The recent publication of GMWEA’s first “Don’t Flush It!” brochure sparked a lively discussion about food scraps among wastewater and solid waste management professionals. Should be they be flushed or processed in in-sink disposal units — and thus allowed into septic tanks or municipal wastewater systems?
The brochure, “Cloggers!”, identifies materials that typical households flush or pour into their septic/sewer systems – fats, oils, and greases, along with solid items – that clog tanks, pumps, and pipes.
Food scraps proved to be the most nuanced of these materials, due to two, contradictory, characteristics:
1. They are valuable! They contain sequestered nutritional value, energy, and money, and their value can still be recovered even after the scraps leave your kitchen. (The average American household throws away about $1,600 worth of food every year!)
2. They are problematic! Stored improperly, they can grow pathogens, stink, attract pests, and generate greenhouse gases; flushed, they contribute to clogs in private septic systems and municipal wastewater plants.
The issue is especially urgent in that Act 148, Vermont’s Universal Recycling & Composting Law, bans the disposal of food in landfills as of July 1, 2020.
What are we to think? Chittenden Solid Waste recently offered this view:
“. . . Don’t look at your garbage disposal for answers—Just ask the folks who manage wastewater treatment plants and witness the repercussions of putting the wrong things down the drain.
“’Organic overload is a concern in septic tanks as well as in wastewater treatment systems,’ says Jim Jutras, Water Quality Superintendent at the Water Resource Recovery Facility in Essex, Vt. ‘Another concern is “hydraulic overload,” where home septic systems and municipal systems . . . accumulate material that can cause trouble, such as “flushable” wipes, grease, and food scraps. This can result in costly repairs or sewage overflows.’
“Some residences don’t have their own system, but do connect directly to a municipal wastewater treatment plant, via pump stations, which require regular maintenance due to the increase in food scraps and ‘flushables’ that can hang up in the pump and cause backups and sewer overflows.
“. . . The bottom line: Drains and garbage disposals are not the solution for handling your food scraps. Public and private water systems, especially older ones, are not designed to handle much more than human waste from your toilet, rinse water from the kitchen sink, or bath/shower water. Even items marketed as ‘flushable’ can cause problems.”
However, Jeff Wennberg, Commissioner of Public Works in Rutland, offers this cautionary “minority report”:
“One-half of the dwelling units in Rutland City are rental units. The vast majority are multi-family homes and most of those do not have the homeowner residing in the home. In nearly all of these cases there is no yard to speak of (Rutland is only 7 square miles and 85% developed). The idea that absentee landlords are going to persuade renters to use composters in the apartment or on-site is totally unrealistic. Compliance with mandatory on-site composting will be 20% to 25% City-wide at best.”
Wennberg’s concern for compliance rates – and for petroleum used in transporting food waste to centralized composting or biodigestion facilities – is validated by past Vermont experiences in Zero Waste and post-consumer food-waste value optimization.
What’s a householder to do?Fortunately, there are ways to avoid flushing food waste and to soften the edges of our hard choices. Again, thanks are due to CSWD for articulating some alternatives.
1. Store food better – buy smart and fine-tune your fridge
2. Donate food – plan your consumption, give excess to Vermont’s many hunger-fighting programs
3. Feed animals – get to know your local chicken and pig farmers
4. Digest it – compost it yourself, or find a neighbor who does
5. Recover energy – not yet an option in Vermont, but rather a systemic goal to strive for.
CSWD offers more excellent advice at www.cswd.net/reduce-and-reuse/reducing-food-waste/
To return to GMWEA’s website, CLICK HERE.