The Future of Garbage: Curbside Compost

Bins
In San Francisco, composting is a normal part of trash collection (photo: sfenvironment.org)

 

In most places in the US, people can put their garbage in one of two bins: one for landfill waste and one for recycling. But in Seattle, residents get three bins: grey, blue and green. The new green bin is for food scraps that the city hauls to a nearby composting facility.

About 24% of the garbage that Americans throw away is food and yard waste, and most of it ends up in our overflowing landfills. This is a shame because our apple cores and grass clippings could serve a better purpose. Farmers, nurseries, and gardeners use composted materials like these for rich, organic fertilizer.

Composting is also better for the climate. Methane – a potent greenhouse gas – is a product of decomposing landfill trash starved of oxygen and moisture. Aerobic decomposition from composting produces almost no greenhouse gases.

Seattle isn’t the only city that wants your old food scraps. Over 150 communities in the US now offer some form of curbside compost collection. San Francisco is setting the bar.

By 2020, San Francisco wants no trash at all to reach landfills or incinerators. An aggressive composting program is putting them on track to reach this goal. Today, the city recycles and composts about 80% of its trash: no small achievement considering the average national recycling rate is only 35%.

In Portland, Oregon, compost collection has diminished the waste stream so dramatically that the city only needs to collect landfill trash every other week. The city is saving money too: “green” waste is less costly to process than landfill trash.

For places that don’t have municipal composting yet, small businesses like Washington DC’s Compost Cab are stepping up to bridge the gap. While the city hasn’t implemented municipal composting, residents can pay Compost Cab to pick up their food scraps. Twice a year, the company returns compost to its subscribers and to local urban farms and gardens. About 500 businesses and homes use the service.

Another place to start composting pilot programs is in schools and universities. In 2012, eight New York City public schools launched a cafeteria composting program that diverted 85% of garbage from the landfill. Mayor Bill de Blasio wants to scale up projects like these until composting is available city-wide by 2017. Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg left office with this call to increase composting in New York:

“We bury 1.2 million tons of food waste in landfills every year at a cost of nearly $80 per ton,” he said. “That waste can be used as fertilizer or converted to energy at a much lower price. That’s good for the environment and for taxpayers.”

One of the challenges in municipal composting is finding a suitable place to process the huge volume of food and yard scraps. One solution is to retrofit existing landfill facilities to process compost too. That’s what the Delaware County Solid Waste Facility in New York has done. Their recycling and composting programs are diverting 70% of the trash they get:

Recycling our food waste is not only the environmentally-friendly thing to do; it keeps valuable resources from leaving our economy, or becoming a burden on it. Composting is an essential part of a zero waste economy.

Want to find out if composting is available in your area? Check out the Environmental Protection Agency’s map of municipal composting programs. Then read this toolkit on getting composting started at your workplace or school.

 

More information:

A National Model for Sustainable Food Waste Disposal, NRDC

Portland puts a new twist on trash pickup, Wall Street Journal

Recycling Game, City of Seattle

Keeping Organics Out of Landfills, Composting Council

 

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