Atlantic Cities

Should Composting Be Mandatory?

Should Composting Be Mandatory?
Reuters

It took 15 years to do it, but San Francisco has finally reached the arbitrary milestone of collecting one million tons of compostable organic waste. While San Francisco has been a leader in the composting world for the last two decades, the pounds really started rolling in back in 2009 when the city enacted the nation’s most strict regulations on composting, requiring all businesses and residences to collect and separate compostable waste. It’s part of the city’s effort to reduce the amount of waste it sends to landfill almost completely by 2020.

Other cities have been watching, and now they’re following. The city of Seattle passed a similar mandate in 2010, and diverted about 90,000 tons of organic waste from landfills in the first year. That rule requires residents to collect food and yard waste in a special bin, though households are able to opt out if they compost on site. Metropolitan Vancouver is instituting a region-wide composting mandate, aiming to cover all single-family residences by the end of next year. Last month Portland began its own citywide compost collection program, and Calgary announced a test run of a system in four neighborhoods. Montreal is considering a similar move, and New York is trying to figure out how to implement this type of program for its 8 million residents.

The impact is potentially huge in terms of reducing the load on landfills. San Francisco’s Department of Environment did a study before implementing its compost mandate showing that more than one third of all waste entering landfills could be composted instead.

Reducing that footprint is ultimately the goal, says Michael Virga, executive director of the U.S. Composting Council. Citywide composting programs can have a major impact, no matter where they are, he says.

“We want to see composting be a standard for everybody,” Virga says. “Urban, suburban, it doesn’t really matter where you are.”

He says these citywide programs are a good step for municipalities, and that more should follow the example set by San Francisco. He is, however, a little skeptical about mandating the practice, and thinks cities should maybe spend more effort on selling the environmental benefits to residents and focusing the mandates on the larger-scale food waste producers like universities and hospitals.

As more cities begin paying attention to the amount of waste they are collectively sending off to landfills, it’s likely that more will consider these types of approaches to reducing overall waste. But ultimately it will take a broader educational effort to get people to think differently about what it means to throw something away.

Photo credit: Yuriko Nakao / Reuters

Nate Berg is a freelance reporter and a former staff writer for The Atlantic Cities. He lives in Los Angeles. All posts »

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