Alternative Futures: The Market Is Ripe for Composting
A heat wave back in 1858 turned London’s inadequate sewage system into a noxious cauldron, breeding cholera and forcing Parliament to search for an innovative solution. The result was the construction of a modern sewer network that used the latest engineering technologies to redefine how major cities dealt with waste.
London’s sewers have withstood the test of time, but the way we manage other forms of urban waste remains distinctly sub-optimal — namely the composting gap. Waste has serious consequences for the local and global environment, and we lose out on valuable resources.
Some 30 percent of the waste stream funneled into United States’ landfills, a large part of which comes from the hospitality industry, is compostable. The problem with landfilling waste rather than composting it is threefold:
- Composting takes up valuable space that could be put to better use.
- It leads to huge emissions of a virulent green house gas (landfills contribute nearly 20 percent of the methane gas emitted into the atmosphere).
- Finally, we bury what could be valuable soil-amendments for use in agriculture and urban green spaces with the ability to sequester carbon emissions.
Despite the benefits, composting is not yet widespread because the majority of businesses generating compostable waste consider it an expensive alternative to landfilling. So, most of them dispose of compostable waste the old-fashioned way.
Those that are willing to try composting are not good at separating out the contaminants, like plastic, that turn good quality feedstock bad. When it arrives at their facilities, composters struggle to sort and separate on site.
Today, new approaches are emerging that could make composting more common in our cities.
Rubicon Global, an Atlanta-based tech company, is focused on reversing industry incentives and finding efficient, eco-friendly ways to cut the amount of waste going into landfills. It uses cloud-based algorithms to analyze generator waste streams and determine how to dispose of different categories of waste most efficiently. This offers a significant boost to composting facilities that tend to charge lower tip fees than landfills.
Equally important is Rubicon’s disruption of the haulage market. Hauling companies currently schedule multiple pickups a week, collecting as many bins as possible even when they aren’t full. By arranging collection only when bins are full, Rubicon’s software reduces the frequency of collection and the number of bins collected. This reduces the number of trucks on the road as well as carbon footprints while saving generators an average of 20 percent of their waste bills per year.
Rubicon’s work in aligning the financial and environmental incentives is potentially far-reaching. Guaranteeing the quality of what goes into compost bins is the other side of the same coin. Training generator staff to standardize source separation practices has been hard to scale. Lack of awareness, poor training and few incentives for staff have led to contamination of food scrap feedstock, making it useless to composting facilities.
Winnow, a London-based technology company, is producing a food-waste tracker for the hospitality industry that could transform the compost market in the United States by building on Rubicon’s paradigm shift. Although not designed specifically for the compost industry, Winnow has designed a tablet-based app that is mounted on bins in food preparation areas and connected to scales.
Winnow’s system allows workers to log what they throw away by clicking through pictures of food groupings to track food waste categories accurately. Management works with staff to avoid waste, driving positive behaviors and providing generators with a 30 to 60 percent increase in profits by reducing food costs.
Rubicon’s technology has demonstrated that there is value in composting and recycling when done efficiently. Winnow’s system has created a platform that allows generators to oversee the sorting process and manage the quality of the waste they pass on to haulers and compost facilities.
However, today, these systems are not aligned. If bridged, a platform could be created that provides a new level of accountability and quality assurance all along the compost chain. Only with sorting technology that validates source separation standards linked to optimal logistics and processing platforms can the composting industry reach its full potential.
With 66 percent of the world’s population set to live in urban areas by 2050, waste management infrastructure will be stretched. The time is ripe to bring together the technologies that can transform the way our cities handle waste — much as London did with its new sewer system in the nineteenth century.