to figure all this out without signs?
If you are putting up extra signage, you might want to think about doing it earlier rather than later – before any student workers and volunteers that you have get busy with finals and disappear, and before any housekeeping or custodial staff get so busy with Commencement stuff that they cannot help either. My experience is that the spring flies by faster than you realize and that you don’t have as much time as you might think to get everything done.
Now, I won’t lie to you. Even with signs, there are going to be people that, for whatever reason, put stuff in the wrong place. Even with signs, the last few hours and days of the school year will still be chaotic and involve overflowing bins, stressed out families, and staff from your housekeeping and residence life departments that are stressed out and spread too thin. But the less effort that you put into showing people where you do want them to put their unwanted stuff, the more likely they are to put it somewhere you don’t want it to go.
For more about end-of-year move outs, check out these other blog posts: The end is near (part 1), The move-out surge begins (part 2), and Move-out day part 3.]]>
Too often, we measure these things by the snow globe approach. We draw an imaginary bubble around a person or a geographic area and we measure the waste, emissions, or other items of consideration within that “snow globe” bubble. But when we do that, we have to be exceedingly careful, in a way that I don’t think we currently are. Under this snow globe approach, the easiest way to reduce waste or emissions is to transfer that waste or emissions to someone else’s snow globe. The metrics by which we measure recycling, waste reduction, and sustainability have become the equivalent of the “Don’t blame me, I voted for Ross” bumper sticker from the post-1992 presidential election. If we continue down this path, at some point our response to flaws with the status quo becomes less about developing real solutions and more about attempting to absolve ourselves of personal responsibility.If we want to improve the status quo, we can’t live in a bubble. We need to look at our net impact. Let’s think about leaving the imaginary invisible bubbles to Sue Richards and the folks over at Marvel Comics. What are the impacts caused by our actions, regardless of whose bubble they are in?
One of my favorite examples of this issue was a zero waste event that I heard promoted a few years back. The message was essentially: “We are not going to have trash or recycling bins at the event. For any trash that you generate at the event, please bring it to one of the trash bins outside the perimeter of the event.” They then declared the event a zero waste success without anyone ever measuring or accepting responsibility for all the extra waste in those perimeter trash bins. The fact of the matter is that they have absolutely no idea how much waste was generated by their event. They only know that by pushing their waste off onto others, no waste was generated at their event. That is a really important distinction.
Unfortunately, this is also not a small problem. The entire recycling industry is suffering right now because of individual efforts to achieve zero waste and flawed methodologies and metrics for achieving success that are based on this snow globe mentality. The metrics by which we measure “zero waste” look only at the bin that we put waste into within our snow globe. It doesn’t look at what happens to the stuff after it ends up in the bin. That happens in someone else’s snow globe. Thus, the best way to achieve zero personal waste is to contaminate the heck out of your recycling bin. After all, who cares what really happens to stuff once it gets picked up, right? As long as it didn’t occur in your snow globe, it’s all good, isn’t it?
Unfortunately, the result is that the MRFs (material recovery facilities – also sometimes called intermediate processing facilities/centers [IPFs or IPCs]) that process recyclable materials and the mills that utilize recycled materials have been getting buried with trash. Years ago, when I talked to MRF operators most discard rates that I heard were well under 5% (i.e. less that 5% of the stuff coming in was residue that had to be screened out and discarded). Now it is not at all uncommon for me to hear discard rates well into the double digits.
But MRFS are not the only place “recyclables” are getting discarded as trash. The mills that utilize our recycled materials to make new products are also getting buried with trash. For years, a big advantage that some foreign mills had was that they had access to cheap labor. As a result, in order to obtain product, they would accept stuff that had contamination rates that were off the charts compared to what domestic mills would accept. In some cases, I was hearing from the folks that had toured and studied some of those foreign mills that as much as 25% of the incoming material was ending up as trash. That meant that domestic mills had to start accepting more contaminated recyclables in order to compete. But if your recyclables are contaminated with trash, that trash does not somehow become recyclable. What it means is the trash has to get screened out and discarded as trash. As one mill that I had been working with stated publicly at a conference, they have seen their trash levels increase 8 times what it was just a few years ago.
Now, some of those trash levels are part of a business plan. There are some haulers, MRFs, and mills who see a competitive advantage by taking heavily contaminated recyclables. I am actually OK with some of that. As I discussed in my bell curve post a while back, there is a whole range of recycling supporters. I think there is a legitimate niche for some recycling companies to take more-contaminated recyclables because they collect from folks who would not otherwise participate in the recycling process. However, what I think is a significant issue is counting that contamination as “recycling.” Doing so leads to bad decision making. If I said I was going to ship 25 tons of trash overseas, I would be vilified. Yet, if I ship 100 tons of contaminated recyclables overseas, to a mill taking heavily-contaminated recyclables, knowing full well that 25% of it is going to be discarded, somehow under our current snow globe model, I would be praised for my high recycling rate. Is that the model of sustainability and zero waste that we want going forward?
When we don’t count the activities going on in other people’s snow globes, what are we measuring? Are we causing people to abandon recycling programs that have a higher rate of stuff actually recycled by the mill into new products, for those that get you higher “diversion rates” by counting residue and outthrows as recycling? Do we give people a false impression that they are closer to their goal of zero waste when all they have really done is transfer waste from one snow globe to another? Are the steps that we are taking to achieve zero waste actually increasing the net generation of trash? I think in too many cases it is. Is that the sustainable future that we want? If you care about recycling and waste reduction, I think you need to look at net recycling and net waste reduction as opposed to the mere waste-transference that is too often occurring now.
And unfortunately, recycling is not the only area of sustainability in which this is occurring. In your quest for carbon neutrality, when was the last lifecycle analysis that you did? Every product and system has several different impacts. To simplify, every system has production impacts, use impacts, and disposal impacts. Have you checked to ensure that your entire system is a net energy savings, or did you only measure the direct use impacts (scope 1 emissions), declare success and move on? In manufacturing terms, is your factory really carbon neutral or did you just move the emissions elsewhere in your supply chain? Based on the metrics often used to report sustainability success, I am worried that we are seeing too much of the latter. What impacts went into producing that energy-saving device? What impacts will happen when it is finally discarded? Do you really know what its impacts are, or do you not care because those impacts are in someone else’s snow globe?
When you choose among sustainability options that have the most impact, what impact are you measuring? Does your choice have the biggest positive net impact, or are you focusing only on your own bubble? If you are not sufficiently measuring net impact, could you eventually find that the choice that you thought was most impactful was really the least impactful from a net-impact perspective. Even worse, could you discover that some of the initiatives that you touted as a success actually had a negative net impact?
There was a study a few years ago that showed the potential ramifications of this lifecycle analysis. As some of my vegan friends love to remind me, it showed that giving up meat in your diet can have more of a GHG emissions impact than driving a hybrid car. And I think that has been helpful. But my worry is that the impact of this study has been insufficient. I worry that it has merely added Meatless Mondays to our lexicon and checklist of green behaviors, but not really changed how we measure our sustainability impact. I worry that too often, we still focus only on our scope 1 and scope 2 emissions but not at the other emissions caused by our actions, because those emissions happen in someone else’s snow globe.
Our environmental issues are too interconnected and often too big to worry about whose snow globe they started in. A big key to a more sustainable future, is really nothing but net.]]>
“Green dining” initiatives often focus on alternatives, but many of the alternatives are at best imperfect.
There are some fantastic paper to-go containers that look like variations of the folded-paper Chinese food take-out containers. These paper containers are often both functional and compostable. And as paper products, in the compost, the offer a source of carbon to offset the nitrogen-rich food waste, which make them attractive to many composting programs. Unfortunately, these do not offer the display qualities that many dining managers and diners have come to expect.
PLA plastic offers display qualities and biodegradability, but has its own share of issues. In a landfill, that biodegradability is not necessarily a desired trait. PLA plastics compost in lab situations, but many real-world composting options have found that PLA, especially thick PLA like clamshells does not break down in a time frame that is compatible with the other food wastes and bulking agents that are going into the compost (and if your food is managed via anaerobic digestion, the digester may not generate enough heat for this PLA to degrade at all). If diners mistakenly place their PLA clamshells into the recycling, that PLA is a contaminant to other plastic recycling efforts. And the feedstocks that go into some PLA plastics are frequently-enough sourced from genetically modified crops or that too-often displace food crops. As such, with PLA, you may find that the student environmentalists that you are trying to appease and that you are counting on to support your “green dining” initiative end up being your biggest opponents.
But what if your “green dining” display package was the PET clamshell that you were already using? Demand for recycled PET plastic has led many plastics recyclers to look beyond just PET soda and water bottles to other forms of PET packaging. One of those emerging PET recycling markets is PET clamshells.
Perhaps surprisingly, one of the biggest barriers to PET clamshell recycling has traditionally been adhesives. Any of you Blues Brothers fans out there can cue up the mental image of Elwood holding the can of spray epoxy stating, “this is glue, strong stuff.” The adhesives traditionally used in the deli stickers that are typically placed on such clamshells are really strong, so much so that it impacts the recyclability of the clamshell itself. But a solution may be almost here. In November 2011, the Canadian grocers Association approved three adhesives designed to facilitate clamshell recycling. So far the results have been successful, enough so that some Canadian cities, including Toronto, Ottawa, and Calgary have added clamshells to their curbside recycling programs. Will those adhesives gain sufficient widespread acceptance in US to allow for a similar growth in clamshell recycling in the near future?
If you are looking for more info about these adhesive issues, more info can be found on the APR website.
However, even if the adhesive issue is resolved, there are some other issues to be cautious of before you rush out and buy a trailerload of new PET clamshells thinking they will be recyclable. Chances are, you are not shipping directly to market. A “market-load” of material is a tractor trailer load (about 44 bales) of material. As I note in my 2-part logistics blog, there are a lot of shipping and storage issues to consider that will limit many schools ability to ship directly to market. That means that your PET clamshell recycling will involve mixing them into your other bottles & cans or single stream recycling.
That leaves you at the mercy of your local recycling program and MRF operator. If they haven’t added PET clamshells to their commingled container or single stream collection, you may be stuck until they do. Having said that, I would encourage you to reach out to your MRF operator, express your interest, and see what you can do in terms of helping them to pilot clamshell recycling.
Even if your MRF says yes, one of the biggest issues with any clamshell collection is going to be the logistics of collection. The whole point of to-go dining is that it is designed to take materials away from a central area. That to me is one of the big advantages to using recyclable PET clamshells over other compostable alternatives. Unless you are just starting out, chances are you already have recycling bins all around campus. To capture compostable clamshells, you have to develop a whole new composting collection system all across campus. That includes establishing composting in some areas in which I am not convinced that collection is viable given the putrescible nature of the other compostable materials, and the frequency with which pickup is needed to avoid pest and odor issues. To capture PET clamshells for recycling, you have to add them to an existing recycling collection infrastructure – I like those chances better for many schools. The biggest issue with the clamshells is going to be volume. They take up a lot of space which means that collection bins will overflow more often or need to be augmented or resized. And clamshells don’t fit well with existing bottle & can restrictive openings (which are typically round holes). To start, until the kinks can be worked out, it might warrant adding another recycling bin at existing collection locations for these oversized recyclable plastics.
Resin identification is likely to be another big issue with PET clamshell recycling. There are a lot of look-alike clear plastics out there that are significant contaminants to PET recycling that are difficult or impossible for most people to visually identify. That includes PVC, PP, and ironically, the proliferation of “green” PLA plastic clamshells is likely to be an issue for PET plastic clamshell recycling.
“But” you protest, “we’ve gotten our campus trained to look at the resin codes on the bottom of bottles, can’t we just tell people to only include #1 plastic clamshells?” To the degree that people look at the resin codes that will definitely help. However, this may be one of those instances in which the resin codes are too general. My understanding is that there are some subsets of PET that are used in clamshells, like PET-G, that are used in some clamshells that have slightly different properties and will impact the recyclability of your clamshells. Some of those issues will materialize on the MRF side of things. But keep in mind that the more difficult these things are for them to sort, and the less collection, processing, and other logistics costs are competitive with virgin resin production, the less likely companies will be to add PET clamshells to their acceptable materials mix and/or the greater the degree to which these things will just be sorted out and discarded as waste at the MRF.
One huge advantage that most campuses have is that they have control over their on-campus foodservice. Thus, if you can work with your MRF operator to find a type (or types) of clamshells that work for them, you can specify their use on campus. That uniformity will be a big plus. To further make this viable, I would begin a dialog with both your local MRF operator and the other major grocery store chains in your area (the other big supplier of clamshells in your region). If you and the grocers can use the same spec container and label, that should give the MRF operator a lot of the uniformity that they will need to be able to market this material (though keep in mind they still have a significant issue figuring out how to sort clamshells out of other recyclables and how to bale this material and how to finance any of the capital equipment required to do either of those things).
A pearl of many to-go dining initiatives is a container that is both compatible with green dining efforts and has the display properties that dining managers are looking for. There is potential that the pearl you are looking for is in the PET clamshell you are already using.]]>
Have you installed a low-flow shower head and sink aerator? Fantastic. Take shorter showers and shut the water off when brushing your teeth? Great. But what about all the other water you are responsible for in your daily life? What about all of the water that goes into providing you with the food and goods that you use every day. In many cases, our indirect water impacts are massive, and something we really need to pay more attention to.
As a quick example, take a cup of coffee. The cup or so of water that you use to brew your coffee might be the least amount of water used in the entire process. There are some great water calculators out there that show how much water goes into making stuff. For the sake of this blog, I’m using the National Geographic water calculator, if for no other reason than because I had the pleasure of working with one of its developers Sandra Postel when we were both working at Mount Holyoke College.
That splash of milk (let’s say it’s a small 1 Tablespoon splash) you take with your coffee? It takes about 55 gallons (880 cups) of water to make a cup of milk. It takes water to irrigate the grain and grasses that feed the cows that make the milk. It takes water for the cows to drink. It also takes some water to process that milk. All totaled, that’s about 55 cups of water that went into making that 1Tbsp splash of milk in your coffee.
Like your coffee a little sweet? 198 gallons (3168 cups) of water went into growing the sugar cane to make each lb of sugar (about 100 tsp). That means that for each tsp of sugar you add to your coffee, you’re using another 31 cups of water.
And even if you take your coffee black, you still have a tremendous impact. It takes about 37 gallons of water (592 cups) to grow and process the 1 cup of coffee that you drink.
So given all of that, the cup of water that you used to brew the coffee, really is the least amount of water used in the process.
But it’s not just agricultural products that increase your water footprint. Water is used in a wide variety of products and we often overlook those impacts. For example, recycling a ton of paper saves about 7,000 gallons of water. That’s the equivalent of running a 2gpm shower head non-stop for almost 2 ½ days straight. Each ton of steel recycled can save 40% of the water used in the production of new steel. And don’t overlook the connection between the energy savings benefits of recycling and water conservation. To give you a sense of this connection, look at this quote from The Energy-Water Nexus, a report by Sandia National Laboratory: “Coal, the most abundant fossil fuel, currently accounts for 52% of U.S. electricity generation, and each kWh generated from coal requires withdrawal of 25 gallons of water. That means U.S. citizens may indirectly depend upon as much water turning on the lights and running appliances as they directly use taking showers and watering lawns.”
Even basic items like clothing requires a significant amount of water. A single cotton t-shirt requires over 700 gallons of water. A single pair of jeans requires 1,800 gallons of water. Now, I have not yet heard of anyone suggesting that they are forgoing their clothes or streaking through the quad to help conserve water and help your campus meet its sustainability goals, but if you do have those stories, please be sure to share them, along with other indirect-water saving success stories.
If you’re looking for more indirect water-use information, some of the following links may help to get you started:
The National Geographic Water Calculator
The hidden water of every-day stuff
The water footprint network (be sure to check out their great links section)
The Sandia National Labs energy-water nexus]]>
Storing stuff, at least commercially, can be harder than you think. When you grow up with a family member that is a borderline hoarder, that can be a surprising realization. After all, if one person can store every issue of Consumer Reports since 1978 just in case they need to look up a review of something they buy at a yard/tag/garage sale (I wish I was making that part up), you would think that a campus of 10,000 could fairly easily store a trailer-load of baled paper in order to ship it to market. But storage might be a bit harder than you think. If you are new to logistics and considering a system that will involve the storage of recyclables, hopefully the following info can give you some items to consider. Just be aware that this list is general and may not be comprehensive enough so be sure to check your local zoning and other regulations.
Before you consider your storage and transfer options, remember that each time you put something down and have to pick it back up, you are adding cost to your system. That includes labor costs, facility costs, and other costs. The more such steps there are between you and your end-market, the more of the resource value of your product will get lost to logistics and the less will be available to come back to you as the generator of the discarded material.
When you start thinking about storage, one of the first things to think about is whether you are looking to store stuff indoors or outdoors. Ultimately, your decision might depend on where you are. If you are in a relatively warm and dry climate, you might not need to consider protecting materials from rain and snow. In those cases, indoor storage might not be necessary. However, if you routinely get enough snow that cars get swallowed by snow banks, you may need to consider some sort of indoor storage, or at least covered storage.
If you need indoor or covered storage, another consideration is whether you are looking at a temporary or permanent structure. Before making any decisions, be sure to check out the building codes and fire codes in your area, as well as your insurer’s policies regarding the different structures. They might be significantly different for “permanent” structures.
Duration of storage is one of the biggest storage-related issues. What you have to store will likely impact how long you can store it. If you have something combustible, fire safety concerns may dictate how long you can store items. If you have something putrescible like food waste, your storage duration is likely to be pretty short. Pest and odor concerns and the impacts thereof on neighbors is likely to keep you from storing that putrescible material for too long.
Another significant consideration is security. Maybe you have something valuable enough that someone might steal it. Or just as importantly (or perhaps more so), for liability and insurance reasons, maybe you want to keep people away from your storage area so that no one gets hurt. If you have 1,000 lb bales of stuff stacked 2-3 bales high, it is not a minor issue if a bale happened to fall on anyone. Fencing that bale storage area or at least posting it as a no trespassing area may be a necessary step to protect you from a really big problem later on.
One of the biggest issues to prepare for is fire-safety related issues. First, check with your local fire department about local zoning and reporting requirements. Some have local zoning criteria that require you to report to them any dumpster or consolidation area over a certain size so they can at least know where such dumpsters are and adequately prepare themselves if there is a fire in that area. Just be prepared that as is the way of things, such zoning typically involves some sort of permit application and accompanying fee.
Fire safety guidelines may also necessitate certain fire safety and suppression requirements on site as well. For any permanent structure, that likely includes a fire alarm and sprinkler system. Don’t overlook the impact this can have on the cost of a project. I have seen million dollar projects in which the majority of the cost was related to the fire suppression and alarm systems.
However, even temporary or outdoor storage sites should have certain fire protection and suppression equipment. That includes radios or cell phones for crews to report fires, fire extinguishers (note that you also likely need an extinguisher for each vehicle on site), pikes or poles to separate smoldering material from other combustible materials; and verifiable training and protocols regarding what to do in the event of a fire (including notification, evacuation, etc.). Just remember that your two most important priorities should always be notifying the fire department and getting everyone out of the area safely.
Whether or not you will be considered a transfer station may also be an important consideration. Many areas allow for, or are at least silent about, “consolidation areas” on a campus – a place where you can site a central roll-off, compactor, or baler – provided that such consolidation area is on campus, under a certain size threshold, and accepting only campus material. However, in other regions, or if you take any material from off campus, such areas may be considered full scale transfer stations which may trigger a whole host of other inspection and permitting requirements. The difference between a storage area and a transfer station can seem pretty minor, so it is important to note differences. I know roll-off truck operators who had permission to store a load of stuff in their truck at their shop overnight but who later got dinged for a transfer station violation because they made the mistake of lowering the roll-off box off the back of the truck. Nothing left or went into the roll-off box, but the minute it touched the ground and then was hoisted back onto the truck, that site got considered a transfer station.
Another consideration regarding your site has to do with the impacts of your site on the surrounding area. What could be coming off of your site that needs to be managed in order to minimize the impacts on your neighbors. One of those considerations is litter. What do you have at your storage site that could blow around, and potentially blow onto a neighbor’s site? What do you have for screening, both vegetative and fencing to prevent that from happening? Another consideration is runoff. Whether it is from an erosion control perspective or the perspective of carrying pollutants in the water, you are likely to need some sort of plan to deal with stormwater. Depending on your size and what you have on site, that may be as little as a vegetative or riparian buffer area, or it may involve something more deliberate and elaborate including swales, trenches, and inlet protection devices.
As I mentioned in part 1 of this post, whether or not something is viably recyclable often comes down to logistics. And whether your goal is increased recycling, sustainability, zero waste, or some combination of all of the above understanding these logistics, and all the steps therein will help you determine which materials and which options should be part of your program.]]>
Hopefully if you have been reading this blog for a while, you recognize that for recycling to happen, you need at least two parties involved. On one end you need someone discarding an item that is willing to divert the item somewhere other than the trash. On the other end, you need a mill that is willing to use the discarded material to manufacture a new product. But for recycling to be viable, there are a lot of steps in between. Those steps are logistics. Logistics involves transportation, storage, processing and all of the other little considerations in between the waste generator and the mill. Understanding a little bit about those logistics can go a long way toward developing successful programs or assessing the viability of systems proposed to you by a salesperson.
Just because a mill wants something and you want to give it to them doesn’t mean that you can viably do so. You have to figure out how to get it to them. To begin to understand these shipping logistics, start at the mill and work backwards.
If you are fortunate enough to live near a mill, you might be able to deliver stuff to the mill in any vehicle. Otherwise, you are probably looking at shipping material to the mill via tractor trailer. That means that you are going to need to have enough stuff to fill a tractor trailer, or you are going to need to work with a broker who can aggregate your smaller loads with someone else’s to get a full tractor trailer load.
If you are going to work in tractor trailer load quantities, one of the first things to consider is the length and maneuvering room required for a truck. Tractor trailers come in a variety of sizes, but the two most common are 48’ trailers or 53’ trailers. Combined with the length of the truck pulling the trailer, you are looking at a maximum length of up to 80 feet. That means that wherever you are going to have your trucker pick up from, you are going to need an area large enough for that up-to-80-foot-long tractor trailer to maneuver. I have seen truckers do amazing things, but if you’re looking at an access area that is essentially a paved donkey path that you can barely fit a box van into, there is a significant likelihood that you are not getting a truck with a 53’ trailer into that space.
Another thing that you have to consider is how you are going to load the trailer. Trailers come in several different heights and configurations. However, none of those is level with the ground. Thus, you are going to have to get stuff off the ground to get it into your trailer. How you do so may depend on what type of trailer you are loading. To over-generalize, there are three main types:
Box trailers are essentially that; a big long rectangular box on wheels. These typically load from the rear. To load a box trailer, you are going to need to not just lift stuff onto the trailer you are going to need to move it from the rear of the trailer to the front. Some truckers will have their own pallet jack inside their trailer to move materials from the rear of the truck to the front. Others will expect you to do that for them. Be sure to communicate clearly with your shipping company to make sure you know which – it will avoid a LOT of headaches, frustration, and confusion when they get there. Box trailers work best when they pick up from a loading dock. Such loading docks are designed to be already-level with the height of the trailer so that materials can be easily loaded from the loading dock right up to the front of the trailer. At least roughly level. However keep in mind that there is a gap between your loading dock and the trailer, and often at least some small height difference between the loading dock and the trailer. As a result, you will need to have something to cover that gap and let you load stuff directly into the trailer, either a hydraulic dock leveler or a dock plate that is put in place manually.
If you do not have a loading dock, there are essentially two other options to loading a box trailer. One is to have a ramp that is sufficiently heavy duty and with a mild enough slope to support whatever sort of forklift or other mechanism you are using to load the trailer. And remember that you will still need some sort of plate or dock leveler to bridge the gap between the end of your ramp and the beginning of the trailer. The other option if you don’t have a loading dock or ramp is a 2-stage loading process in which one person (or crew if you are loading manually) lifts stuff from the ground to the back of the trailer and another person or crew staged inside the trailer moves stuff from the back of the trailer to the front.
A flatbed trailer is essentially a long flat platform on wheels. The advantage of a flatbed trailer is that because it does not have side walls, it can be loaded from the side. If you don’t have a loading dock, that can be an advantage because you can use a forklift to evenly load the trailer without needing a supplemental person with a pallet jack on the trailer to move stuff from the back to the front. However, because a flatbed trailer does not have side walls, it requires a lot of extra strapping to keep your cargo in place and may not be a viable option for shipping looser materials.
A third option is a dump trailer. This is essentially an oversized dump truck and may be your best option for hauling loose materials. Dump trailers often load from the top (like a dump truck or roll-off container). As such, they are most effective in areas where you have a significant grade separation and can build a retaining wall that lets you dump material from a higher elevation down into the dump trailer.
The other big consideration with shipping is weight. Shipping is an entire industry with a lot of variations, but as a general rule, your maximum gross vehicle weight (the weight of the truck and all its cargo) allowed in most areas of the U.S. without special permits is 80,000 lbs or 40 tons. From that, you have to deduct the weight of the truck and the empty trailer. That means from that 40 tons, you are going to lose somewhere in the neighborhood of about 10 tons for the weight of the truck and about 6 tons for the weight of the trailer. Thus, your maximum weight available for cargo is somewhere in the neighborhood of 20-25 tons.If you have a baler that can produce a “mill-direct” 1,000 lb bale, you are looking at about 40-50 bales per truckload, depending on the size of your trailer.
Thus, to ship stuff to a mill, you are looking at needing to have accumulated 20-25 tons of something. That may impact your ability to actually recycle something even if there is a market to do so. Take something like plastic bags which have a viable end-market in the plastic lumber industry. Given that each bag weights only about 4-5 grams, you need a LOT of plastic bags to get to 20 tons (somewhere in the neighborhood of 4 million bags). In all likelihood, that means that you are going to need to work with others if you want to get your bags recycled.
The other thing to keep in mind is the cost of shipping. If your total cargo is in the neighborhood of 20-25 tons, every $100 in shipping cost will add $4-5/ton. If you have something with a really low density (e.g. Styrofoam) or something that you couldn’t bale such that you have a lot of wasted airspace in your cargo, your cost per ton can go up accordingly. As a result, another school that is in closer proximity to a mill may be able to recycle something that you viably cannot. That is not an issue of lack of standardization or green-washing or cosmic conspiracy or any of the other theories I have heard over the years. It is a simple matter of logistics. If you want a pony in a condo, you might have to settle for a toy one.]]>
One reason to think in shades of gray is that it makes incremental steps easier to envision and to take. Sustainability has often focused a lot on big goals: carbon neutrality, zero waste, etc. But we need to recognize that sometimes big goals can be as daunting for some people as they are inspiring for others.
When you think in only black and white terms, change can become almost impossible because the amount of change needed to change from black to white, or white to black is too much, too daunting for some people to visualize. In the interim, too often, no change happens. Could your lofty goals be inhibiting the change you seek?
But what about smaller changes? Look at all the gray swatches in a well-stocked paint store. A mix of gray that is 11% black is almost un-perceivable from a mix that is 10% black. That is a change that most people would be comfortable making. Then what about the difference between 11% and 12%, from 12% to 13%? Each of those small changes is easy to visualize and to accept. Consider building your program with those sorts of incremental changes, and incremental costs. Build momentum. The next step is easier to take after you have taken the first one. Think of it like marathon running, hiking, or biking. If you focus on the 10 miles you have to run, hike, or bike, your task will seem overwhelming. You won’t see how you can do that. But if you focus on taking one more step, or pushing the pedal down one more time, you can do that. And after you have strung together enough “one more times” the next thing you know, you have finished your 10 miles, and may even have enough energy left to go beyond that.
If you have not yet set goals, or if you are struggling to meet your lofty goals, have you considered instead using goals that focus on continuous quality improvement? Sometimes the improvements might be big, and sometimes they might be smaller, but with a continuous improvement goal, you continue to move in the right direction, and you continue to build momentum. You ensure that you don’t have the stagnation, retreat, or questionable accounting that I have found too often accompanies more dramatic goals. Keep in mind too that a continuous quality improvement goal is easier for folks to continuously support over time. You don’t have to be perfect – you just have to be a little bit better than you were yesterday. There are more than 300 million people in the U.S. I think there is far more potential for far more significant change if all of us are continually better than there is if a handful of us try to be individually perfect.
In part 1 of this series, The Theory Of Relativity, I noted that too often we throw around terms. We declare that something is sustainable, that something is “green,” that something is recycled, that something will save money, or will save energy. Or conversely, we ask whether something is one of those things. But just as much as we need to look at a single point of comparison (e.g. recycling vs. landfilling), we need to focus on a full spectrum of comparisons, all the shades of gray. For example, in the recycling vs. landfilling comparisons, not all recycling processes are the same, and not all landfilling options (or other disposal options) are the same. As a further example, one of the key environmental benefits to recycling glass is that if you use glass to make new glass bottles, you don’t have to heat your furnaces as hot to melt recycled glass cullet back into a liquid as you would to make virgin glass. If you use crushed glass cullet for civil engineering purposes, none of the materials you are displacing (essentially rocks or sand) get melted. Thus displacing the civil engineering materials, while still recycling, will not get you the energy benefits of displacing virgin materials in the manufacture of new glass bottles. Yet most most recycling programs and recycling metrics will count both types of recycling as exactly the same. Is that fair, or should bottle-deposit programs and source-separated collection programs get more credit if they can ensure more of a product goes back to a recycled use that provides more benefit?
Likewise, not all disposal options are the same. Historically two of the bigger environmental problems with landfills were the methane emissions from the anaerobic decomposition of organic materials and ground water contamination from liquids leaching out of the landfill. A modern landfill with a well-functioning landfill-gas-to-energy collection system and leachate collection system will significantly reduce both issues. So too will a well-run waste-to-energy facility that has sufficient pollution controls. Thus, should sending stuff to “the dump” or diverting stuff from “the dump” count the same in all three options?
What you find when you mix all of this stuff together is that the options are not black and white but a vast spectrum of gray. But what if your metrics and dashboards do not measure those shades of gray?
In his novel A Scanner Darkly, Phillip K. Dick wrote the following passage: ”You as the driver have only an indirect relationship to the fuel tank, via the gauge or, in your case, gauges. In fact, the tank could fall off entirely and you wouldn’t know until some dashboard indicator told you or finally the engine stopped. “
I think this condition is currently happening within the recycling and sustainability industry. Too many people are disconnected from the process and view it only through metrics and dashboards. But what if those dashboards aren’t sophisticated enough to measure all the shades of gray? What if they are giving us misleading information? Would we know that the fuel tank had fallen off until the entire engine stopped?
In fact, going back to the previous recycling and landfilling examples, if you add up the various options, you may find instances in which solid waste systems that have lower diversion rates may actually have higher environmental benefits. For example, if your higher diversion rate is coming via a system that downgrades all your recyclables from a higher-benefit recycling option to a lower-benefit recycling option (e.g. your glass is going from bottle-to-bottle recycling to bottle-to-road-base recycling and your office paper is going from office paper-to-office paper recycling to office paper-to-cereal box recycling), and the trash side is going to a landfill without methane collection, you may actually be worse off than an alternate system with a lower diversion percentage, but one that sends the recyclables to their most-beneficial use, and that shifts the disposal of their remaining waste from a landfill without methane collection to a well-run waste-to-energy facility or landfill with top-quality methane and leachate collection systems. Do your metrics and dashboards reflect that potential? If not, do you trust the information you are getting?
As the earlier Phillip K. Dick passage continues: “There should never be two gauges reporting conflicting information, because as soon as that happens you have no knowledge of the condition being reported on at all.” If our metrics and dashboards are not sophisticated enough to measure the shades of gray, are they relevant at all?
Viewing the world in shades of gray can be hard. It involves leaving the safety of our black-and-white positions and wading through some sometimes uncomfortable decisions. Sometimes it involves standing on some pretty slippery slopes to make your stand. But in the end, I think we are all better for it. I think we have more credibility when we embrace the full spectrum of gray and use terms like “more-sustainable” and “better” as opposed to “sustainable” and “good”. Slugging our way through the shades of gray may be hard, but I think it’s worth it.]]>
Nothing exists in a vacuum. There are alternatives. Whether something is good or bad, or the degree to which something is good or bad depends on what you compare it to. This is not a new idea. For eons, religions have understood this need for relativity. How can you tell how good your gods are if you don’t have devils or demons to show the alternative? Does Heaven sound as good if the alternative is not Hell?
I think this issue of relativity is something that needs to be addressed in the recycling and sustainability industry. Too often we throw around terms. We declare that something is sustainable, that something is “green,” that something will save money, or will save energy. Or conversely, we ask whether something is one of those things. But, too often, we fail to give context. The truthfulness of our statements or the answers to our questions may depend on what we compare something to. Context and alternatives matter.
Let’s look at an example outside the sustainability realm. Will a pair of jeans that is 20% off save you money? It depends. If the alternative is paying “full price” the same pair of jeans, then yes, the 20% off jeans will save you money. But what if the alternative is getting those same jeans for 50% less than that “full price” somewhere else? If that 50% off jean is your alternative, then the pair that is 20% off will actually cost you more money.
We have to be careful that we don’t get into “checklist” environmentalism. For example, is driving a hybrid car a “good thing?” According to many “how to green your life/business/school” checklists I have seen, you would automatically assume the answer is yes. But as with the jean analogy, it depends on the alternative. If your alternative is driving a mid-sized car with much worse fuel economy, then the answer is yes. If your alternative is walking or biking everywhere and you give that up to drive, then the answer is no. And that’s without even getting into all of the more-complicated discussions like life-cycle discussions about whether there are additional impacts in the manufacturing and distribution of one car vs. another, or psychological discussions about whether people drive further with a more fuel-efficient car because they view their driving as less impactful, even if they are using more gasoline as a result.
When you do start looking at relativity, finding the right comparison is critical. In my opinion, we in the recycling industry really flubbed this one a while ago. We did a great job of comparing recycling to the alternative, but we used the wrong alternative.
Modern landfills are a vast improvement over the open dumps that preceded them. They provided a sanitary alternative to the vermin-attracting practice of dumping trash in the streets or in open dumps. Thus, diverting stuff from a landfill is only “good” if you are diverting it to an even better alternative. If you are diverting stuff from a landfill just to litter it on the ground or send it to an open dump, that diversion doesn’t provide the benefit that you might think it does, or that your promotions or metrics imply that it does.
As an example, it was shocking to me a few years ago when I found out that a student I was talking to was so determined to keep food waste out of the landfill, that he was dumping it loose at the edge of the woods right next to his dorm, presuming that animals would eat it. And surprise, surprise, there were significant pest control and exterminator issues at that dorm. Were those added pest control issues the positive alternative he was envisioning? Was the rat problem that was developing if the pest control issues had gone unchecked? Or had we so thoroughly and perhaps misguidedly vilified landfilling to the point that any alternative seemed better?
So what is the right comparison? Is recycling good because landfilling is bad? As engineering improvements are made to landfills (e.g. improved leachate capture or methane collection), such that landfills become “less bad,” does recycling become less good? The answer in my opinion is no. Recycling for most materials has never been good because landfilling or waste-to-energy is “bad.” Recycling of most materials has been good because it can provide feedstocks to manufacturers in a significantly less impactful way than extracting and processing virgin natural resources. For most materials, that is where the benefits from recycling lie. And it is because of that manufacturing-lifecycle-benefit that it makes far more sense to recycle many materials than to landfill them. In my opinion, for too many years, we have been using the wrong comparison and vilifying the wrong alternative. That is the reason that I love the EPA’s WARM model because it is the only widely-used waste-and-recycling metric that measures lifecycle impact. Yes it is still imperfect. Yes, I would love to see it better differentiate recycling something to its highest and best use (e.g. glass bottles back to glass bottles, office paper back to office paper) as opposed to less-than-best-use (e.g. glass to road base, or office paper to cereal boxes). Yes it only measures climate impacts as opposed to say water impacts, or habitat impacts. But WARM is a huge improvement over alternatives that only measure diversion tonnage.
When will we embrace relativity and start to really look at all the alternatives on a case by case basis? When I got into this field in the 1980’s, the mantra regarding trash was that there is no “away.” When will we focus that mantra on recycling as well? When will we stop blindly assuming that every ton diverted from a landfill or waste-to-energy facility ends up in a better alternative? How many more Basel Action Network (BAN) reports, or similar reports do we need, before we stop blindly assuming that every ton of material diverted overseas ends up in a better alternative than the landfill or waste to energy facility we are diverting it from? What percentage of that material ends up in open dumps, or other disposal options even less positive – alternatives that are a worse alternative than the sanitary landfills or waste-to-energy facilities from which materials are being diverted? I am in no way suggesting that I am opposed to the export of materials. There are a wide range of export options and from the info and evidence I have seen, I have seen as many stories of export markets doing amazing and innovative things as I have seen BAN horror stories. This is not just an export issue. There are plenty of domestic issues in which we are “diverting” stuff from sanitary landfills or waste-to-energy facilities only to find out it is burned or buried somewhere else. What I am opposed to are metrics, or analysis of those metrics, that don’t measure the reality of a situation whether foreign or domestic. When will we embrace relativity and really look closely at specific alternatives instead of blindly assuming that all “diversion” is inherently good. If we don’t, do we just give ammunition to the folks out there who oppose sustainability and recycling.
I often think back to a friend I had in the hazardous waste field. We were discussing a factory that appeared to have essentially distributed their hazardous waste as a pesticide to local landscapers and farmers. From the factory’s perspective they had achieved “zero waste.” They are a “waste diversion” success story. Yet, now all of those farms and fields have environmental contamination issues and the factory’s success is their headache. Is that the alternative we are looking for? Before any of us crows too loudly about our zero waste or diversion success stories, do we need to do some real soul searching to make sure that our programs are not creating some variation of the same theme?
Relativity can be hard. But in the end, I think we are all better for it. I think we have more credibility when we use terms like “more-sustainable” and “better” as opposed to “sustainable” and “good”. In the long run, I think we are better off comparing specific alternatives instead of relying on blanket assumptions. Relativity may be hard, but I think it’s worth it.]]>
However, before embarking on such a program, you need to understand that composting is not the art of making food waste disappear out of a trash can. Composting is a specific biological process. Unfortunately, there are a lot of similar and related processes (let’s call them “kinfolk of compost”) that too often get lumped together under the compost name. That causes a lot of confusion and leads to a lot of bad decision making. So to help alleviate both, let me try to give an overview of some of closely-related kinfolk in the compost family and how they might affect your decision-making when it comes to diverting food waste and related kitchen organics.
One of the biggest variables relates to other kitchen organics. Should you compost paper napkins or corrugated cardboard from the kitchens? What about compostable foodserviceware? Should you use BPI-certified compostable PLA plasticware (I would not consider anything that is not at least BPI certified)? What about compostable paper plates or paper cups (which are typically either unlined or lined with a thin layer of compostable PLA plastic “wax”)? Are those things really compostable and worth the investment? The answer may depend on your end-market.
To oversimplify, anaerobic digestion(AD) is like composting in the absence of oxygen. It uses a different set of micro-critters that break down materials. The primary byproducts are methane (not sure what the micro-critter equivalent of “pull my finger” or “did someone step on a duck” is, but you get the idea) which is captured for energy and a digestate that can then be composted or further processed into fertilizer.
Now AD is an evolving market and there are several variations. As such, I will apologize now if you read this a year or two after I write it and something has changed. But having said that, at this time, there are a few keys to AD that might impact your food waste collection program.
The first is that AD markets are typically looking for a feedstock that is more nitrogen-rich than a traditional compost pile. Those flatulent little micro-critters typically have a carbon-nitrogen zen closer to 20:1. As such, an AD based end market may be less interested in taking large slugs of carbon-rich materials like cardboard in your mix.
AD may also have significant problems with compostable PLA plastic. PLA plastic needs to maintain a certain temperature to begin breaking down. The problem is that AD typically happens as a temperature lower than that and as a result some studies have shown that the PLA plastic does not break down in the digester.
Another key to AD is that those feedstocks are typically being ground up and mixed into a slurry. As such AD markets may be very interested in working with you to invest in on-site pulpers that will do some of that grinding on site (think something along the lines of a traditional garbage disposal that discharges into a collection tank as opposed to food waste going into a dumpster).
The third thing is that your AD market may also be very interested in your fats, oils, and greases. Remember, the primary goal of AD is to make methane and they are looking for feedstocks that will increase methane. Think along the lines of feeding your Uncle Murray a mix of broccoli, cabbage, and chili and then sitting back and watching the hijinks ensue. As such, your AD market may be able to take some of those materials that you are paying separately for a grease rendering company to take.
Many decades ago, garbage collection meant someone coming around to pick up food waste to feed to pigs (as opposed to coal ash which was the other big waste stream). In fact, there are still waste collection firms today whose history dates back to their days as a pig farmer doing this sort of “garbage” collection.
In some regions, there are still pig farmers who collect food waste for their pigs. This might still be an option for your food waste. However, be aware that because we use pigs for meat, in many areas, regulations have changed so that this food must now be cooked before feeding it to the pigs. Also be aware that if you are collecting food waste as pig feed, you are likely going to have to limit your collection to just food, as opposed to other organic materials.
Worms are the new pigs. There are a number of programs that collect food waste to use it as worm food, a process called vermicomposting. Worm castings (worm poop for those of you who still get a chuckle out of that term) are one of nature’s great fertilizers and soil conditioners. That makes vermicomposting a popular option, especially for those who will be using the castings as a soil conditioner in campus gardens and landscapes. One advantage of using food waste for worm food as opposed to pig food is that because we don’t use worms directly as meat, unless we are reenacting a Judy Blume book, food waste does not need to be cooked before serving it to the worms. For optimum throughput, you may need to shred the food waste because, well worms are small. From that standpoint, vermicomposting might be a good match for programs that are using food pulpers to process their food waste.
Although worms may be able to process some other organic feedstocks, choosing vermicomposting as an option is likely to limit the inclusion of other organics like cardboard and compostable foodserviceware.
With an increase in discussion about food waste “diversion” regulations (those that focus on waste generators keeping food waste out of the trash, but that don’t focus on what the alternative is), there has been a corresponding increase in a category of machines that I would collectively refer to as microbial garbage disposals. Decades ago, mechanical garbage disposals revolutionized the waste industry. You no longer needed a pig farmer to come around and collect the garbage. You could grind that garbage in your sink and send it to the sewer. It wasn’t until later in life when I began to understand the history of the garbage industry that I fully appreciated why my grandparents used to refer to the garbage disposal as the “electric pig.” The problem that we realized after we collectively switched to the electric pig is that there is no “away.” Sending the food waste down the sewer didn’t make it go away, it just transferred the costs and issues from those of the pig farmer and landfill to those of the sewage treatment plant.
The new version of the electric pig is the microbial pig. There is a generation of technology that is coming over from urban markets in Asia that essentially uses microbes to transform the solid food waste into a liquid waste that is sent down the sewer. Put your food waste in the machine and presto, your food waste goes away. If this sounds familiar, you may share some of my apprehension. Although I by no means consider myself an expert on wastewater issues, I have already heard grumblings from colleagues in the wastewater industry about BOD and pH issues related to these machines that give me cause for concern. And though I have talked to manufacturers of the machines that there are fixes for those issues, those fixes seem to add additional cost. While these technologies may ultimately prove to be a valuable solution in the highly urbanized areas (urban areas similar to those from whence they came) – areas that have logistical issues with other collection options – I would proceed with caution and skepticism in areas that have other composting and AD options. I think the costs of the units are high, the capacities are low enough that you are not going to be using them for anything but pure food waste, and if you are just flushing the resulting liquid down the drain, you really don’t have any sort of value-added product to show at the end of the process for all those expenses.
For all of you out there that have kinfolk that are “a little different,” the same is true of the composting family. Some of those differences are positive, and some may be less so. As some of you might say about members of your own family, “it’s best to know what you are getting into before you get too involved.” Do you have experiences collecting food waste for one of these “kinfolk of compost” endmarkets? If so, as always, feedback is always encouraged.]]>
However, before embarking on such a program, you need to understand that composting is not the art of making food waste disappear out of a trash can. Composting is a specific biological process. Unfortunately, there are a lot of similar and related processes (let’s call them “kinfolk of compost”) that too often get lumped together under the compost name. That causes a lot of confusion and leads to a lot of bad decision making. So to help alleviate both, let me try to give an overview of some of kinfolk in the compost family and how they might affect your decision-making when it comes to diverting food waste and related kitchen organics.
In this part 1, I am going to focus on “traditional” aerobic composting, and some variations therein that may impact how you collect your food waste for composting. Let’s call them the immediate family of compost. This immediate family typically involves one of the following variations:
One of the biggest variables relates to other kitchen organics. Should you compost paper napkins or corrugated cardboard from the kitchens? What about compostable foodserviceware? Should you use BPI-certified compostable PLA plasticware (I would not consider anything that is not at least BPI certified)? What about compostable paper plates or paper cups (which are typically either unlined or lined with a thin layer of compostable PLA plastic “wax”)? Are those things really compostable and worth the investment? The answer may depend on your end-market.
In traditional aerated compost, you are using a whole host of micro-critters to break down a mix of your food waste and other organic materials. The residual material makes an excellent nutrient-rich soil amendment. One important consideration is that these micro-critters are a little zen. They like things with a certain balance, especially when it comes to carbon and nitrogen. Most composting operations strive for a carbon/nitrogen ratio of about 30:1. The problem is that food waste is typically very nitrogen rich. Thus, your composter needs a lot of carbon to offset that nitrogen-rich food. They also typically want a carbon source that will break down in the compost pile in roughly the same time frame as the food waste. That might affect your decision making if you look to expand beyond food waste into other foodservice organics.
For example, adding paper napkins, as long as they don’t have any funky inks & dyes in them, should be an easy addition to any of the aerobic composting options. They are carbon-rich and break down quickly which should keep your end market happy. Napkins are also easy for your diners to understand.
Another common foodservice item for composting is cardboard especially if you are in an area where it is difficult to get your dining services cardboard picked up for recycling (and if you can keep it free of excess packing tape and those stick-on packing slip pouches). Cardboard is much easier to deal with in open piles, regardless of whether those piles are on-campus, on-farm, or are a commercial composting facility. If you are using an on-site in-vessel machine, you are likely to struggle composting cardboard. The first issue is because those in-vessel units typically have limited capacities and may not have sufficient volume to include cardboard. However, even if you size the unit large enough that you have sufficient capacity, most in-vessel units are going to struggle to handle large sheets or boxes of cardboard. In some machines, those sheets or boxes are not likely to fit through the feed opening. If there is a pre-mixer part of the in-vessel unit it is unlikely to be able to handle large sheets of cardboard, and any auger or mixer inside of the unit is also unlikely to be able to handle that material unless it is already broken down. One option would be to pre-shred that cardboard. I have seen some animal bedding in stores that is essentially just shredded cardboard. Something like that would make a great carbon component for your compost pile, but that cardboard shredding adds equipment and labor costs that you might not be able to justify.
Another big variable is compostable foodserviceware. There are two main categories, compostable paper products and compostable plastic. The problem with compostable plasticware is that in too many compost situations it does not break down as quickly as the food waste, especially if the compost pile does not maintain optimal conditions the entire time. If you are composting via an on-campus pile or on-farm pile that might be turned more sporadically, this might especially be an issue. That leaves your end market with a product that they have to screen out of the pile before they can use the rest of the compost. It is also difficult for some composters to identify whether the plastic in their pile is compostable plastic that has not yet broken down or non-compostable plastic that was mistakenly dumped into the compost. The result is that some composters screen out and discard anything that hasn’t broken down within a certain time frame. All of that adds cost and headaches for your end market. Now, I don’t know about you, but most of the time I approach my vendors with an idea that is going to add headaches and cost for them, their response is typically not “Woo hoo. Sign me up. I’ll do that pro bono.” Instead, my experience is that they find ways to transfer those costs and headaches back to me, sometimes with interest. In addition, to me, it also defeats the purpose of investing in compostable plasticware if it is just going to get screened out and thrown away by your composter.
If you are looking for an alternative, compostable paper offers some potential benefits. If it is uncoated, it has the potential to suck up some of the excess au jous from your food waste, making your food waste less sloppy. Paper products also typically break down in a period of time that is similar to the food waste or other wood product feedstocks that your composter is likely using. Lastly, paper is very carbon-rich stuff, so it helps to balance out the nitrogen-rich food waste, and gives your end-market a more balanced product to work with to keep those zen micro-critters happy. From my experience, as long as your composter can handle the added volume of material that comes with taking the paperware, they are often able to do so with fewer headaches (for both you and them) than with other compostable foodserviceware.
Do you have composting experiences that you would like to share with other readers? As always, feedback and comments are always welcome.]]>