Managing disposal of organic waste, such as food scraps or wastewater sludge, is different in every community—the practices and processes are shaped by a municipality’s specific needs and resources, like infrastructure and staff capacity. Many communities across the country are seeking to improve their organic waste management. The U.S. Department of Energy Bioenergy (DOE) Technologies Office (BETO) has been working to make such improvements easier to implement.
The solution to an organic waste management challenge depends on the problem a community wants to solve. For example, communities may want to address the rising costs of disposal, reduce methane emissions to meet climate action goals, find alternatives to current practices because of aging infrastructure or systems, or address concerns about odors, litter, or sanitation truck traffic. Each of these challenges require different approaches, specific to local context and needs.
To help inform planning and decision-making in interested communities, BETO and researchers from two national laboratories produced a first-of-its-kind national resource assessment of organic waste in 2017. It includes current costs of management, policies and regulations, environmental impacts, and cost/benefits of technology adoption in counties across the United States.
Unfortunately, a nationwide study often cannot consider the local or hyper-local factors that impact waste management. These local considerations include factors, such as equity in siting, impacts to quality of life, and stakeholder engagement. DOE provides technical assistance (TA) to communities planning and implementing clean energy projects, working alongside these stakeholders to ensure their particular needs are met. Outreach is critical to let municipal waste management and sustainability professionals know TA is available, enhancing the impact of important national resource assessments and other analyses for community contexts.
Small or volunteer staff that handle organic waste programs may not have the time or resources to apply for full grant programs (such as Funding Opportunity Announcements [FOAs]). To address this issue, BETO consulted with other federal programs that partner with communities to provide TA, including DOE’s Weatherization and Intergovernmental Programs, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. BETO found that a simple, short application process was key.
In spring 2021, DOE and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) launched the Waste to Energy Technical Assistance for Local Governments with 17 communities in the initial cohort. They formed diverse partnerships, exploring waste resource availability, cost benefit analysis, environmental justice impacts, technology evaluation, and more. NREL found the TA program beneficial to its work as well, as the researchers learned directly from local experts about the challenges, current strategies, and needs in waste management.
Meanwhile, BETO held stakeholder webinars and issued requests for information, taking accessibility into account by providing opportunities for both verbal and written feedback. Two themes emerged from this feedback:
- There are limited programs that provide funding for feasibility and scoping studies, which are often required for larger funding opportunities. Communities want direct financial assistance for these types of activities.
- Installing new technologies in a community affects local quality of life. Testing is necessary to understand and minimize the risk of negative impacts.
In spring 2022, BETO incorporated the findings from stakeholder feedback into a new funding opportunity announcement topic: Community Scale Resource and Energy Recovery from Organic Wastes. BETO tailored the topic for municipal entities to get direct funding from DOE to conduct feasibility, engineering, or scoping studies associated with improving their waste management infrastructure. Applicants could also request additional funds if they wanted to do an on-site test of a novel technology.
The solicitation received an enthusiastic response, and BETO recently announced four partnerships totaling nearly $5 million on this project:
- City of Gainesville, FL
- Great Lakes Water Authority (Detroit, MI)
- Town of Yarmouth, MA
- Yolo County Division of Integrated Waste Management (Woodland, CA).
These recipients represent new entities to the BETO project portfolio as well as alumni from the technical assistance programs. Their work will span a variety of waste streams and technologies, advancing replicable and sustainable waste management solutions for communities across the country.