Organic Waste Processing: Does Our Approach To Organic Food Waste Make Sense?
When we talk about diverting waste from landfill – very often it seems like people do not care whether we are talking about organic waste processing or dumping of plastics or metal in the landfill. When the Government talks – it sometimes sounds like all waste was created equal – and organic waste processing is as important as preventing plastics from entering our oceans.
As it is a new year – this blog was originally published on 4 Jan 2019 – we think it is good to start the year with some big questions regarding our national approach to organic waste processing – as our recycling industry is certainly at a crossroads.
In today’s blogs – I do not pretend to have all the answers – but I just want to ask some questions that hopefully will make people think.
Do we need organic waste processing i.e. Is food waste really a problem?
When I started looking at the issue of global and Australian food waste and the problem of organic waste processing – I have to admit – I did not really understand why it was actually a problem (organic waste meaning).
Of course – when I was a kid – I was always told not to waste food – as that was an inherently bad thing – i.e. eating or playing with food when other people were starving.
However – I could not connect that an apple rotting in a landfill was any worse than an apple falling from a tree in a forest.
Apparently – food waste in a landfill is bad for the environment because in a landfill – rotting food produces methane.
The Aussie Government helpfully explains with insight on organic waste meaning:
“Although our food systems are highly developed and produce large volumes of nutritious food, food waste is estimated to cost the
Australian economy $20 billion each year. This has significant impacts on the environment through the wasted use of resources such as land, water, energy and fuel to produce and distribute food. When disposed of in landfill, food waste has other environmental impacts such as the production of greenhouse gas emissions.”
According to watchmywaste.com.au
“In Australia 8.2 million tonnes of food waste is generated each year, most of which ends up in landfill. Once in landfill, food waste breaks down and emits greenhouse gases, including not only carbon dioxide (CO2) but methane (CH4) – a gas 25 times more potent than CO2.”
“In fact, the greenhouse gases produced by food waste in Australian landfill each year is equivalent to the emissions of Australia’s steel and iron ore industries combined!”
The problem for me is that many modern landfills in Australia have gas capture systems to either flare the methane or use it to create electricity. There is even an argument that landfills will be seen as the power stations of the future.
You could almost argue that we should encourage sending food waste (organic waste processing) to landfill for this reason – i..e as it will be a truly sustainable energy source! See an article here on biogas.
Is farming good or bad for the Australian environment
This is a complex question – I always assumed that preventing desertification and irrigating crops would be good for the environment – i.e. do plants and trees not take in C02 etc?
I assume that actually growing food or all kinds would be broadly good for the environment – although I would guess this would be very tricky to measure accurately. Of course – there is an argument that cows etc produce methane as above.
If farming is bad – why produce compost from food waste?
There is a circular inconsistency in the organic waste processing approach – as producing compost from food waste – will boost more food production – but is that a bad thing?
I honestly do not think so.
There is a logical problem here though – we are encouraged to grow more food (as composting is recycling and hence is not subject to a landfill levy) – which will lead to more food production.
Disposal of the food waste produced – which creates no more food and is used often to produce biogas and electricity – is heavily taxed with a State landfill levy?
This makes very little sense to me.
Is landfilling food waste bad? -if we capture methane?
From my understanding – dumping at landfill is on a per tonne basis – i.e. a tonne is charge in Sydney at c. $310 plus GST. It does not matter whether it is food waste, bricks or plastic cups.
If the food waste decays and is used to create clean electricity – is that not a good thing for the environment? If so – why should there be a tax on it. Is it any better or worse than composting?
Should food waste producers be charged more or less than people producing large amounts of plastic etc
When we work with small and medium businesses like cafes and restaurants – the levy on general waste has become a real burden to doing business.
The levy is supposed to encourage recycling and decrease general waste to landfill. A cafe will often have heavy bins and hence high costs due to the density of organic waste.
However – there is very little that a cafe can do – as there waste is basically food waste (organic waste pick up). i.e. they can not recycle it like bottles or cans.
We are basically just taxing the food service business – even though their waste can produce electricity. We are actually charging them more than companies producing large amounts of plastic etc.
For example – one company could make lots of throw away plastic straws and pay very little in landfill levies – vs a cafe – that throws away food scraps and is penalised by high bin costs.
Does this sound sensible or fair to you?
Should we feel bad about not eating more food – i.e. can it be shipped overseas if not consumed? Is it not a disconnect between rural areas producing food and large populations in the third world?
If Australia is very fertile for food production – with very low population density – is there much we can actually do about it? i.e. other countries are much more densely populated – such as nearby Indonesia.
However – is it practical to think we could ship excess food (that is not currently traded) to other countries?
Would this not be hugely loss making – i.e. if not currently paid for etc? Also – would it not entail huge greenhouse emissions in shipping and transport.
By buying less food – would we really decrease the amount of food grown, produced and sold
If we bought and wasted less food – i.e. consumed only what we needed – would this actually benefit the environment.
Would supermarkets stock less – and farmers grow less? It seems very far fetched to me to be honest.
Are we actually encouraging less productive farming (which actually would make sense if it meant less animal cruelty and pesticides)?
However – this does not seem to be what is being proposed.
Why are organic waste processing facilities for food waste called recycling when it is not much different to landfill
We have covered how you can utilise organic waste bins – to avoid landfill for your food waste (and many other organic waste disposal methods).
These plants generally either compost the food waste in a commercial manner (note – Australia has actually too much compost to sell commercially) or use it to generate electricity.
As landfill gas capture technologies improve year on year – is there any real difference between organic recycling and dumping food waste at landfill.
Is our waste levy system not misguided?
I do not pretend to know the answers – but to me, food waste and organic waste processing are much smaller problems than plastic waste and plastic pollution.
At Waster – our view is that plastic waste should be eliminated wherever possible, with new organic and biodegradable plastics being introduced.
We would also suggest organic waste is not charged a levy – i.e. food waste should go to a specific “wet landfill” with modern gas capture. This would mean a specific bin for organic waste.
The only levy would be imposed on recyclable commodities that are not recycled. Of course – this would lead to issues on how to separate organic and inorganic waste – but that could be overcome.
What do you think? Do you have any good tips on how to separate organic and inorganic waste? Does the organic waste definition need to change to make sense in 2019?