Start Municipal Composting in Your Town
by Marnie Vyff owner of Mountain Lakes Organic Co-op, LLC
We've all heard about San Francisco's mandatory composting, and may be wondering if it's in our future too. Between climate change, our increasing population and a number of more immediate environmental limits that are facing us, mandatory composting is indeed in our future. It's not a big issue – we got used to recycling. The key is to educate and start with slowly with voluntary programs. We need to remember that it's the same stuff we're throwing out, it just has to be put in a different bin. Its important for social leaders to introduce, teach and enforce the policies that are for everyone's benefit.
Landfills are reaching capacity. In America we have less than 20 years of capacity left at the rate we're going. One of the problems with landfills is organic materials decompose anaerobically, producing methane and nitrous oxide. Methane gas has 72 times the global warming capacity of CO2, and nitrous oxide is about 300 times that of CO2. Methane is a powerful energy source that can satisfy part of our need for fuel.
Composting can be a lucrative business. Composting also creates jobs. There are more man hours needed tending compost than, landfilling or incinerating the material. These hour are paid for through tipping fees and sale of the end product. It's also considered a "green" job.
Over the last 150 years, over farming and bad land management have caused extensive erosion, we now have 25% of the topsoil left in America compared to the beginning of the industrial age. Compost is the real Black Gold. It creates very rich topsoil ideal for healthy plant growth.
About 250 million tons of solid waste is produced in the United States each year. Recycling and Composting in 2008 succeeded in preventing about 1/3rd of these wastes from being dumped in a landfill or incinerated. If we composted all the remaining organic waste materials – food scraps, yard trimmings, paper, and wood – we can divert and reuse an additional 36.75%. Food wastes are the 3rd largest waste category and yet only 2.5% are composted.
The European Commission ordered phasing out the co-disposal of organic and inert discards by 2016. Presently, in New Jersey, only Cumberland County offers food waste composting for some commercial institutions. Composting is in fact a great way to save on the garbage bill, so corporations are leading the way. Those who compost here in New Jersey, like Whole Foods, are composting 55% to 60% of their total waste. And they find their tipping fees are a third less than that of their Municipal Solid Waste.
Municipalities that have composting plans have found a gradual adoption works best. In 5 to 15 years, depending on the municipality, a full composting program can be in place, with a high chance for success. Set up the composting committee who can then encourage businesses and institutions that handle food, to start composting. Start an education program for residents to home compost at this time as well. This step gets the interested parties to participate, starts to build the necessary infrastructure, and begins to build backing for future steps. Then with wider acceptance, a voluntary pick-up wasteshed can be established to include households that don't have backyards or an interest in gardening. Composting facilities can be set up at this time. To achieve the goal of composting 90% or more of the area's organics, a mandatory system is necessary with pick-up, hauling and composting facilities. Toronto's Composting Committee called "The
Waste Diversion Task Force 2010" laid out this gradual plan. The gradual growth gives time for the residents to change their habits successfully, and to establish the most appropriate infrastructure.
The municipality should first choose a composting committee. The Town's Recycling Coordinator should be on the committee or they should report to him/her. Their job will be to: manage a community assessment, a food waste audit, an education program, the logistics and contracts with the haulers and composters, and apply for any grants available. Using a community assessment and food audit one can analyze the amount of food scraps and other discards, and look at solutions that have worked in similar communities.
Online, the USEPA has a Food Waste Management Calculator (FWMC) which is a very good place to start. With the municipalitie's statistics, the calculator will produce an electronic report that suggests the best methods of recycling, composting, landfilling for the community. If you find you need a professional to assist with the assessment and audit, Solid Waste Resource Renewal Group SWRRG is New Jersey's composting central core.
When presented with the monetary benefits, institutions should be very happy to source separate their food scraps, and have them taken to off-site composting locations. Haulers are very interested in developing wastesheds. Municipalities backing the program or giving tax benefits, can be a catalyst for the connections to happen faster.
Residents, however, need more time to acclimate to the idea, because of the yuck issues with composting. Suburban residents are the most receptive to home composting which is also the most environmentally beneficial. This also gives time for necessary infrastructure to develop for city dwellers who can't home compost. The Composting Committee will develop an education program for home composting. Residents generally are interested in learning about composting. Doing something for the greater good like composting makes people happy. It's a brain stimulus that has been likened to eating chocolate.
The campaign should hit residents many times in different ways – tv and radio ads, brochures, posters, direct mail, articles in local papers, an ordinance, a Learn-How-to-Compost booth at the town fair, or even an annual Compost Day, like in Montclair. Offer a discount on indoor compost buckets and outdoor bins. Create a web page for the town site. You can get creative. It is important they understand why they need to compost, in order to get over the yuck factor. A few will start composting, they all will talk, and it will spread and become 2nd nature. There will be some dissenters, but women are generally the chefs in households and they are much more amenable to environmental practices than men. This first step takes some organizing, but little infrastructure is needed.
Montclair, New Jersey is a very good example to look at. They offer discounted bins for home composting, a website page, a hotline for composting questions, and a Spring Compost Day when you can pick up bins, literature and compost made from the leaves that fell the fall before.
Building a Wasteshed is necessary for City dwellers. They will eventually compost and it will have to be off-site, hauled to a facility. The lack of space for the decomposition process to take place makes transporting the material essential in mandatory composting programs. The one area that reduces, if not eliminates, the value of recycling is "contamination". If non-recyclable garbage is mixed with recyclables in a cart, bin and/or compactor, the recyclables are disposed of as garbage..." Because of this, it is important to have the will of the people with you. If your program is respected, your contamination will be less. Mixed Materials is an easy solution for municipalities – leave the hauling as it is, and separate out the organics at the transfer station.
There is no need to educate residents, and often city dwellers don't have the space for the separation containers. The problem is, mixed material compost gets very contaminated. It becomes essential to find an excellent composter with all the right tools to sort out all the plastic, glass, and even chemical contaminants, which also becomes expensive. Source separation, where the resident discarding the item uses separate bins, keeps the cost down and the compost quality up. Source separation makes sense where larger quantities of organics are produced in a concentrated area like restaurants, grocery stores, and cafeterias.
Seattle started their zero waste project when they reached a waste capacity that needed a third transfer station in 1996. They decided it would be more sustainable and less expensive to start a food and yard waste composting program. In the public hearing, there were no dissenters. They began voluntary pick-up of yard and food waste in 2004 and expanded it March 30th this year. They are working toward mandatory composting but have not reached that stage yet. This year, the collection service has expanded from about 25 percent to 57 percent of single-family homes and they anticipate about 80 percent will be served.
Food waste is the heaviest part of the waste, and easily becomes odorous. Therefore it needs to be picked up more frequently than the garbage. When separated for composting, the organic matter is hauled at a lower tipping fee, or not paid for at all if home composted. Communities and haulers can work together to create routes for food waste pickup. Some states make it easier for composting facilities than others, by starting out with a quantity limitation, or by only allowing pre-consumer vegetative food waste (i.e., not meats, dairy). Composters who want to take all types and quantity of food waste need a solid waste facility permit. New Jersey has had questionable experiences with poorly run food waste composting facilities. All facilities in NJ have covered windrows or are in-vessels for odor control.
San Francisco has been steadily growing their composting program since the early 1960's. By 2008 they were diverting over 70% of their waste through recycling and composting. And the San Francisco Board of Supervisors mandated a goal of 75 percent waste diversion by the year 2010 and zero waste by 2020. June 9th, 2009, San Francisco Passed mandatory composting which includes 100% segregation of trash, recyclables and compostables within the city.
In 2001, with the impending closing of their landfill, Toronto formed the Waste Diversion Task Force 2010. They consulted the people of Toronto and came up with a solution to their impending waste problem. In 2008, Toronto was diverting 44% of their waste and is now working toward a full 70%. Their organics are picked up weekly, and recycling and residuals are picked up biweekly. The residents are regulated with discontinued service if organics are not separated out from the regular garbage. To make the city-wide composting program easy, they accept plastic bags and diapers in the organics bin. These items then have to be sorted out, but Toronto has the highest compliance rate. They also then give back compost free to residents. San Francisco collects all three streams weekly; Toronto alternates rubbish and recyclables on the same truck in which Source Separated Organics are collected weekly.
Composting is part of earth's circular system of growth and decay. Organic materials of plants and animals decompose in a controlled environment. The resulting organic matter, or compost, has for millennium been a farmer's best friend. These processes are natural, very environmentally friendly, and mitigate more than one of our impending environmental problems. Though composting takes a little more effort than landfilling, we also gain the power of regeneration.
For more indepth information contact Marnie at: FruitLady@MountainLakesOrganic.com.
FOR NJ: http://swrrg.rutgers.edu/fornj.html
Hayes, P., Esq, 2008. SWRRG, State of the State 2008: http://www.swrrg.rutgers.edu/initiative.html
NJ DEP: http://www.nj.gov/dep/dshw/recycling
San Francisco Environment: http://www.sfenvironment.org/our_programs/topics.html?ti=6
Sunset Scavengers: http://sunsetscavenger.com/index.php
US Composting Council: http://www.compostingcouncil.org
Whatcom County Extention – Washington State University: http://whatcom.wsu.edu/ag/compost/fundamentals