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  • Writer's pictureThe Pink Elephant Lady

The Problem with 'Free' Waste Collection

'Free' waste collection, whether it's food scraps, recycling, or trash, harms the green economy and eliminates jobs. And there's really no such thing as 'free'.

A colleague described how a restauranteur, when asked if he had thought about diverting waste from landfill or incineration via composting of food scraps, replied with “You can have it if you want it, but I’m not going to pay you to take it or anything”. I think about this often, and wonder if the restaurant owner would give the same response to GFL or Republic or Advanced Disposal when asked about disposing of trash. Of course he wouldn't – as a business owner, I’m sure he respects the fact that garbage trucks with hydraulic levers have to be paid for, maintained, and gassed up, the person driving the truck needs to be paid, the business must have worker’s compensation insurance and a logistics system in place to handle when and where pick ups will occur, etc. Why is picking up compost thought of as any different?

People often ask at the store if our compost drop off is free, or why anyone should have to pay for recycling. For some perspective, GFL’s revenue in the second quarter of 2020 was $993.3 MILLION dollars, up nearly 20% as compared to the second quarter of 2019 – yet another large company not just surviving but thriving during the pandemic. (By the way, only about 5% of GFL’s revenue comes from recycling). I bring this up to reiterate just how NOT FREE waste management is. Whether it's an empty pickle jar, a bag of dirty diapers, or food scraps, waste hauling is waste hauiing and isn't free. Recycling and trash disposal can seem ‘free’ to residents because it is not something they are billed for every week directly from the company providing the service, but residents are still paying. They’re paying for waste management with their taxes, and the city negotiates a PAID contract with the hauler. The point is that somewhere along the line, someone pays. Private haulers of composting do not usually have a contract with a municipality to cover their operating expenses. The compost/recycling business owner’s desire to ‘save the Earth’, while admirable, doesn’t pay for trailers and bins and employees and drop-offs at industrial composting facilities.

It's time to dispel some common myths the public believes about waste collection.

Take a look at the pictures below. The trucks & vans (or bikes & trailers), employees, odor control, equipment, facilities management and land - none of these are 'free'. Whether it's your city via your taxes or a payment to a private company for weekly collection - someone pays.

But don’t businesses sell what they take in from recycling? So they don’t really need to charge anyone, right? Aren’t they just profiteering?

Anyone under the impression that there is much profit to be made from selling recyclables does not understand the recycling industry. The cost of collecting and processing recyclable materials far outweighs their value as a commodity that can be sold back to industry. Commodity prices are constantly in flux and subject to market disruptions and geopolitical forces, like China’s National Sword program. For the first time, many Americans realized that much of our "recycling" was being shipped off to China. When that dumping source was largely cut off, the entire U.S. recycling industry was impacted. In my company’s case, we only take items that are difficult to recycle, such as plastic film and aseptic cartons. Plastic film clogs up machinery at the recycling facilities where curbside material is dropped off, and cartons are composed of plastic, metal, and paper. Both cannot go curbside and are challenging to recycle. I do not make any money off selling these materials. Most of the waste collection behemoths make 5% or less of their revenue from recycling.

Compost is made from food scraps. You can sell it back to people. So, you don’t really need to charge anyone, right?

While finished compost can be sold, this does not generate enough revenue to cover the costs of a residential or commercial composting operation. Selling compost helps make the entire process more circular and can certainly help offset operating costs, but it won’t cover everything.

A sample operating cost projection for a theoretical composting facility. $479,075 - definitely not free. These are the types of facilities that will be necessary to make food scrap collection available for entire cities, states, and even countries.

What's wrong with not charging businesses and residents to compost? That seems kinda mean of you to say this is a problem. They just want to help people and help the planet.

And that's great! It really, really is. But there's a ripple effect that we need to think about. If a service is provide to a business or household for free, that sure makes it difficult for any other existing businesses to charge for it. Here’s a great example. If a business is not charged or required to make a donation for picking up their excess inventory that is still edible (fruit, bread, etc.) that will be donated to church pantries or shelters, it will be impossible for a compost hauler to charge that same business for picking up food that is no longer edible to be composted. Think about it – pick up is free if the food is edible, but once it rots, then the business owner has to pay? If I’m a business owner, I’m going to expect that BOTH services should be free. The receiving agencies serving the hungry and homeless should never have to pay. But the for-profit restaurants and grocers? They are not ‘charity recipients’ and should pay - even if that's simply a donation to the nonprofit. Which brings me to the next point.

What about handling composting/food waste or recycling as a non-profit? Then you could use volunteers so it could be free or very low cost to people.

Initially, I thought this was a great idea too. But then I started seeing problems with the ripple effects of this approach on multiple levels.

Volunteering is a privilege. And it often requires privilege to be able to do it. A volunteer must have the ability to do a certain amount of work for free, and must have the time and energy to do that work. Volunteering does not create green collar jobs for people that need paid work.

Granted, in many cases, it would be very inappropriate to charge the recipient of a service for that service; that’s where nonprofits and their donors really shine. The terminally ill, the economically disadvantaged and those experiencing homelessness, people who do not have enough to eat, a suicide crisis hotline – there are many instances where asking a recipient to pay would be simply awful. But a restaurant owner or grocer? A resident that would like you to come to their house to pick up their food scraps every week? Are these ‘charity cases’? No. They can pay. And they should.

Here are bins we set up when providing Zero Waste Event services. The bins and bags are not 'free' - I had to pay for them.

A similar situation presents itself with farms that give away food and rely on corporate volunteers to provide labor. It might be hard for an urban farm that pays local people wages through money it earns from selling food if a farm down the road is giving the food away and using free labor. (The corporate volunteers are STILL being paid – just not by the nonprofit. Large companies usually send their volunteers during the workweek, when workers are earning their salaries or hourly rate). A similar issue exists with unpaid internships. Working for free is not a luxury everyone can afford.

Free services eliminate the green economy boosting, job-creating, small business-creating ripple effect that fee-for-service businesses provide. For example, when my company’s composting program and Zero Waste Event services program grow, I can create more living wage, fringe benefit providing jobs to local people. Furthermore, I work with a woman-owned business that hauls our materials to an independently owned commercial composting facility. My customers and clients pay me, and I pay the employees and the hauler. The hauler pays the composting facility. If all of this is supposed to be ‘free’, there is no revenue stream spreading out from my company to other businesses and to my employees.

But people can just compost in their backyards, or give their scraps to a local farm or garden. All of this is free. Why does everything have to be about profit?

First of all, revenue and profit are not the same thing. Revenue needs to cover operating costs. Profit is what is left over. A compost hauler making revenue isn’t necessarily earning hefty profits. Most people collecting smelly, wet food scraps aren’t doing it to buy fancy designer clothing and big houses. Yes, composting in your backyard or donating your food scraps is “free”. So is growing your own wheat and making bread with it, sewing your own clothes, and cutting your own hair. Doesn’t mean people WANT to do these things. Paying someone to do a service for you that you cannot or don’t want to do yourself is pretty much what the massive service sector economy is all about. There is value in the service of compost collecting.

Bins like these are often pictured in descriptions of how to DIY a compost set up in your backyard. This type of bin would NEVER work for my house. Like many cities, my city has a rat problem. Leaves, branches, and grass I could do, but most definitely not food scraps. So I put my household scraps with my company's compost collection, and it is hauled away to a commercial composting facility. Which, again, is NOT FREE.

Furthermore, backyard composting usually means missing out on fats, meats, dairy, and compostable food ware, which should only be processed in a commercial facility. Some compost haulers and collectors (including us) have access to these facilities, increasing the amount of waste that can be diverted. Some people live in apartments and do not have backyards. Some people live in cities with rodent problems and fear that their compost pile will attract rodents. There are folks that compost year round on their own property, and businesses that donate their food scraps. That’s great. But there's room for businesses who pick it up is a service, and that's a service that individuals and businesses are willing to pay for.

You'll often see posters like this describing what should and shouldn't be composted - but this only applies to backyard composting, where temperatures don't usually get hot enough to kill harmful microbes and break down the 'NO' materials. In our program, we can take pretty much everything on the 'NO' side except the pet droppings. We even take compostable cups and takeout containers.

If businesses have to pay, they won’t donate their leftover edible food or food scraps. They’ll just throw it out because it’s cheaper. So, the only structure that makes sense is a nonprofit that provides the service for very little or no cost.

There is definitely some truth to the first part of this statement (reference the restaurant owner I spoke of in the first paragraph). We are not yet at the point where sustainable business and personal practices are so much the norm that being wasteful carries social stigma. There are businesses (and people) for which, if the answer to ‘Is it free?’ isn’t yes, then they’re not interested. I get that. But that needs to change.

The best way to deal with waste is prevention. If businesses and people don’t want to pay more for waste disposal, they need to make less waste. Hitting people in the wallet is one of the most surefire ways to promote compliance. Right now, whether I throw out 2 bags of garbage curbside or 20, there’s no penalty. For most people, that means there’s no incentive to make less waste. Some cities are transitioning to pay-as-you-throw - generating more waste and it'll cost you. Moralizing, preaching, and instagramming pics of bamboo toothbrushes and refillable bulk food containers won't move enough people to act. But charge them money? NOW they're listening! Funny how that works, innit?

There’s a fine line. Charge too little, and your sustainability business is, well, not sustainable! Charge too much, and people might just decide to throw everything away as opposed to recycling or composting their waste.

Food rescue, composting, and recycling are critical, essential businesses. And until the American culture of use it, throw it away, and buy more changes, maybe free is the best we can do.

But it isn't really 'free'. Donors to the nonprofit pay for it.

Yep. But I believe that we eventually need to switch to a model where whoever is making the waste should be who pays. There is value in that. Make more waste, pay more. Want to pay less? Make less waste. Households should also pay for pick ups by nonprofit donation trucks that pick up clothing and household goods. If the household discards materials, THEY should pay for the pick up. And that means the nonprofit makes more money to directly benefit those who use their services, because the costs of maintaining a fleet of trucks and a collection crew is offset by pick-up fees.

As for composting, there are multiple residential and business haulers in metro Detroit and other cities who are ALREADY providing this service for a fee and relying on PAID employees. This is not a new thing. Undercutting the costs of these businesses by using volunteers and donations is one way of doing things, I guess. But I'm not sure it's the best way.

This sounds like whining about something that isn't really a problem.

Maybe it'll be seen as a problem when it affects the viability of YOUR business. Think about the following scenario. In the Northeast, they're running out of landfill space faster than we are here in the Midwest. That's why you're seeing so many composting operations popping up in that region of the country. Cities are starting to put ordinances on the books prohibiting businesses and residents from putting food waste in the trash. A nascent compost hauling infrastructure is tiny but growing, composed of both for profit and nonprofit businesses.

Eventually, cities will contract with organics haulers. Just as cities have moved away from having their own sanitation departments composed of municipal sanitation workers and have outsourced the work to companies like Waste Management, GFL, and Republic (who then gobbled up smaller and independently owned haulers), cities at some point will make curbside organic waste collection a thing. Who will cities contract with? Nonprofits collecting buckets on bikes, or a massive hauler that can collect from the entire city that already has logistics and equipment in place? And at that point, what happens to the small, bike-based and 'free' collectors, and the small for-profit businesses?

Recently, Vermont became the first state to prohibit trashing food scraps for both businesses and residents. Waste collection giant Casella has lagged on curbside collection because it just isn't profitable at this time, and small, independent compost haulers have filled in the gaps.

“Composting today is where we were with recycling 40 years ago,” said Joe Fusco, a vice president at Casella Waste Systems. “It’s not just a switch you can flip.”

The way businesses are structured in this sector matters. Businesses in this space need to work together whenever possible as opposed to duplicating work and competing with each other. We need to pay attention to how cities are handling the eventual transition to municipal-provided curbside organics collection. Our survival depends on it.

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