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Composting could be set for U.S. boom, and it needs one, decades behind recycling

Jenny Dettrick | Moment | Getty Images
  • U.S. Environmental Protection Agency data shows that less than 5% of residential food waste is composted.
  • States, municipalities and private-sector companies are pushing to make composting as commonplace as recycling given the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, as well as reduced need for fertilizer and pesticides in agriculture.
  • Still, even with more at-home options, curbside bins, drop-off locations and private food waste services that do pick up runs, the infrastructure is decades behind recycling and national legislative efforts have failed.

Some states, municipalities and private-sector companies are pushing to make composting as commonplace as recycling. But it's a long-haul effort.

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Composting has many benefits for the environment. It keeps food out of landfills, leading national food chains including Chipotle to expand its use at restaurants, and reduces greenhouse gas emissions. Composted materials improve soil health, expand the soil's ability to store carbon and reduce the need for fertilizers and pesticides, which has led major packaged food companies, including PepsiCo, to explore how to create more compostable packaging.

Yet data from the Environmental Protection Agency shows little residential food waste is composted in the U.S. — 3.7% as of an April 2023 report. Interest in composting, however, is picking up, and environmental professionals predict it will be even more prevalent over the next five to 10 years.

"Organics recycling is where traditional recycling was two or three decades ago in terms of development," said Scott Smithline, former director of the California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery, who now heads public policy and regulatory affairs at Mill, a maker of at-home bins designed to keep food waste out of landfills.

Here's what consumers need to know about composting today and where things are headed:

Vermont, California lead state food waste efforts

There's an array of ways people can compost today, depending in part on location and available services. These include at-home options, curbside bins, drop-off locations and private valet services that pick up food waste from multi-family homes. Yet, composting is still in the early stages of adoption in many areas of the country. 

A lot of developments within composting are driven by legislation and regulation and these vary by location. Most of Europe, for example, has rules in place to require food and garden waste to be collected separately, said Jenny Grant, head of organics at REA, a not-for-profit trade association that focuses on renewable energy and clean technology. In the U.S., however, the rules vary state to state, and by municipality. 

National legislative efforts geared toward composting facilities and programs have failed thus far due to lack of bipartisan support, said Frank Franciosi, executive director of the US Composting Council, an organization focused on compost manufacturing, compost utilization and organics recycling. 

Vermont has been a frontrunner at the state level. Mandatory composting for all Vermonters passed in July 2019 and went into effect a year later. California passed a law that went into effect two years ago requiring cities, counties, institutions, residents and businesses to separate food and other organic waste from landfill trash, but implementation challenges are ongoing

Meanwhile, several states are looking to these efforts for guidance, said Stacy Savage, founder of consulting firm Zero Waste Strategies. 

"They want to see how the public reacts to these laws, what the diversion numbers are, and what the regional and statewide metrics are around how much was actually diverted from landfills," she said. States are also looking at whether composting can save taxpayers money, she added.

Thousands of composting facilities needed

Franciosi said his organization has been fielding more calls from municipalities that are interested in composting, but funding challenges remain. New York City, for example, established a program in 2011 to offer residential food scrap drop-off sites, also partnering with community composting facilities to make compost locally. The program ended last month due to budget cuts, but select food scrap collection sites are still available. What's more, curbside composting is available in select Community Boards in the Bronx and Manhattan, and to all Brooklyn and Queens residents. Bronx, Manhattan, and Staten Island are slated to receive service beginning in October.

Another challenge is the dearth of composting facilities. "We probably need anywhere between about 1,000 to 2,000 facilities in the U.S," Franciosi said. Federal funding to create low-interest loans or grants for municipalities or private individuals to build facilities would help these efforts, he said.

How to start turning your scraps into soil

Even in places where compositing is required, changing behaviors is difficult. A lot of it comes down to education, communication, and providing the tools that help people compost easily, Grant said.

For consumers who have a hankering to try composting, there are a variety of free to low-cost options at home, including a bucket and a few worms, said Lauren Click, executive director of Let's Go Compost, a non-profit that aims to make composting free and accessible. Those who don't want to compost in their backyard, or don't have the space, can find a soil site to drop off food scraps.

Another option could be to work with a private provider that picks up the compost, if your municipality doesn't offer the service. Generally, providers drop off a five-gallon bucket and pick it up weekly or bi-weekly. It can cost in the range of $30 to $50 a month for these services, Click said. Local universities may also have a pickup program. 

Households that pay for municipal trash services aren't likely to see their bill drop because they compost, but composting is still important nonetheless, Click said.

New at-home and on-the-street options

The Mill food recycling kitchen bin.
Coutesy: Mill
The Mill food recycling kitchen bin.

As composting gains traction, new options are becoming available for consumers and local governments. Mill, for instance, was founded in 2020 by Matt Rogers and Harry Tannenbaum, creators of the Nest Learning Thermostat and other smart home products. Mill's product is a $1,000 bin that dries and grinds food scraps, eliminating odors in the process.

The bucket can collect dry grounds for weeks without having to be emptied and the contents can be used as part of the composting process, or be sent to Mill to be used for a chicken feed ingredient. Individuals whose city or municipality offers a food scraps collection program can deposit their at-home bin contents in designated collection bins. The filter needs to be replaced annually at a cost of $60, according to the company.

Bigbelly Solar, meanwhile, recently launched a residential food waste-collection program. Its bins are designed to be placed in public spaces, eliminating the need for buy-in from individual residents or building managers. Bins are designed to service 100 residences and there's a mobile app that allows participants in the program to locate and unlock them. Bigbelly is working with municipalities, colleges and universities to expand this program.

Developments in the space are ongoing and more products and services are becoming available, Savage said. "As a society, we're getting past that ick factor of dealing with food waste and it's becoming more mainstream."

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