Waste Management for a Circular World: How Composting and Recycling Stack up for Sustainability

Every day more than 700,000 tons of waste—enough to fill over 60,000 garbage trucks—makes its way to landfills across the US. While some will be burned for energy and some will stay in the dump, a large portion will be diverted towards one of two solutions valued for their environmental impact: recycling or composting.

To understand how each solution works, imagine the journey of two of those trucks.

4 min read

Every day more than 700,000 tons of waste—enough to fill over 60,000 garbage trucks—makes its way to landfills across the US. While some will be burned for energy and some will stay in the dump, a large portion will be diverted toward one of two solutions valued for their environmental impact: recycling or composting.

To understand how each solution works, imagine the journey of two of those trucks. Each is filled with material that is both recyclable and compostable, namely fiber and paper products like magazines, cardboard boxes and packaging.

The first truck takes its load to be composted. Composting is a process where organic waste—including products made from organic materials like wood pulp—are left to break down into smaller components and become fertilizer. This process can sometimes be confused with biodegrading. The difference—according to the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM)—is that some biodegradable materials, such as plastic, take years to break down and still leave a harmful residue, while materials classed as compostable leave no visible, distinguishable or toxic residue. Thus, humus that remains from composting is full of nutrients that make great fertilizer which, depending on who is doing the composting, can then be sold for household or commercial purposes.

To make this process viable, waste is taken to a facility equipped to handle a critical mass of material. The environment is well aerated, and the temperature and humidity can both be kept to the level needed to promote rapid biodegradability of matter.

This is where compostable materials meet their biggest challenge. To be certified as compostable by bodies such as the Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI), materials must break down in under 12 weeks. In ‘natural’ settings, such as a yard compost pile with plenty of oxygen, that is exactly what will happen. However, most of these materials get thrown out with regular waste, under the reasonable expectation that they will break down in landfills and also because many municipalities don’t actually allow items such as compostable coffee cups and plates to be put in composting bins. In landfills, these materials are compressed under tons of other waste, cutting them off from the oxygen supply that is so essential to helping them break down. The result is that they either persist or breakdown at a much slower rate, potentially releasing much higher amounts of carbon while they do so.

Composting can be an effective solution for all kinds of organic waste. Not only can it divert some materials from landfills, when properly undertaken it uses low impact processes to harvest a useful and important product—fertilizer—from what would otherwise be waste. However, following this process means that the valuable contents of our truck can only ever become fertilizer. What’s more, it can only be repurposed once, limiting the many potential useful lives the material can have.

Now let’s take a look at the journey made by our second truck. This time imagine the load was sent to a recycling facility instead of for composting. Recycling pulp-based materials in the US actually goes back centuries, when torn linen and rags were sold back to printers to become newspapers and books. Today, almost all recycling facilities across the country are equipped to handle paper and cardboard for recycling, making it one of the easiest materials to incorporate into a circular economy. In fact, in 2018 the US recycled approximately 46 million tons of paper and paperboard. This equated to a recycling rate of 68.2%, the highest compared to other materials in municipal solid waste (MSW), such as glass and plastics.

The recycling facility can process the material itself or send it on to a third party, such as Sustana. When recovered material arrives at Sustana it is unloaded and goes through a multi-step process including screening, cleaning, flotation, washing and disperging. For example, after sorting, material is placed into a hydrapulper, which is like a giant blender where the recovered paper materials are mixed with water and spun together. This mechanical process breaks down and separates the usable fibers from any non-fibrous material for about 25 minutes. The fiber recovered in this process is then sent to a variety of markets, including tissue, printing, and writing and direct food grade applications.

As a manufacturing process, it’s incredibly efficient, with a low energy and water intensity when compared to the benefits of the final product and how much can be produced. In fact, measured by tonnage, the most-recycled products and materials in 2018 in the US were corrugated boxes (32.1 million tons), mixed nondurable paper products (8.8 million tons), newspapers/mechanical papers (3.3 million tons).

But what’s more important is that recycling process is key to unleashing the circularity of fiber and paper products. Paper and cardboard can be recycled many times, giving fiber and paper-based products countless useful lives, ultimately mitigating the impact on the environment and climate change.

At Sustana, we are proud advocates of the circular economy and believe that when it comes to paper-based products, recycling is the smarter solution. Transforming recycled paper into high-quality products is the essence of our business and both our Sustana Fiber facilities process 2.2 million pounds of recycled paper every day. As a business, we are equipped to take on something that could be composted once and make it into a useful product again and again, from takeout coffee cups to magazines packaging.

“Every day the impacts of climate change become more apparent. Businesses, individuals, and organizations across the world are responding to environmental threats by making more eco-friendly choices and setting carbon reduction targets. Most companies now have sustainability strategies that include efficient use of raw materials, waste reduction, and recycling. At Sustana, we’re proud to be a champion of the circular economy and a trusted partner for anyone seeking to create a more sustainable planet by using premium, recycled products” Philip Rundle, Chief Commercial Officer at Sustana.

For us, circularity and recycling are the essence of sustainability. Fewer input materials and less waste built in, which is why we are bringing fiber products full circle with sustainable innovation. Using our culture of innovation and our decades of deep experience in our industry, our operations are promoting and enabling a future where effective recycling at scale is the standard.