Organic Waste: Simply Trash or a Resource?

By Heidi Koolmeister (Project Leader of the Newsletter of Let’s Do It! World)

Did you know that the biggest amount of waste you generate is organic waste? According to some sources, organic waste makes up about 30–40% of our total waste. These percentages vary in the nature and amount of organic waste between the developing countries and developed countries: whereas, in the former it consists mainly of inedible food waste, in the latter there is considerably more edible food waste and yard waste (read more about it here!).

Organic waste is a developing area of urban waste management and one that offers innovative solutions for recycling and reusing our bio-waste in the most environment friendly way. In order to get to know more of the proper management of this type of waste and it’s opportunities for our environment and economy we consulted Joan Marc Simon, the Executive Director of Zero Waste Europe.

What exactly is considered as bio-waste?

Bio-waste is any type of waste originating from plant or animal sources which can be broken down by other living organisms. Organic waste management is the process of collecting clean organic waste, for either composting it using microbes or worms, for high quality products to be used in the soil, or putting organic waste into a sealed anaerobic digestion; where gases are extracted to generate energy and the residual material is returned to the soil as compost. The organic waste we generate at home can be in general divided into five groups:

  • “Garden organics” are produced by households with space around the home to have lawns and trees.
  • Edible food waste
  • Non-edible food waste (bones, egg shells, etc.)
  • Clean paper and cardboard
  • Paper used with food products such as dirty pizza boxes, containers or napkins (see more information about it here!).

Of course nature does not produce most of the waste mentioned in the categories above, it is something we produce, so it should be our primary mission to find a way to manage it.

Seeking alternatives to landfilling and incineration

So, up until nowadays, how has the organic waste been managed? Today we in our daily lives, agriculture and industry, create a lot of organic waste, which today is still in a large part landfilled or incinerated. Both these practices are a waste of resources and, in fact, harmful for the environment, thus these practices have well-earned the name “graveyards of sustainability”.

Landfilling and incineration are very inefficient ways to manage bio-waste as other more viable alternatives are today available: these practices are a waste of resources, that reduces recycling, and are environmentally dangerous as they increase greenhouse gas emissions. Already in 1995 methane that originated from bio-waste accounted for 3% of total GHG emissions in the EU.

Joan Marc Simon explains: “First of all, if you concentrate food leftovers in landfills and don’t treat them properly, they can leech: leachate is very rich in nutrients and can be toxic for the land and water if it goes into the soil. Secondly, if you let the organics rot they will create methane — a greenhouse gas that is roughly 23 times more potent than CO2,.”

“Environmentally speaking, if you manage organics properly, you are avoiding climate change, because you are avoiding methane being produced, and you keep the carbon in the soil, instead of having carbon and methane (CO4) going to the atmosphere,” he says. By composting you can bring that carbon back into the soil. According to Simon, it makes little sense to burn wet waste or leave it rotting in landfills if more sustainable ways are possible.

Putting organic waste back into the soil

What goes around, comes around, and this is also true for organic waste. “Closing the loop of organics is important, because at least in Europe we have less and less organic matter in the soil, and that is the soil from where we are going to get our food in the future,”emphasises Simon.

Returning organic matter to the soil is a vital process, and here is where the organic waste composting comes in helpful. “Once the chemical fertilisers are not profitable or not so affordable anymore and once our land is completely drained because of the use of chemical fertilisers, we will have to go back and start producing food like we used to. Composting is a very good way to do this as organics have lots of nutrients,” explains Simon.

He says, it’s like having a good healthy diet: with chemical fertilisers you would be using a lot of one certain vitamin or a component, however nobody can live like that. It would be good for something but not for the whole body. The same logic applies for the soil and this is why we have to give it a bit of everything (carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, etc.).

“Composting is about giving a healthy diet to the soil so that it can remain replenishable and can feed us,” says Simon.

However before composting…

It is estimated, that roughly 60% of our food waste could have been avoided, thus it is important to consider how we could prevent that waste. Simon believes that the first thing to do with food scraps is to try to reuse it. “If it is still edible, just keep it for tomorrow, or for example, if you have dry bread, there are lots of things you can do with it without throwing it into the compost bin! Most of the food scraps should not be merely composted, it should be avoided,” Simon stresses adding, that what cannot be avoided should be used by humans, the rest could be fed to animals (if possible, and hygienic).

“And then, if you want, it can be used to make biogas and compost. This way you contribute to the reduction of food-waste in general. Therefore, in this sense, composting should be the last step,” he adds.

The economical and social benefits

According to Simon, managing organic waste is expensive. However if collected separately, the dry waste recyclables (plastic, metal, glass, etc.) remain clean, which means it can be sold on the market for a higher price. There is a 20–30 times price value difference between dirty recyclables and clean ones! Furthermore, even though you might pay more for collecting organic waste separately, eventually you can still sell it as compost or make biogas with it. This means, that those who separate organics in their waste management system can actually gain money.

The social benefits of organic waste management, separate collection creates jobs! Waste needs to be collected more often, and citizens need training in how to do home and community composting. This also educates the community members. Composting helps the children understand how nature works: seeing an apple change its colour and changing form is just one example.

If you are interested in learning more about organic waste management, check-out the free online course by Organic Stream: