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Four Reasons Why Every Town and City Should Compost

In the natural world, nothing is wasted. Every fallen leaf and piece of fruit is decomposed, digested by microorganisms and fungi in the soil and converted into nutrients that new plants can use to grow – beginning the cycle again. 

Our modern society is quite different. When we are done eating an apple, we toss the core in a trash can and it is most likely brought to a landfill or burned in a trash incinerator. Its nutrients are not returned to the soil. It does not help more crops to grow. This is a dead-end street.  

There is a way we can begin to transform this system to mirror the natural world, right in the communities where we live: composting.

In our new report with U.S. PIRG Education Fund and Environment America Research and Policy Center, Composting in America: A Path to Eliminate Waste, Revitalize Soil and Tackle Global Warming, we detail the benefits of composting programs and best practices for municipalities to implement them.

Towns and cities across the country are increasingly turning to composting programs as a common-sense way to cut the amount of waste they must pay to dump in landfills and burn in trash incinerators. The number of communities with composting programs has increased 65 percent in just the last five years.

The U.S. landfills and incinerates enough organic material each year to fill a line of 18-wheelers stretching from New York City to Los Angeles – ten times. Imagine if every community treated that material as a resource, instead of as waste.

Here are four reasons why every town and city should compost.

1. Composting helps eliminate the use of landfills and trash incinerators.

If the U.S. composted all of its organic waste, it could eliminate nearly one-third of the waste sent to landfills and trash incinerators. Food scraps and yard trimmings make up 30 percent of the materials landfilled and incinerated in the U.S. each year, and paper, wood and textiles – some of which are also compostable – make up another 29 percent. Eliminating organic materials from the waste stream would reduce our need to dispose of waste, saving money for our communities and protecting the environment. 

2. Compost can help create a robust and sustainable agricultural system.

Topsoil – the nutrient-rich layer of soil vital for growing food – is currently being degraded and eroded at alarming rates, threatening our future ability to grow food.  According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, one-third of the world’s top­soil is already degraded, and topsoil in the United States is eroding at more than nine times its natural rate of replacement.

Compost can replenish the nutrients in soil, restoring fertility in land that has been depleted. Compost can also help prevent topsoil erosion by allowing the soil to absorb more water during heavy rainfalls and by fostering robust plant growth, which shelters and holds soil together. One study found that the application of compost helped to reduce soil loss by 86 percent.

3. Composting helps tackle global warming.

Organic waste does not decompose in the dark, low-oxygen conditions in land­fills. Instead, its degradation produces methane, a greenhouse gas about 56 times more potent than carbon dioxide over a 20-year period. Landfills are the nation’s third-largest source of methane , emitting 108 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent in 2017 – more than the total emissions of 34 individual states in 2016.

Composting organic material instead of landfilling it not only prevents methane emissions, but it also helps plants and microorganisms to grow and actually pull carbon out of the atmosphere. One model found that applying compost to 50 percent of Califor­nia’s land used for grazing could sequester the amount of carbon currently emitted by all of California’s homes and businesses.

4. Compost can replace synthetic chemical fertilizers, which can deplete soil in the long run, contribute to global warming, and cause air and water pollution.

To realize the benefits of composting, every community – from rural towns to big cities – should implement appropriate composting programs. Our report provides a wealth of suggestions for how communities can get started:

  • Communities that pick up residents’ trash and recycling each week from the curb should do the same for organic waste. Many communities already have curbside pick-up programs for yard trimmings – such as leaves, sticks and grass clippings – enabling some communities, such as Prince William county in Virginia, to simply expand these programs to include food waste.
  • Make organic waste pickup cheaper than trash disposal. Systems like Save Money and Reduce Trash (SMART) or Pay-as-you-throw (PAYT) charge residents less for trash disposal if they throw out less trash, creating a direct financial incentive for households to compost. Other communities combine the cost of organic waste pickup with the cost of trash and recycling, so that participants don’t pay an extra fee.
  • Buy back locally produced compost for use in public works projects or to give to residents, community gardens or other local proj­ects to help create a consistent market for local composting facilities.
  • Require large, commercial producers of organic waste – such as grocery stores and hospitals – to bring it to composting facilities instead of landfills. This doesn’t require resources from municipalities and can have a big impact because these producers often generate a large percentage of a community’s organic waste. In March 2019, New York became the sixth state to pass such a requirement.
  • Support community composting programs, such as those at schools and community gardens, with grants, free advertising and support in pick­ing up and delivering organic waste.
  • Supply residents with free or discounted compost bins, as Boston does, to encourage backyard composting. These programs often pay for themselves, as cities save money on transporting and paying to dump waste.

If every community in America composted its waste, we could eliminate nearly one-third of the waste sent to landfills and incinerators, replenish vital topsoil, replace polluting chemical fertilizers, reduce methane emissions and help sequester carbon. Every community can take steps to increase composting and help our modern society mirror the natural world.

A household organic waste scraps bucket. Credit: kitty meets goat via Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0.

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