2021’s Newest Composting Programs and What They Mean For Sustainability

How composting access is growing across the country

Amidst the tumult of 2021, it was easy to miss some great news – access to composting programs continued to grow in the United States. At least 37 towns, cities, and counties across nineteen states increased residential access to composting programs for food scraps, and in some cases, compostable packaging. They did this by launching new pilot programs, offering new or expanded drop-off locations for food scraps, or partnering with a local hauler to offer curbside collection of organics. 

These changes happened in communities large and small, rural and urban, across the US. In the West, the following communities started new programs, expanded their existing programs, or began accepting new materials: Aspen, CO, Boise, ID, Claremont, CA, Durango, COGolden, CO, Lincoln County, OR, Los Angeles, CA, Monterey County, CA, Teton County, WY, Tucson, AZ, and Vail, CO

In the Midwest, Deerfield, IL and Ramsey County and Washington Counties, MN ramped up their composting efforts. The South joined in, with Arlington County, VA, Austin, TX, Buncombe County, NC, Leon County, FL, and Houston, TX expanding their residential opportunities to divert food scraps. 

And in the populous East, new and expanded composting programs were reported in  Connecticut (Middletown), Maryland (Annapolis, Baltimore, and Ocean City), Pennsylvania (Philadelphia and Media Borough), New Jersey (Maplewood, Hoboken, and Ridgewood), Massachusetts (Boston, Hamilton, and Medford), New Hampshire (Somersworth), and New York (Rochester, Albany, Geneva, Troy, and Yorktown). In Vermont, statewide legislation banning food waste from landfills led to a slew of composting activity across the state. 

These cities and towns have an estimated combined population of 13,774,082, or approximately 4.2% of the US population. While not all 13.7 million people will have immediate access to programs that accept food scraps and food-soiled products, their municipalities have taken concrete steps to divert more “organics” out of landfills. With time and effort, these programs are likely to grow in scope and size, becoming accessible and appealing to more and more local residents.  

What does this mean for climate change? Sending food scraps to local composters instead of landfills reduces climate change-causing methane emissions, creates local jobs, and helps keep recyclables clean. Of The finished compost is a nutrient-rich soil conditioner that helps soil sequester more carbon and absorb more water – something more communities are in need of as they struggle with increased rainfall and flooding. 

Of course, new composting programs do not automatically equal food waste diversion or local acceptance of compostable packaging. Typically, these programs start off as pilots that are available to a limited number of households or only in certain neighborhoods. Multifamily residences may be left out of the programs altogether. Programs may be opt-in, which means that only the most committed residents participate. Initially, the programs may not be as convenient as disposing of something in the trash, particularly if they are drop-off only. And after a pilot ends, communities may determine that the program is too expensive to operate, or that their local composter isn’t equipped to handle a wide range of material. 

The success of these local programs is delicate, and needs to be nurtured through local legislation that limits the likelihood of contamination, consumer education campaigns, and effective product labeling. A number of groups and organizations have stepped up to help foster the conditions needed for food scraps and certified compostable packaging to be composted successfully, including the SPC’s Compostable Packaging Collaborative. 

Heading into 2022, three years shy of many packaging and sustainability deadlines, this work is increasingly urgent. At first glance, a drop-off pilot program in Teton County may not seem like a big win. But we can’t get to widespread diversion of food-soiled packaging until we get to widespread diversion of food scraps from landfills. And we can’t get to “widespread” without the leadership of communities large and small, across the West, South, Northeast, and everywhere in between. Every community matters. With the clock ticking on climate change, it’s worth celebrating the growing momentum behind composting as a solution.

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