Curbside recycling programs have become so common, that most of us take them for granted. Simply toss your soda cans, beer bottles and newspapers in the right bins and your city or county will make sure they get recycled.
But will the day ever come when we can compost our food scraps just as easily? In some U.S. cities, that day is already here, and there is a growing movement afoot to make curbside composting as easy and common as recycling has become. That’s good news, considering that the average American throws away about 100 pounds of food scraps a year—and that adds up more than 7 percent of the waste stream.
Though many people assume that food scraps and other biodegradable items eventually break down in the garbage dump, in reality, U.S. landfills allow for very little decomposition, says Darby Hoover, a resource specialist for the Natural Resources Defense Council. Landfills are sealed off to prevent contamination, so our banana peels, coffee grounds and egg shells are usually deprived of the oxygen they need to break down—and putting it all in plastic bags doesn’t help.
But, given the right conditions, much of what we throw away could readily be converted into nitrogen-rich compost, which can be used to increase soil quality for gardening and farming. And in fact, there has been a dramatic increase in the amount of organic matter that’s composted instead of landfilled: Nationally, the rate is now 20 percent, up from only 2 percent in 1990, according to the U.S. EPA. But that’s thanks mostly to the increase in local yard trimming and leaf collection programs. Food waste collection has been much slower to catch on.
As more and more cities and counties are beginning to offer curbside composting, states are finding ways to encourage these local programs. Here are some highlights:
- San Francisco residents can put almost all of their food waste—even meat and dairy—in bins for pick-up, thanks to an innovative residential composting program that began in 1998 (restaurants there have been composting even longer—since 1997). The scraps are put in biodegradable bags, which are now widely available. The resulting compost is sold to California’s famous vineyards to grow grapes and the revenue helps offset the cost.
- Inspired by San Francisco, other US cities are catching on: In 2005, Seattle began curbside composting as part of its Zero-Waste Strategy. Boulder, Colo., Austin, Texas and Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minn. have recently begun doing so, too.
- Facing a decline in available landfill space, Rapid City, S.D., instituted an ambitious co-composting program in which organic material is sorted from the general solid waste stream and combined with biosolids (human waste) collected from the water treatment plant. The combined sludge is then processed and converted into agricultural compost.
- Other states are also looking into ways to foster more composting. In Minnesota, for example, where many small local programs have been initiated by towns and even school districts, the legislature is considering ways to implement even more says Ginny Black, of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.
Of course there are some factors that can limit the amount of organic waste that gets composted. For example, even though there are many potential uses for the finished product, like storm water management and erosion control, right now, there still aren’t that many facilities than can handle large-scale processing. But the same was once true of recycling plants. “There is really a lot of untapped potential for municipal composting—we’re going to see a lot more in the future,” says Hoover.