Think twice before hauling leaves and grass to Omaha's landfill!

Time to decide: Landfill or Compost a million of tons of Omaha yard waste

It may be a relief to consider some local policy news that directly affects your literal backyard for a change.  The city of Omaha must decide whether to continue recycling yard waste by composting or to send our organic waste to the landfill.  What's at stake is about 40,000 tons of recyclable material annually, if hauled to the landfill it would account for about 25% of non-recycled material generated by our city, at least one million tons by 2045.  The city will find a new contract for all disposal services by 2020, but may do so sooner.

A request for proposals will be released this summer.  Omaha will have various bids to choose from and the city will have to choose to either landfill or compost our yard waste.  It is critical that Omahans make their preferences known during this process.  Too often out-of-sight local issues like this go unnoticed as they are considered!  The community has to weigh in on this issue.

The city of Omaha contracted SCS Engineers to do a comprehensive study of yard waste collection.  The results were released in January.  In the $160,000 study SCS modeled five different scenarios for disposal of yard waste. Omaha currently spends $20 million annually for waste hauling, and this will certainly increase when a new contract is made according to the Mayor's office.  Investment in careful study was warranted and SCS Engineers generated a careful and sound report, but I'm afraid it is anything but comprehensive.

The survey has been misleadingly referred to as a "sustainability study" but the report is careful never to use the word "sustainable" in an ecological sense.  The only factors that the study addresses are cost and greenhouse gas emission/mitigation.  This leaves out a great many factors worth considering, but let's first look at what we learned from the careful work of SCS Engineers.

  1. It is cheaper to landfill our yard waste.  Yard waste would be collected using the same routes, trucks, and destination as garbage.  Of course eliminating an entire collection route is cheaper, requiring less trucks and personnel.  This means less local jobs and fewer salaries ultimately paid by taxpayers. 
  2. Carbon emission is roughly equivalent between landfilling and composting, with landfilling projected to release slightly less greenhouse gas.  The models used by the study to predict emissions are acceptable, but a grain of salt is in order.  Climate scientists will agree that is it extremely difficult to model carbon emissions and their climate implications.  For our greenhouse gas nerd readers, the methane emissions from active uncapped landfill cells is a big question mark.  All in all, the study adequately supports the argument that both solutions (landfilling and composting) would have roughly equal emissions impact, making emissions a poor argument for either option.
  3. Landfilling yard waste will produce more landfill gas electricity.  The Pheasant Point Landfill gas is already used for power generation.  It currently produces about 1 percent of Omaha's residential power demand. By 2030, the landfill would produce about 10% annually more power if we landfill yard waste, this gain would plateau and hold for several decades.  
  4. At $0.11/kWh paid by the consumer, the extra electricity would be more valuable than compost. However overhead costs for producing this electricity are not included in the study.  So while the potential electricity may be valuable, it's a gamble whether landfill gas energy will be profitable or require future subsidy from taxpayers.  Landfill gas power plants may be profitable to build (SCS Engineers builds them) but they are risky investments because unlike fossil fueled power generation, they cannot adjust the amount of energy they create based on operating cost or value of their product: the megawatts they feed into the grid.

Well, it seems like a fair case for landfilling so far: it's cheaper, it will probably generate roughly equal emissions as composting and it will add some extra energy to the grid if we landfill our 40K tons of yard waste every year.  What's more to consider?  Well, plenty.

It is clear that the SCS survey failed to review or even acknowlege every outcome of this decision.  The case for landfilling falls apart when we consider any other outcome.  The laundry list of composting benefits is as follows: more local jobs, more dollars in local economies, increased community pride, improved urban soil quality, improved surface water quality (drinking water for those downstream), reduced storm water runoff, reduce reliance on landscape chemicals, increase incentive for green yard practice, healthier urban habitat for humans.

There was a time when local government did everything possible to foster local business.  Oma-Grow seems to be failing and enthusiasm to keep running the program is in the toilet according to the Mayor's website, this is just an opportunity to invest in local entrepreneurs to compete and innovate!  Local composting businesses are poised to transform the organic waste stream into quality compost in order to drive all of the benefits listed above.

Here's a quick thought experiment: Recycling of paper, plastic, and metal also requires additional collection routes.  We would save money to landfill our recyclables.  But this is abhorrent.  Any politician would be reviled for suggesting it.  Recycling is engrained in our values because it allows us to generate more value from our resources.  In this way, it is just like composting.

Now let's step back and compare recycling with yard waste composting.  Current oil prices and China's "green wall" render plastics worthless to recycle, but we should keep recycling it because it is a good habit and prices for recycled plastic will rise again. Fiber (paper) is the most valuable resource recaptured by home recycling today.  Both are shipped to China for processing!  There's nothing wrong with a global economy, but compost will never be this way.  Every bit of cash and value stays local when we choose to compost organics on a municipal scale.  The prospect of loosing this should feel just as icky as doing away with recycling other materials.

Before we settle for any solution, let's demand attention and study on the outcomes listed above that the SCS survey left out.  Let's especially focus on matters of local economy and of urban conditions driving human health.  Omaha parks and neighborhoods stand to loose thousands of tons of safe clean compost each year.  The alternative may be less beautiful and less salubrious.  Finally, let's take this decision slowly and avoid long-term contracts that block us into one plan.  The future is impossible to predict, so let's grow gradually towards a good solution.  We can keep an eye on our neighbors in Des Moines.

Des Moines recently adopted a single stream solution to yard waste. Industrial engineer Bill Stowe, chief executive officer of Des Moines Water Works is dismayed by the decision "My peers and I thought it would never pass the council because it is such an obviously bad idea, we needed a community outcry but the issue was quiet, out of sight out of mind."  This is the truth of trash; of course we want it dealt with responsibly but if it's gone on trash day we don't give it much more thought.  Des Moines has placed its bet, so we have a good opportunity to hedge.

We live in the great heart of the United States of America, it is easy to forget that we are wealthier in wide open space than almost any other community on earth.  It is a cheaper option, and viable in the short term, to expediently landfill our organic waste.  But we cut against the hard-won wisdom of our brothers and sisters in more crowded parts of the nation and the world when we decide to destroy precious land and abandon recyclable resources.  Landfilling our leaves and grass neglects the big picture, and it is not an option that faces future.  Our great grandchildren will be heirs to a diminished heartland if we do not speak out in favor of composting.

When communities embrace a culture of thrift by using resources to their maximum potential before disposing them, we create more resilient society.  When we design cycles in our urban environments in the image of natural systems, our cities become hardier and healthier.  We must not underestimate the long-term value generated when Omahan children see their parents bag leaves in paper for composting, rather than stuff them in 96 gallon garbage totes with diapers, Styrofoam, and soiled plastic refuse.