Curbside composting: Convenient, eco-friendly, but will it work?

Too lazy to compost? Yeah, me too. But with an emerging service, known as curbside food-waste pickup, people like us can feel less guilty and do some good, without doing much extra work.

It’s not available everywhere—yet—but some startup experiments and ongoing, city-funded programs may be demonstrating both the planet-friendly value of food-waste pickup and its workability.

Last week, in a suburban subdivision not very far away from mine, a waste hauler began offering free, curbside food-waste pickup as a pilot program. Homeowners who sign up receive a bright yellow bin in which to place food and yard waste. Republic Services will pick up the waste once a week and take it Total Organics Recycling, which also makes compost out of waste from restaurants, hospitals and local colleges.

Our area is a bit late to the composting party. People more enlightened than me have been composting yard and food waste for years, to fertilize their vegetable gardens, upgrade their flower gardens, or to nourish their lawns. But they are not in the majority: According recent studies, most household food waste goes from the kitchen to the garbage can and then to the landfill. Americans throw away an estimated 25% of the food we buy. And those compostable organics represent over 37% of residential waste, which is now the single largest component of what is thrown away in many landfills.

So what? It’s just garbage, right?

Actually, it’s much more. According to a recent report,

…when compostable materials break down in the landfill, they become powerful contributors to greenhouse gas emissions. They decompose without oxygen, in a landfill, producing methane, which is a major contributor to global warming.

In fact, landfills account for 34 percent of all methane emissions in the U.S. In addition to the production of methane, landfill contaminates soil, ground water, and pollutes debris in surrounding areas.

It’s a start

So, composting makes sense. But until recently, it was an individual household preference, quite prevalent in rural areas, but not very popular in cities. Starting around 2005, some areas began offering centralized food-waste disposal centers, where residents could drop off their compostable stuff. [New York City has been operating drop-off sites at more than 50 farmers markets for a number of years. More recently, drop-off locations were opened at subway stations, public libraries and other heavily trafficked areas.]

The drop-off centers have generally been successful in terms of local enthusiasm, but often on a scale too small to make a meaningful difference That’s when some counties and solid-waste districts starting investigating government-funded food-waste pickups—mostly motivated by a need to divert material from the shrinking space available for landfills, and to save money on trash collection—but also as an ecologically responsible service that could have long-term benefits.

Where are we now?

Government-supported food-waste collection is on the rise—although it’s far from standard operating procedure in most areas. In 2017, one nationwide study found curbside programs in 20 states, offering 5.1 million households access to curbside collection, a growth of 2.4 million since the previous study in 2014.

Drilling down a bit, the study reveals the variety of ways in which cities, counties and trash-collection districts conduct their food-waste pickup programs:

• Some offer their programs as “standard,” meaning organics collection is offered alongside trash and recycling, with no extra steps needed for residents to participate.
• “Opt-in” programs, require residents to sign up to receive food waste collection service.
• Mandatory programs, require all residents to participate. There are eight mandatory programs, half of which are in California.

And, exactly what qualifies, in these programs, as compostable? The 2017 study found that:

• All programs take fruit and vegetable scraps
• Over 90 percent accept meat, fish and dairy
• The majority take paper bags and uncoated, food-soiled paper [such as pizza boxes].
• Less than half accept compostable plastic products, such as compostable plastic bags, compostable plastic-coated paper products, and compostable plastic packaging and foodservice items
• Less than 25% of programs accept molded fiber containers
• About 7 percent take conventional plastic-coated paper

How to make it work

Food-waste pickup sounds logical and responsible, but is it doable? A 2017 study by M.I.T. looked at factors that push governments toward trying it out. The main incentive for starting a program, said the researchers, is being told that you have to do it. You need “an ambitious waste-diversion mandate at the state or county level.” [Example: Connecticut has set a statewide goal of 60 percent waste diversion by 2024, which has motivated West Hartford to initiate a pilot program of food-waste pickup.]

Obviously, it also helps—a lot—to have “a nearby processing facility that can handle the area’s food waste…and a pre-existing infrastructure for collecting and processing yard waste.”

Once a city or county has decided to give curbside pickup a try, getting it off the ground requires getting your trash hauler to buy in. That’s easier if your city or county already provides trash hauling or contracts with a single hauler, say the M.I.T. researchers. It’s also important to appeal to a trash hauler’s bottom line: They want efficiency—”maximum tonnage collected with minimum distance traveled.” So municipalities need to make it work for the trash hauler even before they can make it work for their residents and their own budgetary needs.

What makes people participate or drop out? In a study of their pilot program, Milwaukee’s Department of Public Works reported:

  • Of the individuals not interested in participating, 67% of respondents said that the cost was too high, 27% already compost, 15% do not think they have enough material to justify participating, 14% do not have space for a third cart, 11% are not eligible due to the current geographic boundaries, and 2% had other reasons.
  • No one identified that there was not enough of an environmental benefit to the program, which was a survey option.
  •  Reducing costs to $5 per month would likely increase participation 38%.

As to getting households to participate, the best way is — here we go again — to make composting mandatory, say the M.I.T. researchers. That probably won’t happen in the beginning, as municipalities start with opt-in pilot programs. But, in the long run, it’s going to have to be compulsory if it’s going to work, and, unfortunately, mandates have political implications.

Who’s in?

San Francisco, Portland, Vancouver and New York have composting mandates. West Hartford CT, Milwaukee WI and many other areas have initiated pilot programs. Other cities, while not yet mandating food-waste composting, have established zero-waste goals for themselves. These cities—including Austin, Minneapolis, Oakland, Washington DC, Dallas, Takoma Park MD, Malibu CA, and San Diego—would seem to be moving, inevitably, toward area-wide, government-funded food-waste composting programs.

But wait, there’s more

But as high-minded—and ultimately necessary—as these goals and efforts are, there’s still more to be done. We can’t just rely on governments to get this job done. It’s clear that individual behaviors have to change as well.

The M.I.T. study asserts that success will also depend on motivating “waste generators”—meaning people, corporations and institutions—to participate in food-waste composting at high levels and to separate organic materials properly to minimize contamination.

At an even higher level, we need to figure out how to motivate ourselves to avoid creating wasted food in the first place. We need to to shop smarter, plan our food use more efficiently, and—bottom line — eat  more of the food we buy.