When you imagine our green future, what do you see? Solar panels seamlessly integrated into skyscrapers, probably. You think of high-line gardens and high-capacity wind turbines and soy products replacing meat proteins. You think of the cool stuff that is surely coming our way.
What you probably don’t think of is compost, organic matter that has been processed and recycled as fertilizer. That’s totally fine, because the media hasn’t really trained you to think that dirt and garbage and grubs is going to be part of the space-age milieu of the 21st century. But it will. And for reasons you wouldn’t really suspect.
You may know that composting helps reduce pollution levels and saves cash by directing food waste away from dumps and landfills; but did you know that composting may be key in fighting climate change and soil erosion? In San Francisco, the compost yielded from municipal sources is diverted to California farms that are having their topsoil ravaged by drought and climate change; the program is incredibly popular, and has reduced local greenhouse gas levels by 12 percent from two decades earlier. Similarly, composting helps reduce the truly bonkers amount of greenhouse gas methane produced from landfills and dumps.
Thing is, the U.S. isn’t really great at the whole composting thing yet; it’s been estimated that 35 percent of uneaten food products in the U.S. end up in the dump. And only a few major metropolitan areas, San Francisco chief among them, have separate composting—or “green bin”—programs as they do garbage or recycling programs.
“Approximately 45 percent of Ottawa’s garbage, by weight, is organic so this would tremendously decrease the amount of waste material headed to our landfills,” says Ottawa’s Tom Thistle. “When waste is diverted from the landfill it lengthens the lifespan of that landfill, diminishing the need to build a new one thus saving valuable land and tax dollars.”
But Ottawa, Ontario has its head on straight when it comes to composting. The Canadian city has had a citywide composting program since 2010, after first announcing a $140 million (Canadian) deal with composting firm Orgaworld in 2008, and green bins for composting are available to every citizen. The city uses a massive composting facility, which processes up to 100,000 tons of compost per year. Raw materials are composted after roughly one month, and sold by the city afterward; the facility has the capacity to hold 150,000 tons of compost. And the facility is allegedly not smelly at all, as a result of an “odor abatement system” and other scientific voodoo.
Ottawa’s composting situation hasn’t been without its own municipal funding drama; Canada is not immune to City Council hysteria. Ottawa has claimed that the company behind the composting overestimated process costs; Orgaworld has claimed that Ottawa has not furnished enough raw material. But the program has largely been successful, with more and more compost processed every year; in 2014, Ottawa’s plant processed nearly 70,000 pounds of the stuff.
According to Tom Thistle, who manages the environmental portfolio of the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board, the move to a green bin composting program was less a Going Green dalliance than a financial necessity.
“The City of Ottawa implemented the green bin program to improve waste diversion from the landfill,” he says. “Approximately 45 percent of Ottawa’s garbage, by weight, is organic so this would tremendously decrease the amount of waste material headed to our landfills. When waste is diverted from the landfill it lengthens the lifespan of that landfill, diminishing the need to build a new one thus saving valuable land and tax dollars.”
Ottawa is kind of the standard-bearer for composting in Canada. Toronto has since followed suit with its own green bin program, and Winnipeg is starting up its own municipal composting outfit shortly.
But what about U.S. cities that aren’t San Francisco? In 2014, New York City started its own pilot green bin composting program, and Seattle has mandated that all recyclable organic garbage be composted in the near future.
Philadelphia has its own composting scene (bet you thought you’d never hear the phrase ‘composting scene’) but it’s far from the municipal necessity seen in other metropoli. In fact, it’s more of a down-home thing, with only a few composting companies in town, including Fishtown’s Philly Compost and Circle Compost. Tim Bennett, owner and operator of Bennett Compost, says that there’s something of an enthusiasm gap in Philly. Bennett has seen interest in composting pick up over the past five or six years, but not enough to spark a recycling revolution in our city. Bennett’s crew does compost pickup for about 1,500 houses and 40 businesses around Philly, and says that his company is one of the only shows in town for residential compost pick up.
“Overall, for a city of its size, there’s not a lot of compost things going on,” says Bennett of Philly. “One issue is just there’s not the regional infrastructure. If the city tomorrow said ‘we want to do composting citywide for every single household,’ there’s just not the facilities to handle all the material.”
It’s been estimated that 35 percent of uneaten food products in the U.S. end up in the dump. And only a few major metropolitan areas, San Francisco chief among them, have separate composting—or “green bin”—programs as they do garbage or recycling programs.
Bennett says that to facilitate citywide composting in Philly, several new composting facilities would need to open in the area. He cautions against the top-heavy method of metropolitan composting, which is based around a single, massive composting facility. Bennett cites the Wilmington Compost Facility, which when opened was set to be the primary composting facility for the Wilmington area and the Mid-Atlantic in general. Opened in 2009, the $20 million facility was ordered to close doors in 2014, having vastly overestimated the amount of compost that it could process.
“You’d need a number of large scale facilities to handle the material, and eventually we’ll get there, but we’re definitely not there—it’ll take some time before the infrastructure is built up,” says Bennett.
Thistle has some of his own advice for any city looking to fire up their own compost collection operation.
“Setting up an organics collection program in a city is a massive undertaking,” says Thistle. “When Ottawa implemented the green bin program it was rolled out to the entire city all at once but my recommendation, if possible, would be to do it ward by ward. First, find the wards that would be most receptive and likely to participate. Pilot an organics collection program with them to work out any kinks. Should there be any errors, the costs will be minimized and the fix should be simpler.”
It’d be a massive undertaking to be sure. But if Philly wants to be an environmentally responsible city of innovation, it can’t be all tech investment and green buildings.
We’re going to have to get a little dirty.
Correction: A previous posting of this article quoted Tim Bennett saying his company made the only residential compost pickups in town. Actually, Circle Compost makes residential pickups as well, in a more limited area of Philadelphia.