How Would You Feel If Your Municipal Government Required You To Compost?

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Don’t throw away that week-old fettucine alfredo that you found in the back of your fridge! At least, don’t do so if you live in LA, as the city now requires you to compost. Yet LA is not the sole municipality that is mandating food waste disposal — cities and states around the US are increasingly looking to manage their waste by creating composting programs.

Stupid, you say. Waste of time, you mutter, and, oh, so, smelly. Well, while the world wastes about 1.4 billion tons of food every year, the US alone throws away 103 million tons (206 billion pounds). Food is the single largest component taking up space inside US landfills, making up 22% of municipal solid refuse.

And there are so many more beneficial ways to dispose of leftovers and food scraps, solutions that help the environment and reduce emissions.

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Let’s admit it: Many of us in the US are quite lucky in our ability to afford and purchase plentiful food stuffs. With such privilege comes complacency, a general sentiment of not appreciating or valuing the wide variety of foods in our stores the way other communities around the globe do. With that ambivalence comes tendencies to overlook possibilities of creating meals out of seemingly disparate ingredients or combining leftovers, so that food spoilage occurs. We’re often impulsive in our food purchases, too, unrealistically assessing how much food is required, and, as a result, we buy more food than we need or food we won’t actually eat. Our take-out society as well doesn’t use food in its entirety the way our ancestors did, so the US underutilizes take-out odds ‘n ends and tosses food scraps that really could be composted.

Composting isn’t part of our food-prep or disposal routines, so we continue to add food waste to our trash, increasing the sheer size of US landfills.

Squandering food has irreversible environmental consequences: it misuses the water and energy it took to produce it and generates greenhouse gases — 11% of the world’s emissions — like methane, carbon dioxide, and chlorofluorocarbons, which contribute to global warming. Food that sits decaying in landfills also produces nitrogen pollution, which causes algae blooms and dead zones. According to the World Wildlife Federation, the production of wasted food in the US is equivalent to the greenhouse emissions of 37 million cars.

It’s Now Mandatory to Compost in a Whole Bunch of Municipalities

Not everyone voluntarily composts. In order to push businesses and consumers to reduce food waste, a growing number of states and localities are enacting organic waste bans or waste recycling laws to restrict the amount of food waste an entity can send to the landfill. Several US states and cities have passed laws that are intended to reduce food waste and gain food recovery. Legislators in Vermont, Colorado, Massachusetts, Tennessee, Washington, Maine, and Rhode Island have passed laws that restrict the amount of food waste going to landfills.

  • Vermont’s “Universal Recycling Law” went into effect in July, 2020, banning food scrap waste entirely. The Vermont Agency of Natural Resources and the Vermont Foodbank announced that in the first year of the law a 40% increase in food donations occurred.
  • The city of Boulder, Colorado, has implemented a Universal Zero Waste Ordinance that lays the groundwork by requiring that all properties in the city have separated organic waste, recycling, and trash service.
  • Building on her commitment to make Boston a Green New Deal City, Mayor Michelle Wu and the Public Works Department have implemented a curbside food waste collection program with rolling online enrollment. Food waste collection aligns with residents’ scheduled trash and recycling collection days.
  • States like Tennessee and Washington and cities like Madison, Wisconsin have created food waste task forces to reduce waste, create compost education programs and infrastructure, and eliminate food waste from US landfills.
  • In 2019, the New York City Department of Sanitation expanded upon their organics separation rules, proposing that even more food-related businesses are required to separate organic waste in an effort to keep nearly 100,000 tons of wasted food out of landfills each year.
  • The city and state efforts are trickling into US school systems, too — both Maine and Rhode Island have introduced legislation to reduce the amount of food waste in schools.

The following comes from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, a national nonprofit organization working to strengthen local economies and redirect waste into local recycling, composting, and reuse industries. It is reprinted here with permission.

Graphic provided by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance

Case Study: LA’s Attempt to Get Organic Waste out of Landfills

We know that mitigating climate pollution means that everyone must do their part, from individuals to large corporations. We each must take responsibility and make incremental changes to create meaningful sustainable changes for the planet. That includes rethinking how we approach the food we buy for our consumption and the way we dispose of food, which has a huge impact on the earth’s delicate ecosystems. In landfills, food decomposes and enters soil and air, severely damaging the environment and the surrounding communities.

The city of Los Angeles is taking action to reduce food waste in its landfills. The program, which is called Organics LA, will divert 2.2 million pounds of food scraps a day from landfills. The city will be offering free kitchen pails that residents can pick up at certain distribution sites. However, people can use anything to put their food scraps in, like a paper bag, and toss them into the green bin. All of its 750,000 customers must now toss their food and food-soiled paper, such as a pizza box, into their green bin, along with their yard waste.

The curbside organics recycling program has been around for several years, with the sanitation department starting it as a pilot program before slowly expanding it.

Residents must now throw the items below into their composting pile:

  • Fruits, veggies
  • Dairy
  • Bread, cereal grains and beans
  • Meat and fish
  • Coffee grounds
  • Food soiled products

“It’s sort of like the same type of material that we’re currently handling,” LA environmental engineer Bernadette Halverson told CBS News. “It’s just a matter of moving the food waste from the black bin to the green bin. And by doing that we’re actually doing our part, helping the environment.” Citizens toss their food scraps, whether it’s fruits, meat, or anything else, and do their parts to protect the planet. “We need to do it for our environment,” Halverson added.

California officials believe that if the Organics LA program can help the state to reduce greenhouse gas emissions significantly by 2075.

UPDATE: We reached out to ISLR and asked “What additional composting legislation is in the works?” The reply was as follows:

Maryland 2023 introduced bills: 

Update to land use area thresholds for a permit exemption for on-farm composting facilities
State procurement of compost
Grant program for waste reduction and composting

I have heard that the COMPOST Act, originally introduced in 2021, will be reintroduced and taken into Farm Bill negotiations this year.

Other recently passed state/local policies on composting:
San Diego, CA amended composting standards
Pennsylvania’s small-scale food scraps composting permit

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Carolyn Fortuna

Carolyn Fortuna, PhD, is a writer, researcher, and educator with a lifelong dedication to ecojustice. Carolyn has won awards from the Anti-Defamation League, The International Literacy Association, and The Leavey Foundation. Carolyn is a small-time investor in Tesla and an owner of a 2022 Tesla Model Y as well as a 2017 Chevy Bolt. Please follow Carolyn on Substack:

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