Taking Compost to the Curb

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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.

By sending your organic waste, like apple cores, coffee grounds and wilting flowers to be composted, you ensure their valuable nutrients are not lost to landfills.

By sending your organic waste, like apple cores, coffee grounds and wilting flowers to be composted, you ensure their valuable nutrients are not lost to landfills.

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.

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  1. Composting is not as safe as some people would have you believe.
    “In 1910, Teddy Roosevelt observed that “[C]ivilized people should be able to dispose of sewage in a better
    way than putting it in the drinking water.” (Nancy Stoner, NRDC)

    One hundred years later, after spending 69 billion in the 70s on sewage treatment plants,
    sewage experts are not only putting antibiotic resistant pathogen contaminated sewage in
    drinking water, they are putting it on our food and where our children play. It is time we require
    the wastewater industry, FDA, and EPA to quit misleading the public, work in the real world,
    with real science, just as hospitals must do when they test for infectious disease causing
    organisms in humans. If the required testing was for bacteria that grow at optimum temperature
    became the standard, without suppressing pathogenic bacteria they don’t want to find, there
    would be no sludge biosolids or reclaimed water use near food supplies or our children and all
    water would be safer. If the wastewater industry did not lie about the nature of the tests they
    would not be exposing the public to so many pathogenic disease organisms and health costs
    would be reduced.

  2. Jim, there is a big difference between the composting of food waste, the topic of this article, and the disposal and handling of sewage which is a flawed process in many places. Food waste has none of the problems that you mention in your comment, and neither should sewage for that matter, if people are doing their jobs. When human waste is composted for a suitable period, the pathogens are removed, and we are left with useful fertilizers. Check out the Op-Ed piece in the New York Times called “Yellow is the New Green,” which discusses many places where alternatives to expensive treatment processes and the dumping of raw sewage are having success. It even has the Teddy Roosevelt quote! I agree though, that as a society we need to begin discussing how we handle all kinds of waste.

  3. Thank you so much for this article!!!
    The company I represent, Nature Friendly Products™, is dedicated to offering a complete line of fully biodegradable and compostable food service tableware, cutlery, cold cups, straws and trash bags for the food service industry. We produce more than 200 food service items that are 100% biodegradable and compostable, returning quickly, safely, and completely to nature.
    Our products are fully compostable within 50-100 days in commercial composting facilities, providing consumers with a safe, eco-friendly alternative to landfill disposal. Our products can be sent to the composting facility as used—no scraping or sorting required. Nature Friendly Products meet BPI (Biodegradable Products Institute) standards for compostability, are California ASTMD Approved and US Compost Council Certified.
    We just got back from the Natural Products Expo in LA and people were so excited about our products, but did not know how they can dispose of it. We speak with organizations on a daily basis who want to move forward with compostable food service, but worry that the increased front end costs, and lack of compostable waste removal routes, will end up costing significantly more. We like to make the arguement that it costs less to compost than to landfill, but without that infrustructure really set up, we are just sort of talking around the issue.

  4. Pingback: Taking Compost to the Curb | greenwashingspy.com

  5. Dawn,

    That looks like a very great product. Thank you for sharing. It may be a little pricey and bulky for some though. In that case, I’d recommend checking out the CompoKeeper (www.compokeeper.com). It’s perfect for storing scraps in the kitchen for longer periods of time, until the biodegradable bag is full and can be easily transferred to the larger recycling bin that will be picked up by the curbside pick-up provider.

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