Once upon a time, taking out the trash was a simple affair for apartment dwellers. You walked out back to the dumpster, held your nose and tossed in your bag. Of course we all know the consequences wrought by waste management practices in those simpler times.
Since “zero waste” has become the mantra of the waste management industry, taking out the trash has become more complicated: “Mr. and Mrs. Smith, you are now responsible for sorting and separating your recyclables from the trash and the slimy, smelly compostable stuff.” In 2015, the average citizen may understand the rationale for separating organics from the waste stream, and they may wholeheartedly support the idea, but the experience of waste managers is that those good intentions don’t always translate to good follow through.
Nowhere is this more of an issue than in the multi-family housing environment. Composting kitchen scraps has long been embraced by many homeowners in a single family context, but with more and more cities mandating source separation of organics, the enormous population of people living in condos and apartments—a demographic that has typically not composted their kitchen scraps because they lack a yard to do it in—are starting to contribute to the municipal compost stream. It’s a boon to the composting industry, but there are many hurdles to cross.
“The challenge of keeping collection clean, easy, and understandable for residents is particularly important in multi-family buildings where occupancy turn-over can be high and there can be broad cultural and linguistic diversity,” says Alexa Kielty, zero waste specialist for the city of San Francisco. Whatever the underlying reasons are, it seems that everyone in the business agrees that apartment and condo dwellers are less likely to separate their trash than in either single family or institutional settings, creating a bottleneck in the flow of recyclables and compostables along the way to the next step in their life cycle.
“Cross-contamination rates in these buildings typically run into the double digits,” says Phil Ragan, director of market development for EcoSafe, a Vancouver-based company that provide solutions for diverting organic waste from landfills to commercial compost facilities.
Composters feel the pinch when a load of organic waste shows up at their facility, a big issue given that the sale of compost is a primary economic driver turning the wheels of zero waste initiatives. “When improper bags made of film plastic accumulate at composting facilities, it adds costs, lowers recycling rates, jeopardizes product quality, and threatens the economic feasibility of urban composting into the future,” says Susan Thoman, vice president of corporate development for Cedar Grove Composting. “With multi-family [collection] programs on the rise, our greatest concern is the potential for confusion, improper sorting and, ultimately, increased contamination in the compost stream.”
EcoSafe, a company already known for having the strongest leak proof compostable bags on the market, has recently introduced a turnkey solution for organics separation that is geared specifically for multi-family developments. “Over the years everyone has worked on ‘what does the composter need, what does the building manager need etc.’, but nobody was really focused on the cultural issue and the social side of things,” says Ragan. EcoSafe’s new MultiRes program includes bins, bags, and all the hardware needed for a successful organic waste separation system in a large residential building, but more importantly, it comes with a customized outreach program to engage residents and win their cooperation—the part that has always been such a challenge. A combination of affordability, convenience, simple communication, and graphic signage, is proving very successful in getting the message across.
A number of municipalities, building operators and waste companies across North America are already implementing the new system. “We were able to provide each of our residents with a starter kit and an easy to understand the program to begin collecting organics and diverting them away from our regular garbage containers,” says Terry Hyska of Belcarra Apartments in Port Moody, British Columbia. “After just four months the acceptance from our residents allowed us to transition completely [to the new program] and reduce our regular garbage collection costs by 50%.”
The city of Seattle is also testing out the system, and early indications are that food waste capture is up in the buildings where the new system is in place. “We are currently testing [MultiRes] in more than 50 buildings and hope to have our final report completed by late spring,” says Marcia Rutan, the community recycling program manager for the city. As the numbers trickle in, the power of communication and easy to understand systems in the urban compost space is increasingly apparent, for both the environment and the bottom line. “It’s an example of the importance of multi-stakeholder collaboration,” Rutan says.
In terms of the ins and outs of the actual system, BASF, the world’s largest chemical company, has been integral in the success of the MultiRes system. The EcoSafe organic collection programs feature high-performance certified compostable bioplastic bags that home owners and commercial users can depend on to collect and transport food waste without the risk of breaking or leaking. EcoSafe says that their work with BASF in the development of their EcoSafe~6,400 compostable bags made with BASF’s ecovio has led to a durable product that serves as one of EcoSafe’s cornerstone successes. “Ecovio is a premium performance and versatile biopolymer that is certified compostable worldwide and contains verifiable bio-based content,” says Keith Edwards, North American biopolymer sales manager for BASF. “We are focused on developing sustainable solutions through chemistry that make programs such as the MultiRes system cleaner, safer, easier, and more effective.”
In the fall of 2014, EcoSafe and BASF commissioned Cascadia Consulting and Building Insight to conduct a before and after study in four multi-family buildings in San Francisco that have made the switch to the MultiRes system. The results from a follow-up survey were impressive: recycling participation rates increased from less than 50% to more than 80% in all four buildings, while contamination fell to less than 1% in three of the buildings and to just 6% in the fourth. But perhaps the most telling result from the survey of residents about their impression of the new system: the resident satisfaction rate shot up to 89%—nearly double the rate with the standard city program.
EcoSafe is already seeing the benefits down the line where kitchen scraps become compost, an environmental product with high market demand. Athens Services, a waste hauler in the Los Angeles area, has implemented the MultiRes pilot program at apartment complexes they serve throughout the region in a partnership with Global Green USA. The company runs their own compost facility where they transform vegetable, fruit, meat, dairy, and food-soiled paper waste from these communities into a valuable high-end soil amendment for use in farming and gardening. “This pilot is the first step in successfully implementing large scale, multifamily organics collection in the city of Los Angeles,” says Jessica Aldridge, Athens’ sustainability manager. “We are thrilled to jump start this program and believe it will help us to better understand the residents’ needs in composting their food scraps.”
California has just passed new organics recycling legislation and a number of cities, including Los Angeles, have recently established zero waste goals, meaning the large scale composting of food scraps will weigh heavily in the future of the recycling and resource management industries. As this cradle-to-cradle, closed-loop solution to organics management revs up, engaging the masses as willing participants in the process will be key. Streamlining the separation process and cutting down on the ‘yuck’ factor for residents has mutually reinforcing benefits. The more effective people are in separating their waste, the fewer odors and insect infestations there are—which makes it even more likely that others will get in the habit. Soon, taking out the trash may feel just as simple as it used to.