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issue: August 2003 APPLIANCE Magazine

Wasted Legislation?

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Editorial from Diane Ritchey, Editor, APPLIANCE Magazine

I once lived in an apartment and an older condominium that didn't have a food waste disposer with the kitchen sink. Only until we bought our house did I realize how much I missed a disposer, not for only convenience, but for sanitary issues as well.

Diane Ritchey, Editor

For some of these reasons and more, it's very common to look under a kitchen sink in a typical U.S. home and see an In-Sink-Erator food waste disposer at work. The disposer, indeed, is a valuable appliance and is one that I can imagine most consumers would not want to give up.

Yet, in some European Union (EU) member states, a food waste disposer is something that consumers may have to live without. Next year, the EU Commission is planning to propose a new directive on bio-waste. Named the EU Landfill Directive, it establishes obligatory targets for EU member states to reduce the amount of biodegradable waste disposed in landfills, such that only 35 percent of the quantity disposed in 1995 will be permitted by 2016. Two working documents included with the proposal contain a provision that places a ban on food waste disposers because of a perception that their use creates additional amounts of sewage sludge and negatively impacts wastewater treatment processes and sludge management. As grindable food waste represents 35 percent of the total amount of average household waste, or 85 kg (38.6 lb) per person per year, the potential use (or non-use) of disposers is large.

However, the European Committee of Manufacturers of Domestic Appliances (CECED) in Brussels, Belgium, is arguing that the problem is not with food waste disposers, which it says creates clean and recyclable waste in a way that is practical for consumers, but instead, is with EU member states' wastewater treatment plants and policies. CECED is lobbying for the food waste disposer ban to be removed from the proposal, and suggests that the EU Commission should endorse the use of food waste disposers as an important part of a modern waste management system. A ban on disposers, says CECED, would have negative consequences in terms of the environment, competition, economy, trade, and public health.

Among other points, CECED says that the proposed measure would prevent an increase of good sludge. CECED says that the use of disposers generates primary sludge that reportedly is richer in nutrients than other types of sludge. Therefore, the organic matter can be used to produce biogas. A ban on food waste disposers would not reduce the amount of food waste being land filled, either. Instead, more food waste would end up on landfills or be incinerated, and this would not support environmental objectives and would be at odds with the goal of the Landfill Directive. In addition, CECED says a ban would constitute a trade barrier not only between the EU and the U.S., but the rest of the world. Many food waste disposer suppliers import most or all of their disposers from the U.S. A ban would prohibit such trade in the future.

Currently, there are no restrictions on disposers in about 50 countries, including the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Australia, New Zealand, and many European countries. The disposer has gained the greatest foothold in the U.S., where it was introduced in the 1930s and has been widely used since the 1960s. In the U.S., the food waste disposer has won wide recognition for its hygienic and environmental characteristics such that about 48 percent of U.S. households have at least one disposer. In all U.S. cities, food waste disposers are permitted for use in homes, and in some U.S. cities such as Detroit, MI, Los Angeles, CA, and Denver, CO they are mandated in new buildings.

In Ireland, Italy, and the UK, there are no restrictions on disposers, whereas in Denmark, Finland, and Norway, permission for use is required. In Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, and Portugal, the use of disposers in households is either not allowed or is discouraged.

There has been only one case in the U.S. where fears were voiced concerning disposer use. Until October 1997, a ban was in effect in New York City against the use of disposers in areas where wastewater and rainwater flowed in a single sewerage pipe. The motivation behind the ban was the perceived risk of frequent obstructions in household pipes and major deposits in sewerage pipes due to the high quantity of material flushed through poorly dimensioned and old pipes. A preliminary study was conducted lasting 21 months to investigate the reasons for the ban and to see if it was justified. The conclusion: there were no tangible risks associated with disposer use, thus the ban was lifted. In November 2000, city authorities even gave citizens who wished to install a disposer a waste disposal tax reduction of U.S. $300.

According to CECED, the most common argument against disposers is that the capacity of wastewater treatment plants is not sufficient. That argument is not valid, says CECED, because the amount of waste generated is increasing 2 to 6 percent per year. EU member states will be forced to deal with any capacity problems with their wastewater treatment plants with or without a ban on disposers. Additionally, a University of Wisconsin, U.S. study found that not only is a food waste disposer the most hygienic way of managing food waste in a home, but that food waste is typically 70-percent water, and is therefore better suited to be processed in a wastewater treatment plant than in a waste facility for solid waste, such as a landfill.

CECED is arguing that proper capacity of treatment plants is essential for a sustainable waste management policy, and that the EU's waste policy should be sustainable and coherent, but at the same time, remain open to different technical solutions. Whereas composting schemes are suitable in some European member states, anaerobic digestion, or the use of food waste disposers fulfill a valuable function in other countries or regions of those countries. It is, says CECED, "imperative not to shut the door to other alternatives or complementary technologies that have their own advantages, and which may contribute to ensure that a considerable share of the total amount of organic waste is recovered and not land filled or incinerated."

The bottom line is that legislation should not be a barrier to innovation and consumer needs. The Landfill Directive, as it's currently proposed, is doing that. Let's hope that the final directive recognizes food waste disposers as an essential part of the EU's future waste management strategy.


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