Saving money, space and clean air: the case for compulsory composting in sustainable cities

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[1]. 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.


2 thoughts on “Saving money, space and clean air: the case for compulsory composting in sustainable cities

  1. This is a topic that really interests me as Americans throw out 500 million pounds of organic waste every year, emitting thousands of tons of methane, a gas with 21x higher global warning potential than carbon dioxide. Moreover, as Clementine pointed out, that organic waste could be used much more efficiently to produce high value soil supplements, thereby reducing dependence on expensive chemical fertilizers that have a double carbon footprint as they are made from petroleum products and are generally made and shipped from China. Local composting reduces the distance that fertilizers have to travel and provides a far more nutrient-rich alternative to current soil supplements (you usually have to buy 4 different chemical fertilizers to achieve the same nutrient value). Plus, at the cost of $12/ton, the local compost sells at a 52% discount to chemical fertilizers with the same nutrient contents.

    I worked at Harvest Power, a company that is trying to catalyze change in this space, this past summer, thus I wanted to address some of Lilly’s concerns:

    1) The economics of Waste Management companies are not hurt by composting. In fact Waste Management (the company) has invested in composting capabilitties because they increase the value of landfill assets. As Clementine pointed out, landfills are saturating and, in states like California, public concern is preventing the construction/opening of new landfills, while concurrently retiring older sites. This increases the demand for space in current landfills (as they are now, like oil, a depletable non-renewable resource), thereby making any processes that reduce waste going to landfills actually drives up the future value. Moreover, companies like Recology that want to maintain control over the entire waste stream have shifted to a model in which they operate the compost sites and therefore they still get paid for the waste, while also getting ancillary revenue from compost sales.

    2) Cities with strong composting programs do random searches through composted materials from households and fine based on contaminants. Like many programs the risk of fine is a significant enough deterrence to prevent lazy sorting. Additionally, some organizations hire pickers to sort through the intake and separate out inappropriate material.

    3) As for odor, proper composting and timely pick up makes compost no more smelly than ordinary trash. In fact, living in SF this summer, I never noticed any particular odors, despite a very strong composting ordinance. Compostable bags are a key factor in this odor prevention. Just as one pays for trash bags so that the bins don’t smell, using compostable bags prevents odors from escaping. See for more options.

    The real barrier to true change is the current regulatory system, which requires multiple layers of permits from vastly different state and city orgs with very different incentives for helpful behavior. Because these permits are controlled by both city officials and the state, there are many levels of potential graft and special interests that delay and even cancel composting processes. Because compost is treated like MSW, there are far more stringent regulations on its production that merited. City and State politics need to align for scale composting operations to be built … this process usually involves lots of time, money and determination, a difficult set of attributes to assemble.

  2. By L. Deng

    Unlike the author, I actually do not find the logistics of an additional round of pickup challenging. Waste Management and other large, consolidated businesses can add a separate composting bin on their trucks. Any losses from having to introduce more drivers and trucks to collect additional composting is likely to be offset from the reduction in trash they pick up and ultimately pay to dispose of. This, however, would likely require a different payment scheme, since a large-scale shift from trash to composting could weaken the economics of waste management firms, creating an unintended consequence of actually injuring the very infrastructure that we depend on to dispose of waste.

    While I do not find the logistics of composting to be an issue, I do find issue with space, complexity, and of course, hygiene and smell. I’m sure that recycling advocates faced many of the same challenges that composting advocates face. The recycling advocates were right.
    But here are some additional issues that composting advocates face that make this different than just Recycling 2.0, and make composting uniquely different.

    My primary concern and argument is (probable) risk that a single non-compost item can ruin an entire compost pile. This is very different than recycling, where cans, bottles, and other recyclables can be cleaned and washed. Machines can sort what type of recyclable it is based on shape, and machines can discard all non-recyclables from the mix. It’s not wet matter. I would be extremely impressed if a machine could rummage through a compost pile, identify the items that were improperly added to the compost pile, isolate the compostables, and discard the rest. But even if it could, the difference between compostables and recyclables is that compostables are wet matter and recyclables aren’t; compostables literally coagulate and make it very hard to distinguish particle matter.

    I spent this past summer in Seattle where there is mandatory composting. This worked well at corporate offices, where there is a large maintenance staff and daily refreshing of the compost bins; this worked terribly at my apartment building where the compost was emptied only during the weekly pickup. The result was that it was often intolerable to even enter the trash room inside the apartment building, let alone contribute to the compost pile. One could argue that if we increased composting schedules and pickup, this would solve for this issue. But that would require a large-scale overhaul of waste management systems. Residential trash is picked up once, or at most, twice a week. In other words, it’s not the additional pickup that is burdensome but the frequency at which that pickup would have to occur for composting that makes this infeasible. Expecting increased pickups for composting when composting still represents a tiny share of residential trash seems disproportionately burdensome relative to the benefit.

    I think progressive cities have identified good places where composting works: corporate office buildings with large maintenance staffs, and enthusiast households who create a compost pile in their backyard. That’s it. Mandatory composting for everyone else should be optional until the rest of our infrastructure catches up.

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