By Clémentine Contat
Landfills are a growing issue for most cities in the US. They take on a lot of space, a scare resource for most big cities, and cost an increasing amount of money to the municipalities, businesses and indirectly taxpayers. The average landfill tipping fee goes up to $105.40 in Massachusetts, the most expensive place to dump trash, followed by Maine and Vermont. Indeed, the cost of land and lack of competition caused by the scarcity of new permits push the prices higher every year. The landfills are also a major source of greenhouse gases through the decomposition of organic waste.
Composting of organic waste in anaerobic digesters can largely decrease that burden on cities by saving scarce space, limiting greenhouse emissions from organic waste in landfills, but most importantly by reducing the average cost of trash to the taxpayer. Not only does composting require less space to operate, but it can also generate income through production of renewable energy, fertilizers for crops and issuance of carbon credits.
Opponents of large scale composting projects and municipal or federal bans on organic waste raise several challenges including logistics, space, cost, complexity, hygiene and smell. Of these, the logistical issue is the only valid argument from my perspective since composting waste would require an additional round of trash pick-up. However, the significant reduction of landfill waste volume will save space in the apartment buildings for new composting containers. The cost of additional pick-up, construction of composting facilities and anaerobic digesters can be partially funded by the sources of revenue described earlier and will measure favorably with outrageous landfill tipping fees, especially on the East coast where fees considerably exceed the national average of $45 per ton. Then, the complexity of identifying organic waste and placing it in a paper bag or a paper mil carton next to the sink after peeling vegetable or cleaning the table remains to be tested. And regarding hygiene and smell, organic waste placed in the composting recipient was previously generating the same concerns when placed in the trash bin.
Of course, effectively implementing composting projects is not an easy task. Changing individual behaviors to protect the environment won’t work, but a comprehensive and financially sensible public-private approach providing businesses and citizens with both carrots and stick is the way forward. San Francisco started with a pay as you throw incentive program and was, in 2009, the first city to ban organic waste and fine offenders. The state of Massachusetts is about to become the first to ban commercial food waste in 2014, with the project of extending this to private homes by 2020. This should be an incredible opportunity to develop partnerships with private sector and universities to foster innovation and entrepreneurship in the soon lucrative field of composting. Lastly, a massive communication effort will have to take place, starting with schools, when young individuals are most open to acquiring, sustaining and transmitting new behaviors.