Composting Makes Sense. Why Don’t More Cities Do It? - Modern Farmer

Composting Makes Sense. Why Don’t More Cities Do It?

From small, backyard bins to municipality-run programs, compost is a great way to divert waste from landfills. So, why aren’t there more public programs available?

Photography by Shutterstock.

Roughly one quarter of all landfill waste in the US is food. If you add in things such as yard trimmings, newspapers and wood products, more than half of all waste is made up of organic material. 

In a landfill, food and organic materials are dumped into the landfill, with more waste continually piled on top, creating compacted, oxygen-deprived areas where bacteria flourishes to break down the organic matter. The decomposition process generates methane, a greenhouse gas. According to the EPA, “municipal solid waste landfills are the third largest source of human-related methane emissions in the US.” 

Put another way: The majority of things we casually toss into the trash can be composted, with big benefits for the planet. 

Composting is a pretty basic concept, although there are several ways to go about it. Essentially, composting speeds up the decomposition process by adding organic matter to an oxygen-rich environment and then letting the bugs and fungi that break down matter do their thing. There are small, backyard-scale composting setups with worms (known as vermicomposting), large, industrial-sized bins that rotate the matter consistently to ensure the right airflow and all sizes in between. Whatever method you use, eventually, the end result is compost—a nutrient-rich soil that can be used as a soil amendment. 

Roughly 15 million American households have access to a food-waste compost program, with about 400 programs spread across 25 states. That’s about 12 percent of households across the country. If composting is a big win for cities—taking waste out of landfills, producing fertilizer and engaging citizens in the recycling process—why doesn’t everyone do it? Well, like most public works initiatives, it’s not that simple. 

To learn more about which municipalities offer composting across the US and Canada—and to add your city to our list—check out our compost map here

The curbside pickup truck from Washington’s pilot program. Photography submitted by the City of Washington, DC.

‘One size doesn’t fit all’

So, what does it take to implement a new composting program? In 2017, Washington, DC’s Department of Public Works put together a survey to assess the feasibility of a compost program for local residents. There are a lot of considerations; in this case, it found that the main obstacle was processing capacity. For a city of about 700,000 people, where does all of that waste actually go? 

The city just did not have the space to divert waste from the landfill at that time. However, in the intervening years, industrial composting programs in DC-adjacent Prince George’s County have increased, and other cities such as Boston have started composting—a development that Rachel Manning, a program analyst within Washington’s Department of Public Works, and her team have watched with interest. Finally, in August of 2023, seven years after its initial study, Washington launched its pilot compost program. 

The city now has about 10,000 households participating in the pilot program, with regular curbside pickup of compost, along with trash and recycling. Manning says the team sends out regular surveys to participants to see how things are going throughout the program, which is scheduled to last for a year. “Something that’s interesting to us is understanding that one size doesn’t fit all,” Manning says of the issues that have popped up from resident responses. “Maybe not everyone fills up a five-gallon bin, maybe some people want more than five gallons…so there’s a little bit of thinking about what are the right sizes of these containers? What type of [truck] fleets do we need to serve all these homes? Right now, it’s not the same size as our trash packer trucks, because we’re not servicing as many people. But also, food has a lot of moisture in it, so you need a particular vehicle for that. Also, [the Department of Public Works] has a goal to electrify all of their fleet. So, we need to think about electric vehicles, and what the capacity is there.” 

So far, Manning says the program has been a success. It has about a 70-percent adoption rate among participants and has diverted more than 400 tons of waste from the landfill. The city also brings the compost back to residents (if they ask for it) to use in their gardens, so there’s even more incentive for residents to compost. This summer, when the program is scheduled to come to an end, Manning and the team will evaluate moving forward with composting on an even larger scale. 

Photography submitted by they city of Kansas City, MO.

‘We’re willing to pivot’

“I’m going to tell you a secret,” says Melissa Kozakiewicz, assistant city engineer in Kansas City, Missouri. “I always start with pilots, and using the word ‘pilot,’ I can pivot and be flexible when things are working and when they’re not….but we aren’t going to take it away.” 

Kozakiewicz, who has previously built up a compost program in Jersey City, New Jersey, is now spearheading the compost pilot program in Kansas City. She’s hoping to replicate some of her previous successes, particularly in how she makes the program available to residents. “You have to be really deliberate and careful with how you introduce [a compost program]. You don’t want anybody to feel like you’re jamming something down their throat, because then they’re out,” says Kozakiewicz. Instead, she works at a pace with which the community is comfortable and integrates demonstrations at big public events, such as a Fourth of July parade. That way, residents get comfortable with composting as part of their public life and might be more inclined to continue doing it at home. 

[RELATED: Map: Who Composts?]

Kansas City also doesn’t currently offer a curbside pickup of compost. Instead, its model is a drop-off program. The city has five current drop-off locations, with 10 more to come around the city this year. Kozakiewicz says that helps prevent contamination of waste, because compost bins aren’t lying around next to trash or recycling containers. If residents make a trip to a special, designated location, it helps to reinforce what that location is for. It also helps ward against another common concern for cities: vermin and pests. “We have one of our drop-off spots inside of City Hall’s garage. It’s a publicly accessible space that anybody can use,” says Kozakiewicz, and the regular foot traffic allows for a lot of feedback if something’s amiss. “If you call me and say ‘Hey, I was at the City Hall garage, and it looks terrible,’ I can call somebody right this minute to go check it out.” (Data on adoption rates for composting are harder to find, but studies suggest that in the case of recycling programs, residents are more likely to participate when the programs offer curbside pickup.)

Both Kansas City and Washington, DC, are experimenting with programs at the municipal level and with just a portion of their residents so far. But can these programs scale up? Recent state-wide legislation is trying to answer that question. 

In Vermont, a state-wide food scrap ban went into effect in 2020. Residents separate their food scraps and either compost them in their own homes, drop them off at a designated station or sign up for curb-side pick-up. The law also prioritizes reducing food waste upstream, ensuring more food goes to food banks or is turned into animal feed. At the time of implementation, Josh Kelly, materials management section chief at the state’s department of environmental conservation, told Vermont Public that state legislators had been working on reducing waste since 2012. “We have had a state goal to have 50 percent of the waste that we produce separated and recycled, reused or composted. And that goal has never been met in all the years that it’s been in place.” In the year following the ban’s implementation, sales of backyard composters in Vermont more than doubled, and a survey last year found that 61 percent of Vermont residents felt a “moral obligation” to keep food out of landfills (although the state is still not meeting that 50-percent goal).

California is hoping to see some of that success, after it implemented state-wide legislation in January of 2022. The goal of the law, says Lance Klug, with CalRecycle’s office of public affairs, is to reduce the amount of organic waste in landfills by 75 percent and reroute 20 percent of fresh, unsold food to Californians in need, both by 2025. The law requires all cities and counties in the state to implement programs to collect organic waste and increase food recovery from sites such as grocery stores. So far, says Klug, the program is chugging along, although it’s run into issues ranging from COVID-related supply chain slowdowns to a slower adoption rate than hoped for. Roughly 75 percent of jurisdictions in California now have a composting program in place, and in 2022, about 200,000 tons of unsold food was recovered and redistributed to folks who needed it. However, as reported by the Associated Press, it’s unlikely the state will meet its 2025 goals. 

Photography submitted by they city of Kansas City, MO.

‘Education can’t be understated’

Not everyone has a state or even a city supporting them in the effort to compost. But for some folks, that doesn’t matter—they just do it anyway. 

For Bob Ferretti, that was no small feat. He’s the associate director of administrative services at Yale University, which at any given time has about 25,000 students, staff and faculty on the campus. That’s a lot of waste. 

About 15 years ago, Ferretti and his team began the process of figuring out how to facilitate a composting program on campus—made more difficult by the fact that, at the time, the city of New Haven, Connecticut, where Yale is located, did not have a program in place municipally. (Currently, there’s still no residential program for would-be composters in New Haven. However, the city does mandate that if you are a large business, produce enough compost and are located within 20 miles of a compost facility, then you are required to use it.) “There’s really no composting infrastructure within the state at an industrial scale,” says Ferretti. “There were small organic operations within local farms and things like that, but nothing that could handle the volume we were producing.” 

[RELATED: He Wanted to Start Up a Composting Operation. Outdated Zoning Laws Stood in the Way.]

At first, Ferretti recalls, Yale had to hire trucks to cart the compost daily from campus to a facility on the New York State border, which was a few hours round-trip. It wasn’t the best environmental solution, Ferretti says, for an effort aiming to curb greenhouse emissions. “We did meet with the city to try and come up with something even more local,” says Ferretti. “I don’t think there was a ton of real estate available for it.” Plus, says Ferretti, there were questions about who would own that kind of project. Would it be a municipally run program that only serves Yale? A private program for the university but that utilizes local government? Ultimately, Ferretti and his team found an industrial composter within the state, only about 30 minutes from campus, and partnered with it. 

There were some initial wins for the Yale project. As students who lived on campus mostly lived in residence halls and ate at large dining facilities, much of the waste was already centralized, making it less difficult to collect than in a spread-out city. But this was more than a decade ago, and Ferretti says they had needed to do a lot of education to get everyone on board. “We did a lot of waste stream audits for visual awareness, you know, where we dumped out bags of trash across campus and had people in Tyvek suits sorting through and showing people what’s in our waste stream so that they became aware of how much could be diverted,” says Ferretti. “We would have the students actively weigh plates after every meal, to see how much food was scraped into this bucket, so that they know how much was being composted.” There were still challenges with cross contamination, as silverware, latex gloves or other generic trash was easily dropped into the wrong container. “Education can’t be understated,” says Ferretti. 

There’s a lot to consider when starting up a new compost program. Even if your municipality offers curbside trash and recycling collection, adding compost to the mix isn’t as simple as buying a few more trucks and hiring some new workers. But with each new program that gets introduced, there are more examples of how to make composting work for cities, towns and even private entities of any size. 

In Kansas City, Kozakiewicz says the important thing to remember is not to wait for things to be perfect—you’ll be waiting a long time. “You’ve got to kind of push a little, using the resources that you have,” she says. “Nobody’s interested here in building a new landfill.” 

 

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Virginia Patton
19 days ago

Great article. I’m going to start my research in my area.
Many thanks

Glenda Yoder
16 days ago

Farm Aid composts in our festivals and requires all-compostable service ware. We’ve been doing that since 2007 and it’s interesting how the compost companies have evolved and grown. A municipal destination for the compost is a plus.

Karen
16 days ago

I believe there’s much more that can easily done in the States where many individuals could easily compost year round in their own back yards!
Look to the experts where organic waste collection and composting are mainstream. Some American cities have to be doing this successfully??
If not, “Google” Guelph, Ontario, Canada…..it has an excellent program in place.
I agree with the statement, “Education cannot be understated”!!

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