Leaks In The Loop

By: Nora Goldstein


We had an article in last week’s BioCycle CONNECT on the symbiotic relationship of a solid waste authority and a municipal wastewater treatment plant. The waste authority installed food waste depackaging equipment to process commercial and institutional food waste, much of it in containers and boxes. The output is being trucked to the adjacent treatment plant where the slurry is codigested with municipal biosolids. Biogas is utilized to generate power for the wastewater facility.

A nice closed loop, right? Almost, excepting that the biosolids from the treatment plant are disposed in the solid waste authority’s landfill. Previously they were being incinerated. I went for a walk shortly after the article was posted on BioCycle.net. It hit me that I have let myself fall off the soapbox where I preached that food waste codigested at wastewater treatment plants isn’t truly recycling if the biosolids are not beneficially used. It is awesome to divert the food waste, and more awesome to recover the heat and electricity. But disposing of biosolids — a critically valuable resource — is a huge leak in what is otherwise a closed loop. Think healthy soil, clean water.

The phrase, Leaks in the Loop, occurred to me a few hours after my walk. Organics recycling is the essence of a closed loop system. One of the simplest examples is home composting, where food scraps are composted, the compost is used in the garden, and the garden produces food that in turn yields food scraps that go into the composter. Agricultural composting is another fairly tight closed loop. So is community composting at community gardens. In each of those examples, the inputs tend to be only organics, e.g., food scraps, manures, yard trimmings, etc. Participants in the loop are cognizant (and typically vigilant) about impurities, and have tight control over what gets in and what stays out.

Scaling The Loop

Compost math is such that increased contamination equals increased costs, usually in both labor and equipment. It also jeopardizes compost sales. Much of the contamination ends up in screened overs. When clean, overs can be recycled back into the composting process, used as a biofilter cap on compost piles, and/or marketed as mulch. When contaminated, they typically end up the waste stream to be disposed.

In addition to vulnerability to physical contaminants, compost manufacturers, wastewater treatment plants and anaerobic digestion facilities have to contend with pollutants that show up at their facilities by no fault of their own. The contaminants du jour (and actually for a number of years now) are PFAS, or poly- and perfluorinated alkyls substances — including PFOA and PFOS. PFAS are a family of chemicals commonly used since the 1950s in carpets, furniture and other fabrics, cooking tools, outdoor clothing, paper products, firefighting foams, and numerous industrial applications.

PFAS are messing up a lot of closed loops, especially as regulators attempt to limit human and environmental exposure to them — including from recycled organics. These regulators opt for low limits that can only be met with significant capital investments in removal systems. The burden of this leak in the loop is borne downstream by composters and organics recyclers. Upstream, the manufacturers of PFAS compounds and products containing them merrily go on using the latest iteration with truly no consequences that they can’t manage given their vast financial resources.

Plugging The Leaks

The bottom line is we really, really need recycled organics in soils. We need every ounce — the biosolids, screened overs, compost and digestate — with no scrap left behind. I’ve had the benefit of over 40 years of observation on what works and doesn’t work to achieve this goal. Here are a few takeaways:

  • Mechanical separation can only get you so far in removing contamination once it enters the organics recycling system.
  • Outreach and education, training, incentives and other tools to change human behavior are critical to achieving clean streams. But until there are fewer decisions that households have to make about what goes where in their source separation practices, this is a huge uphill climb.
  • Mandates and laws to eliminate or reduce disposal of organics have to start with the end in mind, i.e., maximizing utilization of the recycled organics. Focusing on end use and then working backwards to design diversion programs that optimize clean streams must be the mantra. How to make that cost-effective will be this decade’s challenge.

Ultimately, to plug the leaks in the loop, we have to mimic the control achieved when the loop is relatively tight (e.g.. home composting). Putting the focus on high quality outputs derived from high quality inputs seems like the winning proposition. It will take a lot of players — from corporate suites to our home kitchens — to pull the oars in the same direction.

Plastic IQ Targets Plastic Packaging Waste Reductio

There’s power in numbers as well as in data, which is part of the reason the launch of the Plastic IQ digital tool promises to help US companies develop effective plastic packaging waste reduction strategies.

Launched May 5 by The Recycling Partnership and SystemIQ and created with support from Walmart, Plastic IQ is a forward-looking, data-based planning tool aligned with industry best practices. The tool allows companies to prioritize actions to address plastic packaging waste, meet their sustainability goals, and ultimately accelerate progress toward a circular economy.

Plastic IQ is available at no cost so that companies of all sizes and resources can analyze their plastic packaging data and calculate how their company’s strategy impacts their costs as well as plastic and carbon emissions impact.

“Plastic waste is a global challenge that must be addressed with science, speed, and collaboration,” says Keefe Harrison, CEO, The Recycling Partnership. “No single entity can alone drive the transformative and widespread solutions we so critically need. That’s where Plastic IQ comes in. Driven by data and free for all to use, it provides decision makers at U.S. companies with a common tool to advance real-time solutions. By connecting the dots between goals, actions, and measurement, we believe Plastic IQ will accelerate the pace of meaningful change.”

Plastic IQ analyzes user data and helps companies calculate the circularity of their plastic packaging from production and consumption through to end of life. The tool takes companies through a series of steps to identify ways to use less plastic, promote better packaging, and contribute to a better system. Paired with a robust Solutions Database of resources and implementation guidance, Plastic IQ offers real-world actions users can take to strengthen their sustainability goals, respond to the expectations of their customers and stakeholders, and implement cost-saving opportunities.

“Many companies are now setting targets and joining initiatives to address the challenge of plastic waste,” says Ben Dixon, partner, SystemIQ. “We often hear that the plastics issue is complex for companies to navigate and set strategies. Information is power, and Plastic IQ is the solution that provides companies with the economic and environmental information needed to prioritize action, compare strategies against industry best practices and drive collective action.”

“Walmart supported the development of Plastic IQ to help companies better understand and identify solutions that can improve their plastic packaging strategies and minimize their plastic waste,” notes Kathleen McLaughlin, EVP and Chief Sustainability Officer at Walmart. “Without action, it’s estimated the annual flow of plastic into the ocean could nearly triple by 2040. We must work urgently to move beyond business as usual, and Plastic IQ is a free, publicly available tool to help any company, big or small, get world-class guidance on the plastic packaging challenge — we hope it helps everyone move further, faster.”

Plastic IQ translates leading industry research into personalized, data-based action plans, helps companies quantify the trade-offs in their decisions, and allows users to model how outside forces, such as policy or technology changes, may impact their efforts to reduce plastic waste. It also recognizes companies that set impactful targets to address plastic waste and realize their circularity and corporate sustainability goals. Plastic IQ has been guided by a group of brand owners, retailers, and organizations to ensure its maximum impact for industry.

As of May 5, 2021, the following companies have committed to use Plastic IQ and signed on to help catalyze the change needed: Colgate-Palmolive Company, Grove Collaborative, Happy Family Organics, Johnson & Johnson Consumer Health, Kellogg Company, Mondelēz International, Nestlé USA, Unilever, and Walmart.

“With so many businesses having stepped up to make commitments take coordinated action towards a circular economy for plastic, for example through voluntary mechanisms like the Global Commitment and the Plastics Pact network, it is very positive to see tools like Plastic IQ being built to help these businesses build out their strategies to achieve these targets for a world without plastic pollution,” says Sander Defruyt, New Plastics Economy Lead at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

The project involved guidance from the following organizations: As You Sow, Association of Plastic Recyclers, Ellen MacArthur Foundation, The Sustainability Consortium, U.S. Plastics Pact, and World Wildlife Fund.

To access the solutions database, visit solutions.plasticiq.org; for specific queries, contact info@plasticiq.org.



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