Dirty Words; Let’s Talk Compost
Waste not, want not, they say. As a former member of the FWP office recycling police and a determined home composter, the difficulty in dealing with all forms of household waste in a sustainable way is top of mind. In most cities, the composting process, like recycling, is fraught with difficulties and casualties, resulting in a highly confusing attempt at waste management. Can you compost chicken bones and eggshells? Is this ‘plastic’ lid compostable or recyclable? What happens to that little sticker that I didn’t take off the banana peel before composting it? While buildings, municipalities, and national governments grapple with these inconsistencies and try to facilitate ways to manage organic waste, particularly in dense urban environments, the Flat World team has been watching private innovation and investment rise to the occasion.
The world of plant-based products has blossomed in the past few years, moving from purely referring to non-meat food alternatives to now encompass bioplastics, compostable packaging, cleaning products and cosmetics. With all of this comes home and industrial composting solutions and the plethora of tools and infrastructure required to support the end-of-life of all these “plant” things. On the venture side, ideas are rife. Trailblazing compostable phone case company, Pela, has expanded its product range to provide a vessel in which to compost said phone case (along with your kitchen scraps and compostable cutlery). The Lomi household composter fits on your kitchen counter and turns your waste into compost in less than 4 hours, using a combination of abrasion, heat and oxygen to speed up the process.
On the real asset end of the spectrum, the expansion of this rapidly growing industrial asset type is also catching investors’ attention. Last month, Generate Capital, a San Francisco-based infrastructure company with a penchant for emerging infrastructure assets, acquired Atlas Organics which operates eight composting facilities in the Southeast U.S. This $200m transaction will facilitate Atlas’ expansion, adding to their 365,000 tonne annual waste processing capacity. For what percentage of the problem this will address, in 2018, Americans recovered over 69 million tonnes of municipal solid waste (MSW) through recycling, and almost 25 million tonnes through composting, of out a total 292 million tonnes of MSW. Yikes.
Why are we excited to see these trends emerging? Firstly, these alternative products use renewable inputs like hemp, soy, bamboo or algae rather than traditional products that are often made from fossil fuels and give rise to exciting developments in regenerative production of these crops. Secondly, changing the culture around waste and product’s end-of-life can divert a significant amount from landfill sites which are arch methane-emitters responsible for over 15% of global methane emissions. And lastly, composting allows us to “recarbonize” our soils (which is a good thing, to be clear) by adding back valuable organic matter from a rich variety of sources. We generally don’t like to make mountains out of molehills, but in the ongoing battle to face the climate crisis, mountains of compost might be just what we need.
Hayley Mole, Vice President, Private Investments
My digging this week revealed news about two new pieces of fun legislation: the Recycling and Composting Accountability Act which would require the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to collect data on recycling / composting rates in the U.S. and make this data publicly available, while the Recycling Infrastructure and Accessibility Act would establish a pilot rural recycling program at the EPA. In 2021, “A Bill to require the designation of composting as a conservation practice and activity, and to provide grants and loan guarantees for composting facilities and programs, and for other purposes” was also introduced in Congress, more fondly known as the Cultivating Organic Matter through the Promotion of Sustainable Techniques (COMPOST) Act. Change is in the air (and the dirt), and we love to see it.
Uncut fruit and veg should not be sold either 1) wrapped or 2) dated. A study by food waste charity Wrap found that selling fresh produce loose and without date labels allowed customers to buy the amount they needed and use their judgement to decide when items should be thrown away. The conclusion: selling just five foods — apples, bananas, broccoli, cucumber and potatoes — without packaging or best-before dates could result in a combined annual saving of around 100,000 tonnes of household food waste (compare that to Atlas’ 365,000 capacity from eight composting facilities above!)
The Food Recovery Hierarchy. What on earth is that? The EPA has attempted to prioritize the actions organizations can take to prevent waste and divert wasted food from landfill. The best: Source Reduction; reducing the volume of surplus food generating and reducing waste at the source. This is followed by donating food to those in need, diverting food scraps to animal feed, using food waste for anaerobic digestion to recover energy and lastly (right before landfills and incineration!) is our lowly composting. This does not mean composting is less valuable — it simply means that it is a great catch-all for all the waste that couldn’t be used anywhere else in the chain.
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