The future site of a high-tech composting facility at the Howard County landfill.
Decades ago, curbside recycling was confined to a few green enclaves like San Francisco, but these days it's common across the United States. Now, some environmentalists say someday soon, we could all be separating out our melon rinds and orange peels for curbside pickup, in the same way we separate bottles and cans. Two local jurisdictions are taking chances on the idea that this sort of curbside composting could not only be good for the environment, but also, ultimately, save money.
Nationwide, Americans generate about 250 million tons of trash each year. About one third of that gets recycled, but just 3 percent gets composted.
Why? Backyard compost piles can be smelly, time-consuming, vermin infested — not the best combination for busy city-dwellers.
"We have a robust rat problem in our alley, and the last thing I was going to do was put an active compost pile in our yard," says Jeremy Brosowsky, a Mount Pleasant resident. He's into food, urban agriculture and sustainability, but composting in his dense urban neighborhood seemed like a problem.
"So I was looking for a solution for my family, and we couldn't come up with one, other than get it off-site."
Getting the compost off-site turned into a business, soon he was hauling tons of other people's food scraps across the city. It's called Compost Cab: customers pay Brosowsky $8 dollars a week to pick up their food scraps and deliver them to local farms to be composted.
"The reason we do composting is that it's like a gateway drug for sustainability," he says. "It touches everything. It's in your kitchen, it's part of every meal you create for your family. And just as when you get into the habit of throwing away a glass jar in the recycling and you would never think to throw that in the garbage, the same becomes true of banana peels and apple cores, and it is very hard to stop."
There seems to be a pent-up demand for this curbside compost pickup service: over the past two-and-a-half years, Brosowsky has gone from having just a few dozen customers in the District, to hundreds all around the region. Copycat businesses have popped up locally and around the country.
But the business's success could hint at its demise. Brosowsky said eventually cities and counties will pick up food scraps just like recycling and trash, displacing businesses like Compost Cab. But that's okay with him. In fact, he is willing to help out those future competitors.
Curbside composting shines in Prince George's County
University Park, in Prince George's County, was one of the first local communities to try out curbside composting, with a pilot program launched in 2011.
Chuck Wilson, who coordinated the program as part of a grant from the U.S. Department of Energy, said the pilot was a huge success, with 98 percent approval from participants. In fact, the only complaint was that the five-gallon compost bucket provided was too small.
"The results have been amazing. On average it's 8 pounds of food scraps per week per home," says Wilson.
For the first year, the town partnered with Compost Cab, which picked up food scraps for 50 families. But the grant funding for the program ended, so this month, the town government is taking over, expanding collection to 150 homes, or about one in five residents.
Catherine Donohoe was one of the residents participating in the pilot program.
"We're a busy family, both of us are working, we've got kids, we're running around getting people to schools and daycares each day. This is about what I can handle, and feel like I'm contributing," she says.
Composting is good for the environment because when food scraps end up in a landfill, they release methane, a greenhouse gas 20 times worse than carbon dioxide in terms of its effect on climate change. Composting could also potentially save money, if jurisdictions end up paying less to landfills.
Mickey Beall, director of public works for University Park, says the cost savings initially will be nominal — about $2,000 a year. He expects the town will divert 30 to 35 tons from the landfill over the course of a year, saving $59 per ton in fees that would otherwise be paid to the county dump.
The town was able to provide the service by rearranging resources: a truck that usually is only used for leaf pickup in the fall will be put to weekly use picking up food scraps. But if service expands to the entire town, there could be additional expenses.
Beall says the biggest challenge to getting started with curbside pickup was finding somewhere to take the food scraps. The town struck a deal with a USDA research facility in Beltsville, but that is likely a temporary solution, with limited capacity.
One way to deal with that problem is to build your own composting facility. That's what is happening in Howard County, where a section of the county dump is being transformed into a high-tech compost heap.
In 2011, the county started offering compost collection to 5,000 households. Currently, all that waste, about five tons a week, gets shipped to a commercial composter in Delaware. Gemma Evans, the county recycling coordinator, says when the new facility opens up later this spring, the county could see big savings, possibly allowing the program to expand.
But even with all of this local interest in composting, the east coast is still behind the curve. San Francisco started picking up curbside compost more than 15 years ago, followed by Seattle, Portland, Boulder, Co., Austin, Tx., and dozens of smaller towns.
Evans says curbside composting is the future, but it also looks a little like the past.
"A hundred years ago, people weren't throwing out as much stuff as they do now, not wasting as much food and other stuff that is wasted now. So hopefully we'll come back around."
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