Compost or Pay: The Journey to Zero Waste


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At Open Forum for Inhabitat:

San Francisco Comprehensive Recycling
San Francisco Comprehensive Recycling

San Francisco has joined the movement to zero waste, and is now leading the charge by implementing a mandatory composting law. Within six weeks, San Francisco residents and business must compost their food and organic waste scraps, or they will risk being fined up to $1,000. Rather than protest, San Francisco residents are reported to be eagerly awaiting their new curbside composting bins.

Over 72 percent of the city’s waste is currently diverted from landfill with some of the most aggressive curbside recycling efforts in the country. What will happen to the collected compostable waste? Food scraps, plant trimmings, and soiled paper are turned into fertilizer for organic farms and wineries within the San Francisco region. Since over a third of the city’s remaining landfill waste is identified as compostable food and paper, mandating this waste back into a resource stream is a key step to achieving the city’s goal of sending nothing to landfills or incinerators by 2020.

Yet San Francisco is a town known for its green loving, eco-minded behavior. How likely are other cities and municipalities to follow suit? The answer may soon be everywhere, as cities and town run out of landfill space, and the financial means to ship their trash to a distant location. Nantucket, and island off of Cape Cod in Massachusetts, was able to mandate tough recycling laws in order to save potential tax costs involved in shipping waste back to the mainland. When Nantucket added a voluntary composting facility, recycling rates jumped from 42% to a projected 90%, as residents saw the value in saving costs and reducing the size of island-based landfill.

In other cities, composting efforts focus on backyards, roofs, and self-organizing systems. In Seattle, residents are encouraged to compost in their own backyards to build urban soils and create healthy landscapes throughout the city, but curbside pickup is offered for those that do not have the space. Residents of Fort Greene, Brooklyn, are among many NYC-based citizen-led movements to voluntarily compost household organic waste and repurpose for community gardens.

The benefit goes beyond feel-good experiences and reduced taxes. Food scraps and other organic wastes contribute to methane emissions when not effectively composted, and methane is one of the key contributors to green house gas emissions. Sorting out your own organic waste may be the most effective way for you to reduce your individual contribution to climate change. Based on the trends in these cities, how likely are you to voluntarily adopt composting in your home, garden, or roof? Or will you wait for a curb-side composting efforts to be adopted in your hometown?

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