Organic Waste

Organic waste refers to biodegradable waste originating from plants or animals. This includes food scraps, yard trimmings, animal manure, and other materials that were once living organisms. As organic matter decomposes, it produces methane gas, which is a potent greenhouse gas contributing to climate change if released uncontrolled into the atmosphere. Proper management of organic waste is therefore critical for both environmental and economic reasons.

Organic Waste

Sources of Organic Waste

Food Waste

Food waste makes up the largest component of organic waste. This includes unused or spoiled food from households, restaurants, grocery stores, agricultural producers, and food manufacturers. Common food waste includes fruit and vegetable peels, meat scraps, dairy products, and other plate waste. Reducing, reusing, and recycling food waste should be a priority to divert it from landfills.

Yard Waste

Yard waste consists of leaves, grass clippings, branches, sticks, and other natural debris. Yard waste accounts for over 13% of all municipal solid waste in the United States. Many municipalities have begun implementing yard waste collection programs to capture this material for composting or mulching rather than landfilling.

Animal and Agricultural Waste

Manure from livestock operations and residual materials from food and crop production are major sources of organic waste from the agricultural sector. Animal manure in particular must be properly handled to prevent contaminated runoff. Digesting it anaerobically produces renewable energy while stabilizing the waste.

Collection of Organic Waste

Curbside Pickup

Many municipal waste management programs have implemented curbside collection of food and yard waste in addition to traditional recyclables pickup. This increases accessibility and convenience for households to separate organic materials. However, contamination and participation rates continue to pose challenges.

Drop-Off Centers

Drop-off centers allow residents to deliver food scraps, yard waste, and other organic materials to a centralized location. This helps capture organics from areas not serviced by curbside pickup. Yet it requires more effort for ratepayers to participate consistently. Offering incentives can help increase volumes collected.

Onsite Composting

Backyard composting enables households to process organic waste where it is generated. This offsets some costs for local governments. However, not all residents have space or willingness to compost onsite. Monitoring and support are needed to expand adoption.  

Recycling Organic Waste


Composting accelerates the natural decomposition process under controlled conditions. Food, yard waste, manure and other organics break down into a stable, nutrient-rich fertilizer over weeks or months. Composting facilities can range from small-scale windrows to large aerated static piles. The end product has many beneficial applications.

Anaerobic Digestion

Anaerobic digestion utilizes microbes in an oxygen-limited environment to break down organics and generate biogas containing methane and carbon dioxide. This gas can then be used directly for heating and electricity generation. Digesters help offset fossil fuel usage while stabilizing the waste.


In addition to compost and digestate, organic waste can serve as feedstock for a variety of renewable bioproducts. For instance, sugars, oils and other compounds extracted from organics can undergo conversion through microbial or chemical platforms into biofuels, bioplastics and biochemicals. More research is needed to advance commercialization.

More Details on Processing Technologies

Composting Systems

Windrow Composting – Organic materials are piled into long rows (windrows) and regularly turned or aerated to control moisture and temperatures during decomposition. This is a simple, low-cost system used mainly for yard waste.

Aerated Static Pile (ASP) Composting – Pipes underneath the compost piles or piles covering perforated pipes blow or draw air through the materials. This maintains aerobic conditions without turning. ASP provides faster processing for food and yard waste.

In-Vessel Composting – Organics are composted in fully enclosed drums, silos or similar containment to allow better control over aeration and other parameters. Faster than windrows but more capital intensive. Used for food waste.

Vermicomposting – Composting earthworms and microorganisms break down organics into a nutrient-rich fertilizer called vermicompost. Well-suited for processing food waste on a small scale.

Anaerobic Digestion Systems

Dry Fermentation – Organic waste with 25-40% solids (mainly yard waste) undergoes batch or continuous digestion. Aeration devices or mechanical mixing distribute microbes. Simple enclosed chambers provide containment.

Wet Fermentation – Feedstocks like food waste and manure contain 10-15% solids for wet fermentation. Suspensions are constantly mixed while recirculating through enclosed tanks or plug flow digesters. High capital costs.

Thermophilic Systems – Operate at 122-140°F. Generate gas more quickly with better pathogen destruction vs. mesophilic digestion (95-105°F), but require more energy input.

Utilization of Recycled Organics


Compost Applications

Compost produced from organic waste serves many valuable purposes, the most common being agricultural fertilizer and soil amendment. Adding compost to fields and gardens provides vital nutrients for plant growth while enhancing moisture retention and soil ecology. Landscaping, erosion control, land remediation and turf management also extensively use compost.

Biogas Applications

Biogas generated from anaerobic digestion of organic waste can displace conventional natural gas. In addition to heating digesters and generating electricity, biogas can be purified into nearly pure methane (biomethane) as a renewable vehicle fuel, injected into natural gas pipelines or utilized as a cooking and heating fuel.

Disposal of Non-Recyclable Organics


Despite increased diversion efforts, a portion of organic waste still ends up landfilled due to contamination with trash or non-biodegradable substances, limited local recycling options or non-participation in programs. Organics buried in traditional municipal landfills decompose anaerobically, producing methane which can escape into the atmosphere as a potent greenhouse gas.


While incineration of organic waste with energy recovery prevents landfilling, burning these materials only converts a portion of their energy into electricity. Non-biogenic wastes are better suited for waste-to-energy. Incineration also produces air emissions and toxic ash requiring proper management.

Innovative End Uses

In addition to being used for traditional applications like compost, fertilizer, and biogas production, components of recycled organic waste can transform into a wide range of sustainable bioproducts through continuing innovation in the developing circular bioeconomy.

Bioplastics – Organic acids, alcohols, and polymers extracted from food, yard and other biowastes can undergo chemical and microbial conversions into durable biodegradable plastics for use in packaging, containers, utensils, bags and more. These can break down in nature after use instead of persisting for centuries like conventional plastics.

Renewable Chemicals and Fuels – Waste fats, oils and greases recycled from cooking operations and sewage systems can substitute for fossil oil refineries through microbial, thermal, chemical and catalytic processes generating biofuels, waxes, lubricants and chemical feedstocks with a vast array of industrial applications.

Nutrient Recovery – Technologies like pyrolysis, anaerobic digestion and nutrient recovery systems are beginning to return phosphorus, nitrogen and other critical fertilizer components back to the soil after being extracted from waste streams. This can reduce reliance on unsustainable mined nutrients.

Aquaculture/Animal Feed – Insects cultured on food waste and compost can become sustainable feed sources for poultry, swine and fish farms looking for alternatives to traditional feeds like corn, soybean meal and marine products.

Pharmaceutical Raw Materials – Organic cellulose in paper, yard and food waste can spurn production ofTOS environmentally-friendly solvents, fibers, and precursor compounds for manufacturing essential medical drugs that treat diabetes, infections, heart conditions and more.

The possibilities are boundless for pragmatic waste-based innovations across industries. With the proper policy drivers and research investments in place to support scale-up, recycled organic waste streams offer renewable solutions for decarbonization and sustainability across supply chains.

Benefits and Challenges

Recycling organic waste responsibly delivers multiple sustainability advantages: landfill diversion, renewable energy generation, nutrient recovery, waste-based products, and reduced greenhouse gas pollution from landfills and fossil fuel use. However, contamination, participation, and program costs remain key obstacles to improving diversion rates. More public education and stronger collection and processing infrastructure are needed to maximize resource utilization.

The Future of Organic Waste Management

Stricter organics landfill bans and recycling mandates around the world indicate the future direction of organic waste policy. To accommodate increased recycling rates in coming years, more local governments must implement source separation and collection systems to recover this valuable resource and spur private development of more organics processing capacity through organic waste recycling facilities, expanded composting operations and anaerobic digestion infrastructure. Continuing technological and logistics improvements will further drive down the costs and maximize the VALUE/ADVANTAGES of diverting organic waste. With proper investments and policies sustaining the drive toward a circular economy, the possibilities remain boundless for waste oils, greases, textiles, paper/wood and other biogenic materials.

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