Blog Post

Unlocking the potential of bio-waste

Bio-waste: Beyond the Bin

Everything has a story. Ours unfolds with the gentle click of a bin closing, a simple sound marking the beginning of this journey from the everyday to the essential. Biowaste starts in the most unassuming circumstances: our kitchens, gardens, or agricultural fields. A banana peel here, a coffee ground there, seemingly minor yet each playing an invaluable role in the cycle of sustainability.

Bio-waste, also called organic waste, encompasses biodegradable garden and park waste, food and kitchen waste from households, restaurants, caterers and retail premises, and comparable waste from food processing plants (European Commission). Far from being mere refuse, it holds considerable value, yet its potential is often understated.

In Europe, less than 40 million tonnes of municipal bio-waste are separately collected and processed into high-quality compost and digestate. This means that only 17% of municipal solid waste is recycled through composting and renewable gas production technologies (Eurostat). To achieve the overarching recycling goal of 65% for municipal waste by 2035 (European Environment Agency, 2020), there is a need to set further incentives to promote bio-waste management at the European level.

In addition, as the global population expands, so does the volume of organic waste generated, underscoring the urgency of prioritizing effective waste management strategies. This imperative not only aims to mitigate environmental impacts but also seeks to harness the untapped potential of organic waste as a valuable resource.

When Disposal Goes Wrong

The path many of our biowaste items take, especially when they end up in landfills, doesn’t just vanish into thin air, it spirals into a series of environmental problems. Let’s take a closer look at them.

When organic waste is banished to the depths of a landfill, it embarks on a dark transformation. Deprived of oxygen, this waste breaks down anaerobically, meaning it rots without air. This rotting releases methane (CH4), an invisible but overarching greenhouse gas (GHG) that excels at warming our planet a bit too enthusiastically for comfort. Therefore, uncontrolled CH4 emissions of landfill gas and leachate from organic waste make landfilling an option that can cause serious environmental problems, contaminating soil and water resources.

Then there’s the incineration route, which may sound like a clean slate until you realize it’s essentially swapping one problem for another. Burning organic waste sends off a cocktail of harmful pollutants into the air, including nitrogen oxides, sulphur dioxide, and particulate matter. These uninvited guests affect air quality and public health.

From Trash to Treasure

Rich in valuable nutrients like nitrogen (N), phosphorous (P), potassium (K) and organic matter, bio-waste holds the potential to enrich sustainable agricultural practices. However, when it is landfilled or incinerated, these nutrients are squandered, losing opportunities to promote healthier ecosystems.

This is where the concept of bio-waste valorisation comes into play. Valorisation is about transforming what was once deemed waste into wealth, ensuring these precious organic materials and nutrients are reclaimed. In doing so, we’re preventing detrimental consequences for human health and the environment and actively fighting against climate change and the depletion of natural resources. By reusing bio-waste, we are giving back the nutrients that were once part of the soil.

By crafting soil amendments from bio-waste, we breathe new life into soil, improving soil fertility and reducing our reliance on synthetic fertilisers, which carry their own environmental adversity throughout their life cycle. Additionally, valorisation of bio-waste isn’t limited to enriching the earth, it’s also about energy generation through anaerobic digestion (AD). Furthermore, organic waste-to-energy technologies can provide low carbon energy whilst reducing waste that is disposed, landfilled, or incinerated. This decreases GHG emissions and provides potential for utilising bio-waste (household organic waste, forest, and agricultural residues) as valuable bioenergy sources.

Nevertheless, these energy technologies face their hurdles. They are non-profitable as they do not always valorise their by-products, such as the digestate produced during AD. This underscores the need for improving and integrating bio-waste valorisation pathways more effectively, contributing to a more circular economy.

Embracing bio-waste as a resource aligns with the principles of the circular economy, fostering sustainability and resilience. By harnessing its potential, we can mitigate environmental impacts, promote economic growth, and build a more sustainable future which could provide many benefits in the agricultural sector.

Our Role in the Cycle: FENIX project

From the humble beginnings of biowaste to uncovering the power of valorisation, we now engage with a notable innovation: the FENIX project. This initiative embodies our believe that waste is not as an endpoint but the starting line for regeneration.

Moving towards a sustainable waste management regime, FENIX project is set to showcase the significant agronomic benefits of converting bio-waste into a soil amendment product. This product aims to improve soil fertility, water-holding capacity, nutrient uptake, as well as to maximize economic returns.

To achieve this, FENIX will revalorize waste from cities into valuable subproducts for soil amendments. These subproducts include digestates from the AD process of supermarket organic waste and biochar derived from the pyrolysis of green waste (such as garden and park pruning). They offer several advantages. First, digestates contain abundant minerals, essential nutrients (N, P, K), and organic matter essential for plant growth. When utilized as a soil amendment, it enhances soil fertility, facilitates nutrient retention, and reduces land desertification. Second, this process provides a potential avenue for carbon sequestration and storage, thereby mitigating GHG emissions in the atmosphere.

This approach provides a new source of income for farmers, increasing agricultural productivity and producing renewable energy. By promoting soil improver production and bio-waste recycling, we aim to embrace circular economy practices. Designed to enhance the use of sustainable soil products and services, these efforts align with the new Circular Economy Action Plan and the Waste Framework Directive.

From the initial click of a bin to the innovative efforts of FENIX project, we weave the story of biowaste into a narrative of positive transformation. Each step forward with this initiative brings us closer to a future where every discarded peel and ground lays the groundwork for regeneration and growth.

References:

European Commission. (n.d.). Energy, Climate change, Environment. Retrieved from Biodegradable waste: https://environment.ec.europa.eu/topics/waste-and-recycling/biodegradable-waste_en 

European Environment Agency. (2020). Bio-waste in Europe — turning challenges into opportunities. Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union,.

Eurostat. (n.d.). Municipal waste landfilled, inicinerated, recycled and composted, EU-27, 1995-2018.

 

By: J. Gómez, L. Salinas
Editorial: M. Romero
April 2024