As I emptied the used coffee grounds into our countertop compost bin a few mornings ago, I thought about how, between our recycling efforts and backyard compost system, we only generate one 30 gallon bag of garbage to throw away each week, and it’s usually not even entirely full. I think this is pretty good considering we’re a household of three people. I’m pretty confident that the main reason that we went from two bags to one over the past two years is because we started composting.
But it got me to thinking. What about everyone else? According to the EPA’s website, 27% of the U.S. waste stream consists of food waste and yard trimmings. In 2010, only 2.8 % of food waste was composted in 2010, while 57.5% of yard trimmings were composted that same year. Personally, I am only aware of a handful of people who compost in their backyards, so this low number is not surprising. At least around here, backyard composting certainly does not seem to be the norm. I wonder why that is.
I suppose that many people don’t do it because it’s perceived as messy, stinky, difficult or they don’t have any need for the final product because they don’t garden. To which I would answer: it isn’t, it’s not, it’s pretty easy and bring the “black gold” over to my house if you don’t want it (even though they could use it in their lawns just as easily). Yes, there is somewhat of an art to it and there are different kinds of composting, but all in all it is relatively straightforward.
And what about people who live in apartment complexes or buildings that do not have yards? What are their options besides throwing away compostable food scraps into the trash or down the garbage disposal? My experience with large-scale apartment living is that there are virtually no viable options for composting, except maybe for vermicomposting, and most solid waste is removed by private contractors, not the local municipality. What about food waste from hospitals, hotels, grocery stores and restaurants? I am sure composting in those industries is the exception, not the rule…if at all. Though some colleges and universities seem to be joining the composting ranks.
It would seem to me that municipalities and industries that use private waste disposal services, faced with ever increasing financial and other pressures related to solid waste disposal, would want to explore alternative options. They’ve already done it to a large degree with recycling, by providing the ubiquitous blue bins that stand at attendance each trash day. And, in our city at least, streamlined it even further with single stream recycling: all recyclables into one bin, no sorting necessary. Considering the benefits that composting offers (download the “Compost and Its Benefits” factsheet available on the U.S. Composting Council’s website), it would seem to make sense to encourage and expand composting programs.
It all got me to thinking along several different tangents (after all, by now the coffee was brewed and I was drinking it). Here’s a relatively close approximation of my thought process and the related Internet searches that ensued, and which seemed like a great post for today.
- Does the use of in-sink garbage disposals cause harm to municipal sewer lines with the added waste/grease/etc. (and in such a way that you’d think municipalities would want to encourage composting)? According to, in my opinion a fairly self-serving collection of research compiled by InSinkErator (makers of garbage disposals, big surprise), the answer seems to be no. But, after reading the cited 1995 study in NYC—particularly the projections data—I personally don’t believe that they “don’t harm sewer systems”. Not to mention, as to the NYC study relied upon by the manufacturer, there does not appear to be any follow up study cited for the past 17 years since the 1995 study was conducted. Projection data included years 2000, 2005 and 2010, yet despite the lifting of the city ban on in-sink garbage disposers, no follow up studies are referenced to confirm whether these projections were accurate. That’s a major policy and regulatory flaw in my view. Maybe on some relative scale they do not “harm” the systems, but there is certainly some impact on maintenance, water usage and other factors clearly set forth in the projections.
- So that got me to thinking, from a water conservation and cost appropriations standpoint alone, wouldn’t municipalities want to get food waste out of the sewer waste stream (and so what are the costs of starting up a municipal composting program?) This thought led me to a few interesting things. First, if I can just geek out here for a minute…there’s a magazine called BioCycle that focuses on composting, organics recycling and renewable energy. Wow, is all I can say! I never knew this existed and there are actually many articles available for free online if you scan through the current issue and the archives. Then, while perusing through some of the articles I discovered that there is a national group dedicated to composting.
- There’s a U.S. Composting Council? Yes!
- And they have a consumer compost classification program?Yes!
- Then I wondered, what is the municipal composting landscape like in my home state of Massachusetts? The Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection’s (MassDEP) website has limited municipal composting information available in PDF format, though it is a bit dated with reported information only through 2008 for composting facilities. According to the 2009 report (which has data through end of 2008), there were 216 active composting sites registered with MassDEP. Of those, only 170 were municipal sites. Considering that there are 351 towns and cities in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, this means that less than half of the communities had municipally operated compost facilities. Though the report does not specify whether these facilities accept kitchen scraps in addition to yard waste, considering the statistics available online, it appears that the vast majority of municipal compost programs are dedicated to yard waste only.
- But it doesn’t have to be this way, does it? No! In fact, I learned about a really interesting composting program in Ottawa, Canada that provides for curbside pickup of kitchen scraps and other compostable materials. But Canadians are not having all the fun—there are similar programs already in San Francisco, California, Portland, Oregon, and a few others. It appears that the costs associated with municipal composting programs are a benefit to a community’s bottom line, something that we can all relate to as environmentalists as well as taxpayers.
I am encouraged by all of this cursory information I was able to find, in just under an hour while drinking my coffee. I hope to see more green composting bins on trash/recycling day, especially near me. In the meantime, I plan to probe a little deeper into strides being taken within my own state and update with another post very soon. Stay tuned!
Copyright (c) 2011-2012 by Kristen M. Ploetz and Green Lodestar Communications & Consulting, LLC. All rights reserved.