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  • Writer's pictureDavid Paull

Composting for Communities: The Basics


The topic of municipal compost programs is gaining momentum as more local and state governments explore strategies for promoting equitable and resilient climate policy.


While many of us are familiar with recycling programs for items like aluminum, glass, and paper – organics recycling (or composting) has started gaining momentum in recent years. In fact, the number of compost operations in the United States has doubled since 2016, and it’s a trend that is not slowing down anytime soon.


As we’ve seen the demand increase for easy, clean compost solutions, we’ve also noticed more people are asking how their municipality or local government can support these efforts, and make composting more accessible to all members of the community.


So let’s cover some basics in this post:



What are the benefits of composting?


Composting has a wide range of environmental and social benefits beyond waste reduction. In addition to the environmental impact like increasing water retention and suppressing plant diseases, industrial scale compost operations can generate twice as many jobs as landfilling.


The benefits include:


Divert Landfill Waste

Municipal compost programs reduce the amount of organic waste sent to landfills. According to ReFED, 24 percent (54 million tons) of all food in the U.S. is wasted, and is the number one material we send to landfills. For reference, that’s enough food waste to create 90 billion meals, or three months of food for every person in the country. In addition to the greenhouse gas emissions caused by landfills, wasted food consumes resources like water and nutrients to grow. When we send organic waste to landfills, we miss an opportunity to return nutrients to the soil, and increase harmful emissions like methane.

Rebuild Soil Health

Composting organic waste produces nutrient-rich compost that can be used to improve soil health and promote plant growth. This can reduce the need for chemical fertilizers and promote sustainable agriculture practices.


Support Land Recovery and Diversity

Compost enhances water retention in soils and aids reforestation, wetlands restoration, and habitat revitalization efforts by improving contaminated, compacted, and marginal soils. Compost improves the structure and strength of the ground, so it's better at retaining water and supporting plant root systems.


Support Resilient Local Food Systems

Without healthy soil there is no healthy food. Our food pulls its nutrients from the soil, so if the soil is depleted of nutrients it means the food we eat will not have as high of a nutritional value. When we think about a healthy food future, soil plays a critical role in the nutrient level of our food and carrying capacity of the land. It’s a key reason why we need to create scalable, accessible infrastructure for organics recycling.


If you want to read more, this in-depth article covers all the benefits of composting.



What is a municipal compost program?


A municipal compost program is a waste management program implemented by a local government or public institution to divert organic waste from landfills and turn it into compost. The program typically involves the collection of organic waste, such as food scraps, yard waste, and other compostable materials from households and businesses. The collected organic waste is then transported to a composting facility, where it is processed into high-quality compost that can be used for landscaping, agriculture, or soil remediation.


Municipal compost programs can be designed to fit the specific needs of the community they serve and can include a range of collection methods, such as curbside collection, drop-off locations, and composting at home. Some programs may also offer education and outreach programs to encourage participation and increase awareness about the benefits of composting.


The goals of municipal compost programs often include reducing greenhouse gas emissions, conserving resources, promoting sustainable practices, and supporting local agriculture and food systems.



Why is there an increasing demand for municipal compost programs?


There's a wide range of reasons the demand for compost programs is growing, but the ones we hear about most often include:


Environmental Concerns

Landfills are a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions. When organic waste decomposes in landfills it produces methane emissions, which are 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the atmosphere.


Additionally organic waste contains valuable nutrients that can be used to improve the health of the soil and promote plant growth. By diverting organic waste from landfills and turning it into compost, local governments can close the loop on wasted nutrients and reduce emissions.


Landfill Capacity and Placement

Landfills require large areas of land, and have a finite capacity. As more land is required to accommodate waste, the pressure on available land increases, potentially leading to deforestation or the loss of habitats for various species.


Landfill capacity and placement also has significant implications for environmental justice. Placement of landfills and other industrial sites have been found to disproportionately affect low-income and minority communities. This makes these communities more vulnerable to the negative effects of landfills such as odors, noise, pollution, and decreased property value.


Economic Benefits

Diverting organic waste from landfills can create economic benefits by creating new jobs in the waste management and recycling industries, and by promoting alternative land use in low-income communities which are disproportionately impacted by landfills.


According to a report published by The Institute for Local Self Reliance (ILSR), if just half of food scraps landfilled and incinerated were diverted to community composters, over 50,000 new jobs could be created from composting alone (not including collection).


Regulatory Pressure

In many areas, local governments are increasing regulatory pressure to reduce the amount of waste sent to landfills and increase recycling rates. Diverting organic waste from landfills is one way to achieve these goals.


Rhode Island, New York, and New Jersey are all states that have passed legislation around organic waste in recent years. You can use this tool by the US Composting Council to find organics legislation in your state. Even if your state does not yet require composting or organic diversion by law, more municipalities across the country are working to get ahead of these trends. Austin is a great example of a city that offers curbside composting to its residents.



What are the challenges of offering a scalable compost program?


Implementing a scalable compost program requires careful planning, community engagement, and ongoing management to ensure the program's success.


Infrastructure barriers like where the material go, how it will be processed, and how it will be transported are common challenges. Additionally, composting does not have a protected or even well-understood land-use in many areas, making it difficult to zone land for the purpose of composting.


Common barriers to municipal composting programs include:


Infrastructure

Building and maintaining the necessary composting infrastructure, such as compost facilities, vehicles, and equipment, can require significant capital investment.


A great place to start is taking a closer look at your municipality's yard waste collection program. While adding food waste into the mix often means a leveling-up in terms of regulation and operating skills, it’s easier to take the step up from a yard waste program than it is to start from scratch with food waste.


Education and Outreach

Educating residents and businesses on how to properly sort and dispose of organic waste can be challenging. Outreach campaigns are needed to raise awareness and encourage participation in the composting program.


Contamination and Odor Control

Contamination of organic waste with non-compostable materials, such as plastics and metals, can reduce the quality of the compost and increase processing costs. Education and enforcement is needed to reduce contamination, and ongoing supervision is a critical component of a successful facility.


Composting can also produce odors that can be unpleasant for nearby residents and businesses if not managed properly. Proper site selection, facility design, and odor control measures are necessary to minimize odor impacts.


Land Use and Zoning

Compost facilities may be subject to zoning regulations, and land availability may be a challenge in urban areas. Careful site selection and community engagement may be necessary to address land use and zoning barriers. For example, in some cities, compost is considered agricultural use of the land where in others it’s considered as industrial or even landfill use, which is very undesirable and creates challenges for a facility to exist in a space long-term.


Since you want to keep the distance between where the waste is being generated to where it is being processed as short as possible, zoning regulations can impact the viability of a region's composting efforts. This is because cost and resources, like fuel and time are drastically impacted by the distance material needs to travel. Therefore, routes must be planned and optimized to minimize transportation costs and greenhouse gas emissions.


At CompostNow, we’ve worked hard over the last five years to help educate and support state and local regulators on this issue. We have spent most of our time trying to help define industry standards by working to create clarity around policy and zoning, and improve definitions with public and governing entities. This means we rely heavily on our public-private partnerships to ensure a successful outcome for the programs and services we provide!

Funding and Subsidies

Establishing and maintaining a composting program can be expensive, and municipalities may need to secure funding from grants, fees, or taxes to support the program.


A question we get asked a lot at CompostNow, is why do you charge for the service when my trash and recycling are free? The answer to that is – your trash and recycling are not free, and in many places are either subsidized or included in the taxes you pay to your city. Since composting is so new, those subsidies don’t exist yet in many places, which is why the cost of operating and maintaining the service, fleets, employee wages and infrastructure is put on private citizens directly.



What are the different methods that municipalities have for composting at an industrial scale?


There are many methods for industrial scale composting a city or municipality can implement. At CompostNow, we are partial to the aerated windrow method, but there are benefits and challenges of each. It’s important to note that the methods below are for processing the material, but there are a lot of other considerations to keep in mind for a comprehensive program.


Several common industrial scale compost methods include:


Aerated Windrow Composting


This process involves creating long, narrow piles of organic waste and bulking agents, which are periodically turned to provide oxygen and mix the materials. Windrow composting is a popular method for composting yard waste, and when managed properly is a great method for pre- and post-consumer food waste.


Benefits:

  • Allows decomposition to occur very quickly

  • Well-suited for food waste, yard waste, and other organic materials

  • Can produce high-quality compost that can be re-distributed

Challenges:

  • Requires significant space for the compost pile and equipment

  • Requires feedstock and contamination management

  • Odor control can be challenging without proper management techniques


In-vessel Composting

This process involves placing organic waste in a closed, insulated vessel and controlling the temperature, moisture, and oxygen levels to optimize the composting process.


Benefits:

  • Can produce high-quality compost quickly

  • Well-suited for food waste and other high-moisture materials

  • Can be done using a relatively small amount of space

Challenges:

  • Requires significant capital investment for the equipment and infrastructure

  • Requires regular maintenance and monitoring

  • Requires a reliable source of power for temperature control


Anaerobic Digestion

This process involves placing organic waste in a closed, oxygen-free tank to produce methane, which can be used to generate electricity or heat.


Benefits:

  • Can produce biogas, which can be used to generate electricity or heat

  • Well-suited for food waste and other high-moisture materials

  • Can be done using a relatively small amount of space

Challenges:

  • Requires significant capital investment for the equipment and infrastructure

  • Takes much longer for the organic waste to decompose

  • Requires a reliable source of power for temperature control



Conclusion


Composting is here to stay, and municipal compost programs offer a promising solution for reducing waste, mitigating emission, and promoting environmental justice.


Implementing a scalable organic recycling programs for municipalities means overcoming barriers like high upfront costs, infrastructure development, public education, and protected land use – and addressing these challenges will require a collaborative effort between local governments, community members, and stakeholders.


By investing in these efforts and working together to overcome obstacles, composting can become an accessible program with environmental, social, and economic benefits for all members of our community.


Are you a public leader that’s interested in creating a compost program in your community? Let’s talk!



Composting for Communities and Muncipalities

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