Trash and Treasure

Curbside composting isn’t widespread yet, but it reduces landfill waste and methane, as well as creating soil-enriching humus
Illustration by Jacqui Oakley

Dave Walsh used to haul his trash to the curb once a week for pickup. Today, the Ann Arborite performs that age-old homeowner chore just once a month. That’s because his city began letting residents separate their food scraps from the rest of their refuse, and put them in new, separate compost-collection bins.

Instead of going to a landfill, their food waste travels to the city’s composting facility.

Walsh and his wife, Kim, cook at home most of the time, so their countertop compost receptacle quickly fills with banana peels, carrot tops, and other produce scraps. A carbon filter keeps smells at bay until the container is emptied into their curbside compostables bin.

“It’s been a positive experience; I’m making a lot less garbage,” Dave says.

Ann Arbor is one of about 100 communities nationwide that offer curbside food composting, a practice with enormous environmental and economic potential. Ann Arbor and 12 cities in the Southeastern Oakland County Resource Recovery Authority (SOCRRA) accept only non-cooked food waste. “So it doesn’t look much different from what comes from your garden,” says Jeff McKeen, SOCRRA general manager.

Other programs even allow food-stained cardboard, such as pizza boxes, as well as meat and bones, coffee grounds, paper (including napkins and plates), and compostable utensils, as well as carryout boxes.

San Francisco is the grand-daddy of curbside composting, which it instituted in 1997. There’s a sprinkling of the service in the Midwest. Besides Ann Arbor and SOCRRA, it’s offered on Mackinac Island and in a number of communities in west Michigan, but it’s most prevalent on the coasts.

These efforts are helping meet the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Resource Conservation Challenge. Issued in 2002, when the U.S. recycling rate was 29.5 percent, the EPA set a goal of 35 percent. By 2008, the recycling rate had climbed to 33.2 percent.

The State of Michigan is on a similar track. The 2007 revision of the Michigan Solid Waste Policy set a goal of utilizing (re-using, recycling, and composting) 50 percent of its municipal waste by 2015. The revised policy also calls for measuring municipal waste utilization, something that has never been done statewide.

Setting goals is only part of the story. Curbside composting also reduces the amount of trash sent to landfills. It sharply cuts one of the most potent greenhouse gases, methane, which is generated by those waste sites. (Methane is about 20 times worse than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas.) And perhaps best of all, the composting process creates nutrient-rich humus to mulch garden plants, improve soil, and even eliminate the need for synthetic, oil-based fertilizers.

Compost even makes money for cities when it’s sold to landscapers, golf courses, and individual consumers. And because food waste — composed largely of water — is so much heavier than other trash, sending it to a composter instead of a landfill saves communities money in weight-based tipping fees paid to garbage dumps. Compost facilities also charge for each load brought in, but their fees typically are much lower than landfill rates.

Tom McMurtrie, solid-waste coordinator for Ann Arbor, says the city is evaluating a public-private partnership that would charge $19 a ton for compostables and $25 a ton for landfill-destined garbage, a savings of $6 per ton.

Making composting cheaper than landfilling is exactly what’s needed, says Matthew Naimi, director of operations for Recycle Here!, a public-private partnership in Detroit. He says: “Michigan is the cheapest state to operate a landfill. It’s so cheap to dispose of things here that it’s a hindrance [to recycling].”

Cheap landfill fees aren’t the only roadblocks to community composting of residential garbage. Because food waste is so heavy, trucks used to haul it reach weight limits set for local roads faster than garbage haulers. That means burning more gas for trips to the composting facility than the landfill. Because landfills outnumber food composters in Michigan, that often means longer trips — and more wear and tear on roads.

Another challenge is educating residents on what can and can’t be composted, because the presence of unapproved material can force a composter to turn away a hauler, who then takes his load to a landfill. (A standardized, universal labeling system is proposed to eliminate the guesswork.)

And because setting up and operating a composting facility is costly, a potential operator can be hesitant to get into the business without a guarantee of a steady stream of haulers. New compost facilities are slow to open for business in Michigan because there are no regulations for them yet, according to the Department of Natural Resources and Environment (DNRE).

“From the industry perspective, they’ve said it’s difficult to operate in an environment where there are no rules for operation,” says Matt Flechter, DNRE recycling and composting coordinator.


John Connolly, a New Hampshire consultant specializing in diversion of organic wastes to composting, adds that it takes a precise set of circumstances to make curbside composting take off.

“It has to be successful for each stakeholder,” Connolly says.

The situation is particularly dicey for the haulers, Connolly says. Since it’s more expensive to haul compostables than trash, they aim for “route density” — having a certain number of customers within a certain area. “It really takes a different mindset for the trucking owner,” he says. “He has to see organics as a way to grow his business … or that organic recycling is the right thing to do.”

Sharon Barnes, owner of a composting facility in Huron, Ohio, says, “The factor that makes one of these programs successful is a community that’s already collecting yard waste.” She points out that people in those communities are already accustomed to putting out three containers: one each for garbage, recycling, and composting.

If composting is so desirable, when will all Michiganians be able to do what Walsh, San Franciscans, and residents of other cities do? “It’s a little bit like the [returnable] bottle law; it came with a grass-roots movement,” says Beth Clawson, chair of the Composting Committee of the Michigan Recycling Coalition. “The people have to step up and say, ‘I want to be able to put food waste in my yard waste.’”

Barnes is optimistic. “In 50 years,” she says, “[landfills are] going to be dry cells that we put very little waste in.”

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