With food waste piling up in landfills, officials want local businesses to step up

Missouri officials are looking for new ways to mitigate just how much food waste is going into the state’s landfills.

Missouri produced more than 5.7 million tons of waste that went to landfills in 2016, and more than 17 percent of that could have been composted, according to a statewide landfill survey released by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources earlier this year. Most of that compostable trash — at 10 percent of the state’s total waste — is food.

For Lelande Rehard, district manager for the Mid-Missouri Solid Waste Management District — which includes Audrain, Boone, Callaway, Cole, Cooper, Howard, Moniteau and Osage counties — the data revealed what he and many others who work in waste management have long suspected. “It kind of confirmed one priority that we already had,” Rehard said. “Food waste is the biggest item going into landfills.”

But the data has also reinvigorated state officials to bolster their efforts in diverting food and other compostable waste away from the state’s landfills, where it produces harmful environmental gas and contributes to costly government programs.

Now state officials are talking about increasing grant funding or prioritizing their grant pools to boost current composting efforts, or even jumpstart new markets for businesses that want to get involved in the local recycling scene.

“We have all this food waste, we have all this grant funding, how about we move some of it towards this,” Rehard said. “If anyone wants to do something with food waste, as long as it looks like a viable project, you’re pretty much a shoo-in for funding.”

Huiqi Xu/Missouri Business Alert
Developing a local market

When Avenue of Life, based out of Kansas City, started recycling mattresses back in 2013, there was hardly a market for the materials the organization was salvaging, said Avenue of Life Executive Director Desiree Monize.

Throwing mattresses in a landfill is free for residents, and no one was talking about the benefit of potentially recycling them, she said. But Monize was able to secure $400,000 in startup money from the state’s Department of Natural Resources, or DNR. She used that to hire employees, buy equipment and, most importantly, research a potential market for the salvaged materials — things like cotton, wood and metal.

Today, Avenue of Life recycles 75,000 mattresses a year, Monize said, and people actually pay the organization between $10 and $20 per mattress to do it. But her organization never would have survived the initial years without the DNR’s help.

“We wouldn’t have been able to do it,” she said. “It’s too expensive, the equipment … it’s very, very difficult.”

That’s exactly the kind of local market development the DNR wants to see happening with composting now, said Anita Stansfield, who handles grants for the agency.

Increasing the state’s composting efforts isn’t necessarily an easy task, Stansfield said, and the biggest barrier to recycling anything is finding an end market for the materials. “The problem is, ‘Why are we recycling it?’” she said. “It has to have a market to go to.”

In other words, even if the state begins collecting food waste from residents, she said, what do they do with it? Many cities and towns, especially smaller rural ones, don’t have the infrastructure to collect and process food waste, she said, let alone a marketplace to sell the byproduct when the composting process is finished.

But both Stansfield and Rehard think that’s starting to change, and they’re seeing more people interested not only in participating in composting efforts, but also in developing a market for it.

Recently, Rehard’s district awarded $75,000 to Bluebird Composting, a burgeoning composting company in Fulton, to help expand its operations and infrastructure. His district also helped Columbia launch a one-day pilot project this year, to gauge interest in residential composting, he said.

Stansfield said the DNR doesn’t know how much the agency will be offering for composting and market development grants this year, but that it will likely be more than previous years. In 2016 and 2017, the agency awarded nearly $790,000 in grants for composting efforts and market development.

“There are a lot of businesses now that are really working on how to do composting,” Stansfield said. “People are wanting to do this more and more.”

Missouri Business Alert’s sustainability coverage is funded in part by the Mid-Missouri Solid Waste Management District.

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