Adequate Composting Infrastructure in Georgia

Imagine a world where every business in Georgia was to replace its single-use plastics with biodegradable and compostable alternatives. Imagine that all containers and to-go cutlery were made of plant-derived plastic. Although it would be easy to assume that the change would be advantageous for the environment, such a situation could lead to an increase in carbon emissions due to the state’s lack of composting infrastructure. The state must invest in commercial composting facilities so that its businesses and residents can effectively reduce their waste generation, support a healthier climate, and reap the benefits of green innovations in plastic manufacturing.

Most Americans concerned about the environment recognize that the country has a plastic problem. The average American generates 287 pounds of plastic waste per year, the highest per capita amount in the world, and roughly 91% of that waste is a result of single-use plastics.[1,2] Due to the volume of fossil fuels consumed in the plastic manufacturing process and the traditional plastics’ thousand-year lifespan, businesses and individuals have looked to alternative, “biodegradable” materials for single-use products. However, the label “biodegradable” simply refers to materials that bacteria and living organisms can break down in a highly controlled lab, so products labeled “biodegradable” often do not break down in a timely fashion in landfills. For example, biodegradable bags from a University of Plymouth study were able to carry groceries after being in the ground for 3 years.[3] The term “compostable” is more significant, meaning a product is lab-approved to be processed in an industrial composting facility. Even so, the agriculture supporting the production of compostable plastics generates carbon emissions, and when not composted, compostable plastics require 100 or more years to decompose.[4,5] When such materials are placed in landfills alongside ordinary garbage, they also release methane, a greenhouse gas 25 times stronger than carbon dioxide.[6]

Compostable products only break down as intended and without significant emissions, if they are actually composted, and Georgia lacks the necessary composting facilities to sustainably shift from plastic to compostable single-use materials. Only two Georgia counties, Athens-Clarke and Dublin, have public composting facilities within their municipal solid waste landfills.[7] Various private commercial composting entities and nonprofits serve the Atlanta area, but county landfills are not equipped with commercial composting facilities open to facilitate food waste collection or drop-off. If Georgia wants to replace traditional plastics with compostable materials to reduce its carbon emissions and lessen its contribution to climate change, it must invest in composting infrastructure.

The state of Georgia should create a partnership with municipalities interested in adding commercial composting facilities to public landfills, whereby the Georgia Environmental Protection Division could fund half of the upfront cost of commercial composting facilities. The program could begin with two projects in the Atlanta area, in which public composting infrastructure is severely lacking, and depending on the program’s success, expand to Augusta, Columbus, and other populated areas. Communities adding composting capabilities to existing landfills could look to Athens, GA, as a model: While the Athens-Clarke County commercial composting facility costs $1.5 million upfront, it composts over 1,000 tons of food waste annually and sells its finished compost as a revenue stream.[8] Opening public composting facilities across the state would also open doors to sustainable partnerships. Athens has implemented a commercial food scrap collection system, enabling local businesses and restaurants to compost cutlery, containers, and leftover food.[9] If the state were to aid in the construction of compost sites, businesses across Georgia could partner with their local governments to create food waste pickup programs and prevent millions of pounds of food from going to the dump.

In Georgia, about 12% of the trash that ends up in landfills each year are food products.[10] Once there, the roughly 1.6 billion pounds of food decomposes rapidly and without oxygen under anaerobic conditions. When organic compounds like fruits, vegetables, or even compostable cutlery decay without oxygen, they release the highly potent greenhouse gas methane into the atmosphere. The process of composting aerates organic matter as it decays, preventing anaerobic decomposition and methane emissions. Additional compost sites would enable Georgians to decrease the amount of food that ends up in landfills and produces methane, as well as properly dispose of compostable plastics. Such sites would also increase the state’s output of finished compost products. Farms, plant nurseries, and landscaping businesses purchase compost due to its nutrient richness; adding compost to gardens and farms helps soil retain moisture, combats plant diseases, and increases crop yield.[11] With support from the state, local governments across Georgia can develop robust composting facilities so that its residents and businesses can avoid waste and strengthen the health of the planet.