Cities Embrace Composting Programs

Composting ProgramFood waste as well as lawn and garden wastes never see the landfill.

Recycling programs that include composting yard and garden wastes, difficult to find 20 years ago, have become the rule in America’s urban centers. And, as of 2012, 100 American cities include food and kitchen wastes in their composting programs.

Cities that now compost food wastes include Portland and Salem, Oregon, San Francisco, California, and Boulder, Colorado. And their number continue to grow. The cities of Los Angeles and San Diego allows their waste haulers to compost food waste from restaurants and hotels. In 2013, then New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg launched an ambitious campaign to recycle the city’s food waste. This would include not only waste from restaurants and other commercial interest, but from residents as well after pilot programs discovered a surprising rate of interest among households.

How the cities compost the large amounts of food waste they generate has been the focus of a National Geographic story. Composting has also become big business. It is widely believed that composting food waste saves money spent on landfill use and reduces the amount of greenhouse gases, in this case, methane, that landfills generate. Composting food waste also reduces the risk of harmful runoff from landfills polluting water sources.

While the figures regarding food waste are encouraging, they are only a drop in the bucket. The Biodegradable Products Institute reports that 60 million tons of organic waste including food stuffs and wet and soiled paper and cardboard products (yes, pizza boxes) are still being sent to landfills. On the other hand, 65% of yard and garden wastes are being composted nationally.

Cities that have instituted food waste composting programs have seen great results. Before San Francisco began its composting program in 1996, a study found that one-third of all waste going into landfills could be diverted. Today, reports Governing magazine, recycling and composting have reduced landfill waste by 78%. Portland saved even more money by cutting back trash pickup to every other week. Residents just weren’t generating as much trash.

The problem then becomes what to do with all that compost. We’ve reported on problems with commercially generated compost before. You may not want to use it on the family garden, especially if it’s been mixed with sewage sludge as frequently happen with big metropolitan area processors, especially in the East.

In the State of New York, municipally generated compost is applied to “agricultural lands, recreational areas such as parks and golf courses, mined lands, highway medians, cemeteries, home lawns and gardens.” Many of us believe that applying commercial compost that contains sewage sludge and, therefore, concentrations of heavy metals and other pollutants, is going a step too far.

On the other hand, compost that is done right, which means allowing microbes enough time to do their work (PDF) and/or heated to temperatures that would kill pathogens can help alleviate these problems. Microbes, it’s been found, will even reduce the amounts of heavy metals that persist in compost. Of course, we’d rather not have any lead or mercury or the like at any level in our compost.

Using questionable compost is one thing. Sending waste off to the landfill is another. We want to avoid both. Many of us don’t live in urban centers that compost food waste. Some of us lives in towns that don’t currently have composting programs. What to do?

The answer, of course, is to compost on our own. It’s easy to compost your own lawn and garden wastes right in your own backyard. Doing so is the best way to make sure that the compost you use in your garden is pure and derived of organic materials.

Food wastes can be composted at home as well. Worm bins (vermicomposting) will compost much of what comes from your kitchen, and bokashi systems will even compost meat and dairy. Just because you don’t live in San Francisco, Portland, or New York City doesn’t mean you have to send your food wastes off to the landfill. And you’ll also do something good — make compost — for your garden as well.

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