What are the structures in place to help those who want to compost? Backyard or worm bin composting are part of the solution. However, you may be left with industrially compostable food containers that do not break down in those systems. There’s then the question of whether your organic waste is actually composted when you send it away with a hauling company. The good news is this: compost is separate enough from recycling and landfill waste in nearly every facility. Therefore, your organic waste is indeed becoming fertilizer. The bad news: the planet desperately needs us to increase our composting infrastructure and soon.
Why you should care about composting
The United States produces about 80 tons of food waste annually, which averages to 30-40% of all food in the country and 219 pounds per person per year. The country also spends billions of dollars on waste management annually. With a growing population, that money is not decreasing any time soon. Composting can help divert 80% of landfill waste, or the equivalent of 650 tons of organics daily in San Francisco CA. Currently, though, only 4.1% of all food waste is composted.
The money saved is a huge factor when asking municipalities to start composting, but methane gas production and water conservation are other factors. By burying organic waste in landfills under tons of trash, most of which is not biodegradable, a toxic combination of methane and carbon dioxide are produced as a result. On the other hand, increasing one percent of the organic matter in soil can help conserve up to 20,000 gallons of water per acre through absorption thus preventing runoff. That organic matter typically comes from an added layer of processed compost.
Composting is a small solution to the amount of waste created every day in the United States. Without organic waste infrastructure, there are too many barriers and too little incentive. Excuses are innumerable: no backyard, cold climate, limited time and lack of city help. Infrastructure can help solve some of these problems.
What are folks doing?
In cities like Boulder, Colorado, and counties like Contra Costa County in California, composting is mandatory. These locales have green organic waste bins alongside landfill-bound and recycling bins.
In other places such as Boston, Massachusetts, the infrastructure does not exist. Independent composting companies like Compost Crusader serving southeast Wisconsin, and BK Rot in Brooklyn, New York, step in to fill the gaps. However, their services can require additional bins, service fees and scheduled pickups outside of homeowner’s waste pickup, providing more barriers to sustainable practices.
“The hardest thing about composting is proper participation and contamination. This is a behavior change, which can be very challenging,” said Justin Sullivan, Conservation Planner in Contra Costa County.
In other words, composting is still new to most Americans. More than 80% of Americans throw away perfectly good food because there is a lack of education surrounding expiration labels. Learning to preserve food by putting lemons in a jar of water or pickling carrots reduces that waste. Understanding what can be composted is available is another game entirely.
“We have upped our education and outreach on this so we can get everyone on track,” said Chandra Valenza, Education and Outreach Coordinator for the county. This came after the contracted compost hauler in Boulder County rejected several truckloads of contaminated waste in August.
According to Portland’s Bureau of Planning and Sustainability Program Coordinator Pete Chism-Winfield, “[The] hardest thing [was the] removal of compostable plastics from the acceptance list.”
These include compostable take-out containers or food packaging like coffee cups that are industrially compostable. This is true for many composting programs.
Compost Crusader was founded in 2014 by Melissa Tashjian. When its contract ended with the city of Milwaukee, Tashjian decided it was crucial to continue composting in the area, especially when the city’s bidding plans for a new composter fell through.
“There’s been a nice side effect of that in that we [can] have customers from other cities,” said Savannah Kenny, Operations Manager for Compost Crusader. “Right now, we have a really dense uptake in Wauwatosa, which wouldn’t have been because before everything had to go through the city for signups.”
Compost Crusader also participates in school assemblies educating kids about composting, and they take that information home to their families illustrating that composting is indeed a community endeavor. It requires an understanding from all parties about what is compostable, where the waste is going and what happens to it afterward, and it takes all of us to educate ourselves and each other.
Is waste actually composted?
These programs — both government-run and independent — offer a way for citizens to take control of their waste production and learn about composting. When a green bin is mandated, citizens begin to ask what goes into it, why it’s needed and where it ends up. They start to learn how they are personally contributing to landfills. In Contra Costa County, for example, landfill bins are half the size of recycling and organic waste bins, suggesting to citizens that their garbage is more than just trash.
As with recycling programs, when composting becomes more ubiquitous, citizens begin to ask: “Is my waste really being composted?” The answer? Yes, for the most part.
Contamination is still possible. Yet, both municipal and independent composting programs educate and remind citizens what is compostable. The more common food and yard waste management become, the easier it will be for everyone to remember.
In the Milwaukee area, Compost Crusader has partnered with Blue Ribbon Organics. In the agreement is Compost Crusader hauls and Blue Ribbon Organics processes. The employees of Compost Crusader are able to see this process. In turn, customers are able to buy back their composted waste at a discount. Therefore, even the citizens can see the certified-organic final product.
Because the process of composting is often separate from its hauling, finding your city’s composting partner may allow you to tour the facilities and even buy composted fertilizer direct.
The path from here
In theory, reducing your personal organic waste is simple and easy. The hardest part is doing it. Options range from campaigning cities and schools to establish official programs to organizing your fridge with newer veggies in the back. Minimizing waste and being aware of the food you are buying and if you are consuming it will help your finances as well as the earth.
By providing a structured solution to organic waste, governments and businesses make it easier for citizens to be cognizant of their waste production and the. While composting in your own backyard is an option, it is limited by the material you can compost on your own and the time it requires to turn over your bins regularly.
The minimal infrastructure established by municipalities and independent organizations gives everyone the ability to compost. That way, regardless of space and time, everyone can help the planet.
Images courtesy of Compost Crusader, Boulder County, and Pixabay