Posted in GreenBiz
March 4, 2022

Why is composting so hard in the United States?


To anyone who knows me, it should come as no surprise that I compost. Between my thrifty, waste-not-want-not nature and the potent greenhouse gas emissions of food waste in landfills, throwing food scraps in the bin is simply not an option in my book.

So when I transplanted to Portland, Maine three months ago — a non-circular life update I’m simply delighted to share — I quickly discovered I had three options: I could drop off my organics for free at five city-run locations, pay a local private company for weekly curbside pick-up, or I could go it alone and start my very own backyard operation.

In many ways, having a choice marks me as lucky. I’m part of the privileged 27 percent that has access to some form of composting service in the United States — although I covet the municipally run curbside access a mere 3 percentof Americans enjoy.

Clearly these numbers leave something to be desired. Consider our neighbors to the north whose composting coverage puts ours to shame: a whopping 91 percent of Canadians enjoy access to an organics management program, while 71 percent can count on curbside pickup.

So, what gives? Why is composting so hard in the United States? Apart from the obvious limitation of a much larger population to serve, it’s important to consider the barriers at hand.

Breaking down the barriers

When it comes to comprehensive composting systems the limitations seem, well, limitless. There’s limited funding for programs and pick-up, limited facilities to send collected organics, limited data, limited end-markets and an inability to limit contamination — just to name a few oft-bemoaned barriers.

When it comes to comprehensive composting systems the limitations seem, well, limitless.

One such barrier that’s piqued my interest is limited engagement among citizens — it’s touted often as the hurdle that broke the program’s back. Take, for example, New York City: In spite of ample public support, newly elected Mayor Eric Adams scrapped a campaign promise of expanded curbside organics services citing a lack of citizen participation.

With just 10 percent participation in areas, he argued the effort wasn’t worth the cost or, for that matter, the diesel emissions pick-up trucks currently belch out. (Don’t count NYC out too quickly, though — a composting program may soon be mandatory if New York state Sen. Brad Hoylman has his way.)

Pumping up participation

So, how do we make the average U.S. citizen an eager-composting-beaver like myself? The countries (and even U.S. cities) that have figured out the magic sauce have some helpful hints when it comes to ensuring engagement.

To start, bans have a knack of cranking up participation. Canada’s successfully scaled composting system began in Nova Scotia in 1998 when a ban on residential organics going into the garbage took effect. Since then, Toronto, Vancouver and Halifax have followed suit ensuring high engagement rates with their own bans.

When San Francisco made composting mandatory, the city saw a jump in daily collected compost from 400 tons a day to nearly 700 tons.

This tactic has also proven successful on our side of the border: When San Francisco made composting mandatory, the city saw a jump in daily collected compost from 400 tons a day to nearly 700 tons.

Another way to overcome this barrier? Remove barriers for citizens. Alexis Schulman, an environmental science professor at Drexel University and co-author of an MIT study exploring “what works” in municipal curbside composting noted, “Excitement and ideological commitment only gets you so far… that’s when you have to think about the incentives and removing particular obstacles.” Her study cites fee incentives, complimentary composting services and increased collection frequency as successful levers to nudge up participation.

In Canada, making organics collection free and being flexible around what is accepted has done wonders. Toronto residents, as an example, can include diapers, pet waste and plastic bag liners in their curbside bins. Of course, catch-all systems run the risk of contamination, which can raise its own challenges. As composting expert Nora Goldstein aptly points out: When it comes to solving the composting conundrum, there’s no such thing as a silver bullet. (Although Goldstein’s composting truisms do offer some helpful suggestions to keep us on track.)

Until ease of use is prioritized across the country — or, at the very least, in my new home town — you’ll find me carting my composting around to the nearest drop off. Here’s hoping others follow suit.

March 4, 2022 at 03:24PM

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