New report outlines composting program best practices

The PIRG Education Fund, Environment America Research and Policy Center and Frontier Group released the Composting in America report.

Composting all organic waste, including food scraps and yard trimmings, could eliminate nearly one-third of all materials sent to landfills and trash incinerators across the U.S., according to a recently released report.

Denver-based U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) Education Fund, Denver-based Environment America Research and Policy Center and Frontier Group of Santa Barbara, California, recently released the Composting in America report to outline best practices for composting programs.

“One person’s trash is another person’s treasure—especially when that trash can be turned into compost,” says Faye Park, president of U.S. PIRG Education Fund. “We constantly say to reduce, reuse and recycle. By reusing food waste and yard waste, we reduce our garbage and the negative impact it has on the earth and our health.”

The report found that 326 towns and cities out of more than 19,000 nationwide offer curbside food waste collection. That number has increased by 65 percent in the past five years.

"Composting programs can work in every community, from small towns to big cities," says Abigail Bradford, policy analyst at Frontier Group and co-author of the report. "What communities may lack is know-how. This report shares experience and tips from communities that have taken simple steps to create successful composting programs."  

The report found composting programs share several characteristics:   

  • Convenience. Residents and businesses contribute more organic material to composting programs if that material is picked up curbside, as is most trash and recycling. Some communities, such as San Francisco, have also encouraged residents to participate in composting programs by making the bins for organic waste larger and trash bins smaller.

  • Affordability. Municipalities can incentivize residents and businesses to participate in composting programs by making them more affordable than trash disposal. This can be achieved through systems like Save Money and Reduce Trash (SMART) in which residents pay less if they throw out less trash. Systems like this create a direct financial incentive for residents to toss their organic waste into the composting bin instead of the trash. Local governments can also combine the cost of organic waste pickup with trash and recycling, so that participants do not pay an extra fee, which is a barrier to participation.

  • Frequency. Organic waste should be collected as regularly and frequently as trash, the report recommends. Portland, Oregon, picks up organic waste more frequently than trash, encouraging residents and businesses to put their organics into the compost bin for quicker service.

  • Education. Outreach initiatives like public service announcements, media stories, community meetings and on-site training can inform residents and businesses about what to throw in the compost bin and can also encourage participation.

In addition to taking the steps above to create successful community-wide composting programs, cities, the report says towns and counties should also:

  • Require commercial producers of organic waste to divert it to composting facilities. Requiring large, commercial producers of organic waste to compost can divert a large percentage of organic waste away from landfills and incinerators, and does not require resources from the city. Some communities have also used such a requirement to help build up their composting capacity and infrastructure in order to gradually phase in a city-wide program. New York became the sixth state to pass such a requirement in March of this year.

  • Require government projects to use compost. Local governments should lead by example and require that all government-funded projects use local compost when beneficial. This will both deliver the benefits of compost to the community and also help create a consistent market to sustain local composting facilities.

  • Incentivize backyard and community composting. Backyard and community composting programs are beneficial because they reduce or eliminate the need to transport organic material.

To support local composting programs, the report recommends federal government and state governments should:

  • Subsidize the creation of composting facilities and programs through grants, loans and other financial mechanisms. Creating composting facilities is often a good environmental and financial investment for a community, but it can require a lot of upfront capital. Federal and state governments can help encourage the creation of these facilities by providing grants, loans or issuing repayment guarantees to those local municipalities and private companies that lack the resources to begin a project. The report says federal and state governments should provide similar financial assistance for local governments and businesses to launch curbside organics pickup programs and purchase necessary equipment, such as trucks and bins.

  • Fund programs to develop and test municipal composting programs. The 2018 Farm Bill included a $25 million allotment for the USDA to develop and test municipal composting programs. However, the funding will only go toward programs in about 10 states, and is only authorized through 2023. Congress should increase USDA funding to develop projects in more states over a longer period.

The full report is available online.

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