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Seattle Shames Residents Who Ignore Composting Law

Words by Leon Kaye

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 Wired.com. He shares his thoughts on his own site, GreenGoPost.com. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

Leon Kaye headshotLeon Kaye

Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010, and became its Executive Editor in 2018. He's based in Fresno, CA, from where he happily explores California’s stellar Central Coast and the national parks in the Sierra Nevadas. He's worked an lived in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay, and has traveled to over 70 countries. He's an alum of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California.

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