Composting in America

A Path to Eliminate Waste, Revitalize Soil and Tackle Global Warming

America throws out immense amounts or trash, most of which is dumped into landfills or burned in trash incinerators. This is a costly system that damages the environment and harms our health. Luckily, communities across the country are turning toward a common-sense and beneficial solution: composting. Composting programs divert organic material – such as food scraps, leaves, branches, grass clippings and other biodegradable material – away from landfills and incinerators and turn it into a valuable product.

U.S. PIRG Education Fund

Executive summary

America throws out immense amounts or trash, most of which is dumped into landfills or burned in trash incinerators. This is a costly system that damages the environment and harms our health. Luckily, communities across the country are turning toward a common-sense and beneficial solution: composting. Composting programs divert organic material – such as food scraps, leaves, branches, grass clippings and other biodegradable material – away from landfills and incinerators and turn it into a valuable product. Compost can replenish and stabilize soil, helping to boost and sustain food production in the future. It can also help pull carbon out of the atmosphere, helping to tackle global warming, and replace polluting chemical fertilizers, protecting public health.

Americans landfilled or incinerated over 50 million tons of compostable waste in 2015. That is enough to fill a line of fully-loaded 18-wheelers, stretching from New York City to Los Angeles ten times.

The system of collecting, landfilling and incinerating waste is a costly one that contributes to global warming and creates toxic air and water pollution. Composting could reduce the amount of trash sent to landfills and incinerators in the U.S. by at least 30 percent.

Thanks to strong composting and recycling programs, San Francisco has reduced the amount of trash it sends to landfills by 80 percent and composts 255,500 tons of organic material each year.  The state of Vermont passed a Universal Recycling Law in 2012 and is phasing in policies and programs until all of its recyclables, leaf and yard debris, food scraps and other organics will be banned from landfills in 2020.

A growing number of cities, towns and states are recognizing the benefits of composting programs. In just the last five years, the number of communities offering composting programs has grown by 65 percent. By following the best practices of programs around the country, American communities can launch successful composting programs that reduce waste, contribute to a sustainable food system, help tackle global warming, and reduce harmful air and water pollution.

Compost can help create a robust and sustainable agricultural system.

Topsoil, the nutrient-rich layer of soil vital for growing food, is being degraded and eroded at alarming rates, threatening our ability to grow enough food in the future. 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 help prevent topsoil erosion by allowing the soil to absorb more water during heavy rainfalls and by fostering robust plant growth. One study found that the application of compost helped to reduce soil loss by 86 percent.

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 emissions, 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 could significantly reduce methane emissions.

Unlike landfilling, composting organic material helps plants and microorganisms to grow and actually pulls 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 California’s homes and businesses.

Compost can replace synthetic chemical fertilizers, which can:

  • Deplete soil in the long run,

  • Produce nitrous oxide – a greenhouse gas up to 310 times as potent as carbon dioxide over a 100-year period,

  • Produce nitrogen oxides, which can contribute to the formation of smog and cause respiratory problems and damage the lungs, and

  • Wash into waterways and fuel the growth of algal blooms that can kill or displace large numbers of fish and produce toxins that can sicken and kill animals and people who make contact with the water or consume contaminated shellfish and other organisms.

To promote composting, cities and towns should adopt community-wide composting programs.

Most town-wide or city-wide composting programs work just like trash and recycling services – residents and businesses put their organic waste in a separate bin by the curb each week and it is picked up by a truck and brought to a composting facility. These programs are typically run by municipalities in conjunction with private haulers and composting facilities, but some communities allow private companies to operate in their town or city independently. In some communities, residents and businesses drop off their organic waste at a designated location, which requires fewer city resources but results in less collected organic material.

Successful composting programs share several characteristics:   

  • Convenience: Residents and businesses contribute more organic material to composting programs if that material is picked up “curbside,” as is most trash and recycling. Some communities, such as San Francisco, have also encouraged residents to participate in composting programs by making the bins for organic waste larger and trash bins smaller.

  • Affordability: Municipalities can incentivize residents and businesses to participate in composting programs by making them more affordable than trash disposal. This can be achieved through systems like Save Money and Reduce Trash (SMART) in which residents pay less if they throw out less trash. Systems like this create a direct financial incentive for residents to toss their organic waste into the composting bin instead of the trash.

Local governments can also combine the cost of organic waste pickup with trash and recycling, so that participants do not pay an extra fee, which is a barrier to participation.

  • Frequency: Organic waste should be collected as regularly and frequently as trash. Portland, Oregon, picks up organic waste more frequently than trash, encouraging residents and businesses to put their organics into the compost bin for quicker service.

  • Education: If people throw out materials that do not belong in compost, the compost can become contaminated. Sorting contaminants out of organic waste is resource-intensive, so it is more efficient and effective for residents and businesses throw out the appropriate materials from the start. Education and outreach initiatives like public service announcements, media stories, community meetings and on-site training can inform residents and businesses about what to throw in the compost bin and can also encourage participation.

In addition to taking the steps above to create successful community-wide composting programs, cities, towns and counties should also:

  • Require commercial producers of organic waste to divert it to composting facilities. Requiring large, commercial producers of organic waste to compost can divert a large percentage of organic waste away from landfills and incinerators, and does not require resources from the city. Some communities have also used such a requirement to help build up their composting capacity and infrastructure in order to gradually phase in a city-wide program. New York became the sixth state to pass such a requirement in March, 2019.

  • Require government projects to use compost: Local governments should lead by example and require that all government-funded projects use local compost when beneficial. This will both deliver the benefits of compost to the community – erosion control, carbon sequestration and pollution reduction – and also help create a consistent market to sustain local composting facilities.

  • Incentivize backyard and community composting. Backyard and community composting programs are beneficial because they reduce or eliminate the need to transport organic material.

    • Support community composting programs, for example at schools and community gardens, through grants, free advertising and support in picking-up and delivering organic waste.

    • Educate residents and businesses about how and why to compost themselves.

    • Supply residents with free or discounted compost bins as Boston does. These programs often pay for themselves, as cities save money on transporting and paying to dump waste.

To support local composting programs, the federal government and state governments should:

  • Subsidize the creation of composting facilities and programs through grants, loans and other financial mechanisms. Creating composting facilities is often a good environmental and financial investment for a community, but it can require a lot of upfront capital. Federal and state governments can help encourage the creation of these facilities by providing grants, loans or issuing repayment guarantees to those local municipalities and private companies that lack the resources to begin a project. Federal and state governments should provide similar financial assistance for local governments and businesses to launch curbside organics pickup programs and purchase necessary equipment, such as trucks and bins.

Fund programs to develop and test municipal composting programs. The 2018 Farm Bill included a $25 million allotment for the USDA to develop and test municipal composting programs. However, the funding will only go toward programs in about 10 states, and is only authorized through 2023. Congress should increase USDA funding to develop projects in more states over a longer period.