Seattle Shames Residents Who Ignore Composting Law

Seattle, composting, composting law, food waste, waste diversion, recycling, Leon Kaye
Seattle is betting enforced composting will boost the city’s recycling rate

With as much as 40 percent of all food in the U.S. going to waste, municipalities are struggling to divert garbage from landfills and increase their recycling of waste. True, retailers and restaurants could do more to prevent food from going into the trash — though local regulations often get in the way of donating food to those who really need it. But composting is the most effective option, which would at least return some of these nutrients into the local environment. Otherwise those leftovers would just sit in a landfill, emitting the potent greenhouse gas, methane, into the atmosphere.

In order to boost municipal composting, the city of Seattle is trying a strong-armed tactic to increase food waste recycling in the city of 650,000.

Last September, Seattle’s city council passed an ordinance banning food from all residential and commercial garbage. The composting law went into effect Jan. 1, and full enforcement starts on July 1. In the meantime, residents caught with more than 10 percent of their garbage can full of food waste will score a bright red tag on their trash bins warning them they are violating the city’s composting law.

As the local NPR station recently reported, the point is to raise awareness (or foment peer pressure) that the leftovers from this weekend’s birthday party or yesterday’s Super Bowl need to go into a separate bin. The city provides such bins for a fee, and residents who opt out of that service must participate in backyard composting. But beginning in July, residents caught with excessive food in their trash bins will be charged an extra dollar on their garbage bill. Commercial properties, as well as condominium and apartment complexes, will be hit with a $50 fee.

Whether this tactic will work is a big question. Having once lived in a condo where my neighbors would dump their recyclables in my bin if I wasn’t around, I can only imagine a scenario where scofflaws dump their trash into someone else’s can, pitch it in a public trash can on the way to work, or just funnel more food scraps down the garbage disposal.

But Seattle is upping the ante on composting because it has a goal to recycle 60 percent of its garbage by the end of this year. And while the greater Seattle area has a higher recycling rate than most of the U.S., the rate of recycling has slowed in recent years.

Currently, Seattle hauls more than 125,000 tons of food waste annually to composting processors, which in turn generate compost for local parks and open spaces. Clearly that rate will increase as the city improves on its waste diversion goals. The city estimates 100,000 tons of food waste is trucked 300 miles away to a landfill in eastern Oregon — wasting time, fuel and money. With the 38,000 tons of food waste the city expects to avoid sending to landfill once the new law is fully enforced, Seattle should then meet its recycling goals.

Image credit: Almdudler26

Based in California, Leon Kaye has also been featured in The Guardian, Clean Technica, Sustainable Brands, Earth911, Inhabitat, Architect Magazine and He shares his thoughts on his own site, Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

Based in Fresno, California, Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010. He has lived across the U.S., as well as in South Korea, Abu Dhabi and Uruguay. Some of Leon's work can also be found in The Guardian, Sustainable Brands and CleanTechnica. You can follow him on Twitter (@LeonKaye) and Instagram (GreenGoPost).

One response

  1. Leon, you mentioned scofflaws putting food down the kitchen disposer, yet, I’ve read plenty about anaerobic digesters at waste treatment facilities being able to strain out solid waste and turn it to energy. Not all sewage treatment facilities have the capacity, but Insinkerator is advocating for yet more (with obvious incentive to sell more grinding machines that aid this).

    Do you have any knowledge of how the energy created from an anaerobic digester compares to composting? It seems Seattle might well serve its efforts by acquiring digesters for their treatment plants, and encouraging those who won’t compost to instead put the waste in the disposer… It’s got to be cheaper and better PR than prosecuting scofflaws!

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