Management and recycling of organic waste: should we throw it away or turn it into biogas and compost?

Organic waste, often overlooked but of vital importance for environmental sustainability, represents a valuable resource that deserves greater attention. With this article, we will explore the challenges and solutions in organic waste management in Europe, the United States, and Australia, examining the strategies adopted by these countries to effectively address the issue.

What is biowaste, or organic waste?

According to the European Commission, biowaste, or organic waste, is the biodegradable garden and park waste, food, and kitchen waste (es. restaurants, households, retailers, and caterers). In this, waste food is the main component.

Globally, food waste accounts for one-third of global food production with 931 million tons wasted annually according to the latest UNEP’s (United Nations Environmental Programme) report, and generates around 8-10% of global greenhouse gas emissions as much of it ends up in landfills, in addition to incurring an economic cost estimated at around 900 billion dollars annually according to the FAO Organization.

How come we throw away so much food and why does it seem to be cheaper and easier to direct it to landfills instead of turning it into biogas, biomethane, or compost?

How is organic waste managed in Europe?

Countries in the European Union enerate between 118 and 138 million tons of biowaste annually, and less than 40 million tons of biowaste is recycled and turned into compost and digestate. What happens with the rest? Most probably end up in more or less controlled landfills producing methane resulting from decaying of organic waste over time.

Although the European Commission has put together a landfill directive that each of the EU countries must somehow implement locally, we wonder how many of the countries are actually working on it. The Landfill Directive sets an array of deliverables, but the ones that caught our eye were “the limitation of the landfilled MSW to 10% by 2035” (organic waste included) and “the quality control and traceability systems for the MSW landfilled”. Easier said than done, considering that many European countries still struggle with separation at source and landfilling is still the cheapest solution to “manage” waste. Let’s see how biowaste, mostly made of food waste, is being handled in EU and non-EU countries as well as in other parts of the world.

Municipal waste and organic waste management in Romania

At the beginning of 2024 Romania received a warning from the European Commission for failing to fully comply with the Landfill and Waste Framework Directives, especially concerning closing and rehabilitation. The latest reports state that the recycling rate of MSW in Romania in 2021 was 11.3%, which puts the country down at the bottom of the European recyclers’ list. How come, if the European countries need to follow the EU waste directives?

Romania struggles with a lack of clear legislation, lack of a functional recycling infrastructure, and most importantly lack of controlling and traceability systems. That is probably why much of the country’s waste ends up in landfills.

Households in Romania for example aren’t obliged to separate waste at source although it is encouraged. There are out-of-home bins for packaging (paper, plastic, and metals) but no separate organic waste collection bin (except in some cities) so garbage is often mixed, and the possibility of composting or producing biogas and biomethane is reduced to a minimum.

With much waste ending up in landfills, Romania is not only having an environmental issue but is also losing money. Last year, the European Union’s Court of Justice imposed financial penalties on Romania for having failed to close down unauthorized landfills and fined the country €1.5 million and a penalty payment of €600 per landfill and per day of delay for failing to comply.

But things are to get better as Romania has started implementing the deposit return system for non-refillable primary packaging made of glass, plastic or metal which aims to become one of the largest and most complex programs in Europe. And for sure in the future plans for biowaste will be put in place.

Organic waste management in the UK: how is it going after Brexit?

Data from 2018 states that the UK generated around 222.2 million tons of waste, England being the largest producer, responsible for 84% of the total waste. Given the high number of generated waste, the total recycling rate is at around 45%, which is rather positive. But where does the biowaste, and mostly food waste fit in?

According to DEFRA statistics, in 2021 the UK sent to landfill 14 million tons of municipal solid waste and 6.8 million tons, almost half of it, was biodegradable. By 2028 DEFRA has set a target of “near elimination” of biodegradable waste to landfill. How is that to be met?

Let’s take a look at England.

Last October, the UK Government announced that most households in England will have separate food waste collection in place by March 2026. Part of the “Simpler Recycling” governmental plan, the initiative wants to reduce the amount of organic waste ending up in landfills while standardizing recycling across the country. English councils will have to provide the service and collection and recycling infrastructures would have to be thought of, financed and implemented. The good news is that it seems that half of them are already collecting food waste separately.

However, that is not an easy task to finalize in a 2- year timeframe, and costs will definitely be higher than the ones of landfilling, but benefits on the long term will be unmatched in terms of greenhouse gas emission reduction on one hand and biogas plants and growth of natural fertilizers market on the other.

Food waste and organic waste management in the USA

In crossing the ocean to the US, we understand yet again that collecting and turning organic waste, especially food waste into compost and biogas is not easy to handle.

How much organic waste is produced in the USA? Here, the EPA (the United States Environmental Protection Agency) provides a 2019 report where they estimated that 66 million tons of food waste coming from retail, food service and residential were generated that year. Out of that 60% was sent to landfills. To top that, the food and beverage manufacturing and processing sectors provided another 40 million tons of waste food, with 42,6% managed by anaerobic digestion.

What caught our eye about the US market is not quite the numbers but the process that the EPA describes with regard to the sources of waste food and the management pathways. Here, we can see that the Food Service is the sector that “provides” the highest amount of food waste to landfills, so the industry alone if put into the right conditions could improve the organic waste recycling rates.

Biowaste management in Australia: they have a plan

With a population of nearly 26 million people, Australia generated around 48 million tons of organic waste in 2021-2022. Of that, 14.4 million tons was made up of food, garden, timber waste, and biosolids, and Australians managed to recover 8.29 million through composting, anaerobic digestion for energy, landfill gas capture, or direct application to land.

Further, they plan to half the organic waste ending up in landfills by 2030. Therefore, the Australian Government is investing in the Food Waste for Healthy Soils Fund, aiming to increase the amount of recycled organic waste (today at 47%) to 80% by 2030. The initiative has some good numbers behind it if it were to succeed – “$400 million in industry value to the Australian economy, up to 2,700 additional jobs in the recycling industry, while avoiding over two million tons of greenhouse gas emissions yearly”. They do make the case for the best-in-class organic waste management.

Are there benefits in recycling organic waste?

The highest benefit for us, generations ahead, and the world we live in, would be reaching the goals set by the 2015 Paris Agreement, that is to limit the temperature increase to 1.5° above pre-industrial levels.

So, which are the benefits of a good management and recycling process of organic waste and how does good management of organic waste contribute to this?

It may sound exaggerated, but managing waste more properly, along with adopting renewables, green transportation, and many other initiatives would definitely have a positive impact on the climate. And it would undeniably cost us less than landfilling it.