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Organics Recycling 101: How to Properly Recycle Food Waste

Food waste is the million-ton gorilla in the room. Millions of tons of food go unused in the U.S. every year and one-third of all food produced around the world is wasted. According to the EPA, more food reaches landfills and incinerators than any other single item. It makes up 21.6 percent of all discarded municipal solid waste.

Wondering what your business can do about food waste (and its broader category of organic waste)? Whether you’re a restaurant or a hotel, a local business or a big chain, it’s time to learn more about organics recycling.

First things first: What’s organic waste?

To put it simply, organic waste is anything that was once alive. While food waste covers what we eat, organic waste casts a wider net.

Organic waste includes:

  •     Fruits
  •     Vegetables
  •     Bakery items
  •     Meat, poultry, and seafood (including bones and shells)
  •     Eggs and paper egg cartons
  •     Dairy products
  •     Coffee grounds (including paper filters)
  •     Tea bags
  •     Food-soiled paper products

Organic waste also includes green waste like landscape and pruning waste and non-hazardous wood waste.

Unfortunately, most of the organic waste items listed above end up in landfills. When organic waste is put in landfills, the bacteria that break down the waste creates methane. Methane is a harmful greenhouse gas. When we divert organic waste brought to landfills, we put useful things to better use and reduce methane emissions.

So what should we do with organic waste?

The ultimate goal is to prevent organic waste from becoming “wasted” at all. There are many other ways to utilize these materials.

The EPA has a handy Food Recovery Hierarchy that outlines some common ways to prevent food and organic waste. In order from the first priority to last, the hierarchy is made up of:

  1.   Source reduction: Reduce the volume of surplus food generated
  2. Feed hungry people: Donate extra food to food banks, soup kitchens, and shelters
  3. Feed animals: Divert food scraps to animal feed
  4. Industrial uses: Provide waste oils for fuel conversion and send food waste to anaerobic digestion where it can be used for fuel and electricity production
  5. Composting: Create a nutrient-rich soil amendment
  6. Landfill/incineration: Last resort to disposal

Organics recycling encompasses options 3-5. Depending on what kind of organic waste you generate and your location, you can develop a unique plan that makes sense for your business.

Learn more about animal feed programs, composting, and organics recycling programs below.

What are animal feed programs?

Animal feed programs are nothing revolutionary; farmers have been doing this for years. If your business has food waste, it’s cheaper and more sustainable to have it turned into animal feed than sending it to a landfill.

Of course, it’s vital to learn about your state and local regulations on animal feed. Some states ban certain types of animal feed programs while others have strict regulations on processing. According to the EPA, some regulations ban businesses from donating food waste with certain ingredients that can harm animals.

If you’re interested in recycling your organic waste by supporting farmers and animals, contact your local government to learn more about what’s accepted.

What composting options are there?

Composting can also be a viable way to put your food and organic waste to good use. Compost is a soil additive made from organic materials; it’s a natural fertilizer that holds more water and prevents soil erosion; a big win-win!

If you’re a small or local business, it may be feasible to set up your own backyard composting program. Make sure to do your research on what’s compostable and what’s just biodegradable.

For larger businesses, you can look into commercial mixed food waste recycling programs. Sometimes the materials accepted in these programs go to commercial composting facilities and sometimes they go to anaerobic digestion facilities. Depending on what’s available in your area, you could have a curbside pick-up or drop-off options to take your organic waste to a large-scale organics recycling facility.

Learn more about composting for businesses here.

What are commercial organics recycling programs?

Curbside or drop-off organics recycling programs can be a great option for small and big businesses. Different cities have unique organic recycling programs with diverse ways of keeping valuable materials out of landfills. Organic waste can end up in a commercial compost facility or a commercial organics recycling facility.

Discover what’s available in your state with the EPA’s map of what each geographic region offers.

For example, California signed a law in 2016 that required certain businesses to recycle organic waste. There’s a several-year plan that slowly rolls out mandatory organics recycling to businesses of varying sizes and organic waste generation.


More and more laws are being passed in support of organics recycling. Get on board and make a plan for how your business can reduce food waste. Need some help getting started? Try the RUBICONMethod.

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