With a baby on the way, my wife and I last week met with a local, eco friendly cloth and compostable paper diapers company to set up our service. To our surprise, we were informed that the city of Los Angeles doesn’t allow compostable diapers to be placed in the designated compost bins. Upon discovering that our family was about to grow, my wife and I had made a conscious decision to be as climate-friendly in this new life transition as possible. However, we were confronted with the realization that often times, the city in which we live can either open up opportunities for climate action, or seriously constrain what we are able to achieve.
Waste Management in Our Cities
For decades now, municipal recycling programs have seen tremendous growth in the US. From blue-box programs, to curbside recycling and the now familiar three color-coded bins for residents and businesses: trash, recycling, and compost—the rate of recycling is greater now than ever. These measures have drastically slashed the amount of waste being sent to landfills, but there remains much room for growth.
One of the areas still needing improvement is managing food-scrap waste and composting materials. While mandatory in cities like San Francisco and Seattle, composting has not been implemented in other cities with the same speed and efficiency as recycling programs. The difficulty in getting markets and restaurants to properly dispose of scraps in composting bins, the challenge of educating residents on what’s to be included and why, and the costs associated with investing and maintaining proper composting facilities are all serious obstacles for city officials and waste management professionals. However, these challenges open up great opportunities for communities.
Connecting Composting and Climate
The benefits of investing in citywide composting programs range from the obvious to the obscure. On the most basic level, residential and commercial composting is a simple way for cities to divert waste from landfills. Landfills are leading contributors of groundwater pollution, and greenhouse gasses released from landfills contribute to a changing climate. And for cities, composting saves money. With space in landfills becoming more scarce and expensive, composting is now often cheaper than sending waste to garbage dumps, opening up resources and dollars to be reinvested in alternative sustainability initiatives or being poured back into the community.
Composting can also be used as a tool to generate clean energy. A growing number of new facilities are popping up around the country with the ability to harness the natural gasses released from compost and landfills and use them to power city transportation fleets. These innovations prevent the release of harmful pollutants and cut fuel costs for cities.
Composted materials can also be sold for agricultural purposes. Some of the greatest wine-growing regions in the world, Napa and Sonoma, are located just outside of San Francisco. Wineries in the region now represent some of the large-scale buyers of the city’s compost to help fertilize their vineyards. Landscapers are using the material to enrich soil, lay fertile ground for turf or gardens, and even city departments are able to utilize the resource for projects ranging from erosion control to wetland restoration.
How Cities Can Help
Most cities in the country are without a recycling program, much less one for composting. The first step for instituting a robust and sustainable plan is a commitment by city and community leaders.
In San Francisco, a citywide ordinance passed by the Board of Supervisors made it mandatory for residents and businesses to separate their trash, green waste, and recyclables. The city is now on track to be the first zero-waste city in the country. In New York, former Mayor Bloomberg addressed the importance of rethinking how major cities manage waste, saying the city buries "1.2 million tons of food waste in landfills every year at a cost of nearly $80 per ton. That waste can be used as fertilizer or converted to energy at a much lower price. That's good for the environment and for taxpayers."
City leaders must set up these plans with all the tools for success. Large green bins must be made readily available for residents. Families living in apartments or dense residential housing must be provided with containers suitable for transporting table scraps to the nearest drop-off point in their housing complex or neighborhood. And perhaps most importantly, residents must be educated on the benefits, dos, and don'ts of their new composting program.
Many Americans are ready to do their part, and to begin working towards greater sustainability. However, like my wife and I recently experienced, there are often unexpected roadblocks that prevent opportunities to contribute. Sustainability decisions made by municipal and city leaders must address the demand by residents for actionable climate solutions. Mayors have to ensure that the benefits of climate action are clear to residents, and the steps to meet climate goals are clear and attainable. Sorting trash, recycling, and compost is a simple first start, with clear benefits, and simple ways for residents to get involved. Now, city leaders must do their part to put these programs into effect.
To learn how to communicate about climate with residents in your community, download our Let’s Talk Climate communications guide, and join with other leaders at Path to Positive Communities!