Too often we forget food is essential to life and that food is grown on soil. Direct Human activities together with Climate Change are affecting significantly soil’s health. However good and healthy soils are vital to cope with raising population, and growing food needs but also in carbon sequestration and storage so as to water depuration. Therefore, soil quality and health are central to fighting against climate change, ensuring biodiversity and food security.
95% of food on our planet is produced by the thin upper layer of soil. Human activity is causing daily soil degradation through loss of organic carbon and contamination at an alarming pace, especially when we think it takes from 100 to 1000 years to create 1 cm of fertile soil from rock. According to FAO, by 2050 soil erosion will have removed 75 billion tons of soil putting at risk 10% of crops, not to mention that soil is the second largest Carbon storage on the planet next to oceans. It is not just a matter of quantity but of quality. The quality and fertility of soil are measured by the quantity of organic substances in it. Organic substances are the residues of plants, animals, and microorganisms at different levels of decomposition. In Europe already 25% of soils are below the minimum threshold level of fertility due to the intensive use of chemical fertilizers. Losing organic carbon content in soils means not only reducing their naturally nourishing properties but also reducing their fertility. In addition to the loss of organic carbon, soils are also showing growing contamination from pollutants all generated by human activity such as chemicals (pesticides, Nitrogen..) and plastics. It has been calculated that the amount of dispersed plastics in soils is even higher than the one in the oceans. These contaminants are responsible for 20% of agricultural global yield reduction. In the EU commission “Study on sustainable agriculture and soil’s preservation”, less organic carbon in soils means less food, less biodiversity, less water filtration capabilities, less water retention, and therefore also faster erosion: A vicious circle we can and must stop.
The good news is in 2023 urban organic waste separate collection has become compulsory in the EU (EU Directive 2018/851). This needs to be taken as an enormous opportunity to turn waste into a local, circular resource, becoming a key factor to fight against climate change through soil improvement.
Bio-waste, including compostable certified food packaging, mainly comes from households, restaurants, and caterers and is collected in urban areas. This waste can be treated locally, in peri-urban sites, and made available to local agriculture saving transport and CO2 emissions. Replacing chemical fertilizers with compost improves soils with essential natural organic carbon that is key to fertility and carbon storage. Moreover, compost remains rich in moisture and natural microorganisms that help soils retain more water and give higher filtering capabilities when it flows through. A moist soil also reduces its erosion. These are essential additional factors to fight against climate change when lower rainfalls are expected in future years. In addition, there is also a cost advantage for the community. Non-renewable fertilizers are particularly expensive nowadays as they come from fossil-based methane. Replacing them with Compost is an economic advantage for farmers helping them to reduce cost inflation to the whole food value chain.
It is nonsense to send this precious bio-waste to incineration or landfilling just because waste management companies/systems are not yet ready for composting. Organic waste consists of water at a minimum level of 75%. It is an energetic paradox to incinerate this waste. CO2-emitting fuel would be spent to simply turn water into water vapor for over 75% of its weight! It would also be a waste, to landfill Bio-waste preventing it from bringing all the described benefits to agriculture.
Italy is an inspiring positive showcase. It is the leading country in volume and experience in Europe to best use this valuable resource and turn Bio-waste into compost. In 2020, organic waste was accounting for over 40% in weight of the total urban waste separate collection. Figures for the next years will grow even further as, starting from 2022, all Municipalities across Italy have organized separate organic waste collection. The collection of EN 13432 compostable-certified food packaging with organic waste has been in place for years and brings value to the process by adding dry compostable content and additional renewable organic carbon. By collecting separately and turning bio-waste into compost, a virtuous circular system has been established. In 2020, 4,6 Mio T of urban organic waste have been collected and treated to produce 2,2 Mio T of Compost which has led to storing 375.000 T of organic carbon in farming lands though saving 4,3 Mio T CO2 equivalent per year compared to landfilling. Compost has been made available at 70% to local farming activities, and to Organic farming, closing the circular loop. This positive system has proven to be economically viable and competitive both from the economic and environmental points of view. There are 358 composting treatment sites in Italy of which 294 are direct composting sites, and 65 sites are integrated Anaerobic-Aerobic. In addition to direct aerobic composting plants, organic waste can also be treated in anaerobic digestors to produce Bio-Methane and C02 that can be separated into industrial gases. The residue of Anaerobic digestion then goes to aerobic composting mixed with wood waste and turned to compost. 312 Mio m3 of Biogas have been produced in 2020 equivalent to an electric power generation of 664.000 GWh and a production of 100 Mio m3 of Biomethane.
We must stop wasting bio-waste bringing them to landfilling or incineration. Europe and North America must further accelerate in promoting separated bio-waste collection and its biological recycling to compost: a simple, low cost and effective system to turn waste into a local, circular resource that significantly helps in the fight against climate change, improves soils, preserves food quality&safety and farmer economics.
At BIOPAP® we started with renewable raw materials and a clear end-of life project over 20 years ago having the whole range certified CIC compostable, back in 2009 with the license N°3 in Italy. We have designed and developed a unique range of high-performance convenience food packaging, fully compostable with food and kitchen waste to be biologically recycled and turned into Biogas and Compost.