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The Path to Mandated Municipal Composting


By Russ Klettke

The vast majority of American cities do not provide for municipal food waste composting. San Francisco began such a program more than 15 years ago, and a select few other cities (New York; Seattle; Portland, Oregon; Hoboken, New Jersey; and Austin, Texas, among others) have in place or are testing ways to divert the approximately 25 percent of waste that is organic and compostable.

For several reasons, this list may not grow very large or very quickly in the near future. But that doesn’t mean more composting can’t or won’t happen by other means.

Composting offers several direct and indirect benefits. Simply keeping food and yard waste out of landfills reduces garbage-generated emissions of methane -- a greenhouse gas that is 20 times more powerful than carbon dioxide. The end result of composting is rich, bioactive humus that can be used in gardening, agriculture (including urban farms), silviculture and landscaping to create a permaculture that reduces or eliminates the use of chemical fertilizers.

Many more cities and counties provide a means to dispose of yard waste, tree leaves in particular, largely due to prohibitions on burning instituted a generation ago. And Americans have learned to recycle glass, metal and plastics. This notably suggests that homeowners and commercial enterprises can adopt habits and operations to serve the public good.

Food waste has special quirks

Kitchen waste, however, is in a different category. It needs to be sorted out from other things (recyclables and non-recyclable trash) in a kitchen. Food waste is also notorious for attracting critters, particularly when meat products ­– meat scraps, bones, juices – are part of the mix. Backyard composting should include only plant material and eggshells.

Commercial-scale composting can include animal products and biodegradable food packaging such as oil-stained cardboard pizza boxes. Trucks hauling compostables add to costs and greenhouse gases, but revenues from rich soil and biogas can offset those factors.

So, why isn’t composting mandatory in cities and towns? At least four barriers need to be overcome:

1. Disruption. Large-scale composting incurs significant operational changes. While city trash haulers typically have systems in place to receive yard waste with different trucks on different days retrieving bags of leaves, trimmings, Christmas trees and the like – often taking it to a mulching facility that chips it for consumer and commercial use – instituting a separate food-waste pickup and processing facility requires a large investment. Cities that do this right are notably progressive, populated with taxpayers and leaders willing to spend the money upfront and realize the benefits over the long term.

2. Money. Mother Jones magazine and other media have reported that private waste haulers, a growing trend, have lobbied against the complications of organic waste diversion because it challenges their business model (more waste volume = more revenue). Those companies counter that, where economically viable, landfill methane capture is happening. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reports that as of March 2015, 645 methane-capture programs in 595 landfills in 48 states were converting methane to fuel, which has grown from less than 150 landfills in 1995. Still, that’s only about a quarter of all U.S. landfills.

3. Distance. Add to this how compost operations are typically established far away from population centers where land is cheaper. For example the Hoboken program, launching in 2015, will carry the food waste all the way to West Virginia for processing. This adds to cost and, ironically, burns more fossil fuels.

4. Science. And while it may seem as if mixing food waste with chipped up trees and leaves would be ideal, blogger Steve Savage urges caution. Trained as a plant pathologist and involved in agricultural technologies for more than three decades – and a gardener – Savage has run calculations on the carbon footprint of large-scale composting. The problem is that the anaerobic conditions of composting (the “hot” phase of the process) still create methane that escapes open-air piles.

But Savage and others suggest instead that mechanical anaerobic digesters could efficiently convert waste to nutrients while capturing methane for use as fuel. Alternatively, commercially-available digester technologies that are sometimes used in restaurants and hotels break down meat, bones, dairy products and baked goods as well as plant refuse.

Taking food waste matters into their own hands

According to Nation’s Restaurant News, a trade publication, recognition of food waste problems has risen among restaurateurs – and they are taking action. Solutions include engaging staff in finding efficiencies, composting on site, contracting with haulers that have composting capabilities and installing their own aerobic digesters.

That doesn’t change much for at-home cooks, 68 percent of whom say they would participate in a community-based composting program if it were available (per a Harris Interactive poll conducted in 2014 for the National Waste & Recycling Association).

So, municipal-scale composting might not become commonplace soon – until, perhaps, commercial operators find ways to make it profitable. But with advances in technology, knowledge and culture – and political pressure – all things are possible.

Image credits: 1) Flickr/Jason Tester 2) Flickr/Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources

Russ Klettke is a business, health and sustainability writer based in Chicago. He is also an organic gardener, a compost-obsessive and competitive triathlete.

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