Finding the right fit

Features - Composting Programs

Composting programs can have substantial impacts on landfill diversion, but there is no one-size-fits-all approach that suits every community.

February 7, 2020

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The saying, “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure,” is more pertinent than ever as community composting programs gain traction across the U.S. With almost 30 percent of compostable material being sent to landfills and incinerators each year, a growing number of municipalities are recognizing composting as a common-sense solution to America’s current waste problem.

To encourage the implementation of these programs, U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) Education Fund, Environment America Research and Policy Center, and Frontier Group released the 2019 Composting in America report.

“Ultimately, what we’re advocating for in the report is that composting programs are beneficial across the board and should be implemented in municipalities across the country,” says Abigail Bradford, policy analyst at Frontier Group and co-author of the report. “Continuing to landfill and incinerate organic material is wasting a really valuable resource that can help us tackle some of the biggest issues we’re facing, such as global warming and the loss of topsoil that we need to produce food and stop the runoff of toxic fertilizers. So, what we would like to see happen is more and more municipalities [realize] that it’s beneficial for them to implement composting programs, and to know how to do so.”

According to the report, there has been a 65 percent increase in communities offering composting programs in the last five years, yet only 326 towns out of more than 19,000 nationwide offer curbside food waste collection.

“Composting programs can work in every community—from small towns to big cities,” Bradford said in a press release announcing the report. “What communities may lack is know-how.”

Getting started

There are several avenues cities and towns can take when setting up an organics diversion program. Some municipalities adopt community-wide organic waste collection programs, similar to curbside trash and recycling services, while others encourage community composting programs, such as those found at community gardens and schools. For Alex Truelove, the zero waste director for U.S. PIRG Education Fund, the right method is wholly dependent on the community in question.

“I don’t necessarily think there is one perfect program. It [usually] makes more sense in densely populated cities to have curbside programs versus a more rural place where drop-off centers or backyard compositing programs might make more sense,” he says.

For counties like Prince William, Virginia, a desire to expand the capacity and operations of its local composting facility led to a partnership with Freestate Farms, a Manassas, Virginia-based agricultural services and production firm, in 2015. The new contract called for Freestate to construct and operate the composting facility, while also provide organics waste management services at that site and at the county’s landfill. This year, the facility is expected to be operating at double its original processing capacity, composting over 80,000 tons of organic waste annually.

On the other hand, municipalities can permit private composting companies to operate in their community independently. Private haulers and processors, such as Compost Cab in Washington, D.C., and Bootstrap Compost in Boston, charge participating residents and businesses a fee to haul away and compost their organic waste on a weekly basis. These programs tend to have lower participation and higher pick-up fees due to their inability to achieve the same cost advantages as citywide programs, but can be a good place to start, according to the report.

In rural areas where homes are more spread out, curbside collection programs are not always effective. For these communities, it is often more feasible for residents and businesses to drop off their organic waste off at designated locations, such as recycling centers, farmers markets or other centrally located facilities.

“A lot of rural communities don’t have curbside collection and residents already bring their trash to the local dump and handle recycling themselves,” says Bradford. “It’s best to mimic whatever system the city has for trash and recycling so people aren’t engaging in a separate process or going to a separate location to compost. They’re doing the same thing; they’re just separating their organics from their recycling and their trash.”

To make composting convenient, the report recommends using curbside pickup if appropriate to the community. Since curbside collection mirrors most municipalities’ trash and recycling programs, these services experience higher waste diversion rates than programs where participants have to drop off their organics at a collection facility. Some communities, such as San Francisco, encourage residents to participate in composting programs by making the bins for organic waste larger and the bins for nonorganic waste smaller.

To lay the groundwork for a successful composting infrastructure in a city, many communities start with a commercial composting requirement. By requiring large commercial producers of organic waste, such as grocery stores and hospitals, to divert their organic waste away from landfills, municipalities can help promote the development of local organic waste hauling and composting businesses. These initial facilities can then be developed and expanded to handle the waste of homes and smaller businesses.

“That first step [with commercial collection] is an easy one for municipalities because it doesn’t require resources from the town or city, it’s just up to those businesses to take care of it,” says Bradford. “Those producers are often a significant percentage of a community’s overall organic waste profile, so these requirements can be pretty impactful. And in setting up commercial programs, the businesses start to create a local composting economy because they need somewhere to bring their [organics].”

Keys to success

According to the Composting in America report, ensuring the success of a composting program comes down to four principles: affordability, education, convenience and frequency.

While composting facilities make money by selling finished compost, it is not enough to cover the costs of collection and processing. To incentivize participation in these programs, communities have instituted programs where residents are charged for waste disposal based on the amount they throw away. “In a perfect world, I think municipalities would roll out composting programs as part of a greater pay-as-you-throw (PAYT) or save money and reduce trash (SMART) system, such that compost is either free and covered by the fees charged for trash, somehow subsidized or at least made as inexpensive as trash and recycling is,” says Truelove.

In communities with a PAYT or SMART program, residents are charged a fee for each bag or can of waste they generate or billed based on the weight of their trash. According to the EPA, communities that implement these programs typically see a decrease in overall solid waste production, with a final disposal rate of 400 to 600 pounds per person per year (compared to the national average of 1,124 pounds per person).

Educating residents on the benefits of composting is also a driving force behind participation. By utilizing marketing tactics such as advertisements, public announcements and social media, communities can help promote the concept of composting while also preventing contamination. In Hennepin County, Minnesota, for example, several cities have recruited local residents and community groups to educate and promote composting. Linden Hills, the neighborhood with the highest participation rate in Minneapolis, partnered with local nonprofit Linden Hills Light and Power to appoint “block captains” that educate their neighbors about the mechanics and value of composting.

This education can create more efficient and effective composting programs, as sorting contaminants out of organic waste is resource-intensive. In communities like Boulder, Colorado, and Portland, Oregon, these municipalities have begun posting instructional how-to videos on their websites to inform residents of what is and isn’t compostable. Additionally, the city of Denver recently released an online quiz that helps educate residents about source separation.

Just like there is no-one-size-fits-all organics collection system, Truelove says the effectiveness of an education campaign depends on a number of factors. However, the one constant is the need for consistent messaging.

“I think the biggest thing is just continuing to try to get the message out there about the benefits of composting and the harm we’re doing to ourselves by not composting,” says Truelove. … “It’s repetition. Keep telling the same story to find new audiences and tell it in a new and compelling way, whether that’s using different mediums, different channels or different people.”

Next steps

As more local composting programs continue to emerge, it is important to have support from federal and state governments. To help encourage the creation of community composting facilities, governments can subsidize these programs through grants, loans or by issuing repayment guarantees to local municipalities and private companies that lack the resources to fund a project on their own.

According to a report by the Food Law and Policy Clinic at Harvard Law School, construction of a large anaerobic digestion facility that processes 50,000 tons of organic waste per year costs around $20 million to build. Following the passage of the 2018 Farm Bill, the USDA was allotted $25 million to develop and test municipal composting programs, however, the funding will only go towards approximately 10 states and is only authorized through 2023.

To pave a path towards more universal composting adoption, Bradford says governments can be instrumental by pushing more diversion-centered regulation and legislation.

“There’s an opportunity [with composting] to create local businesses and economies,” says Bradford. “But there’re things that residents, local governments, state governments and the federal government can do as well to encourage and speed that along. Doing so will have really big benefits for a lot of areas of our society.”

The author is the assistant editor for Waste Today and can be contacted at