Sarah Soulliere loved her backyard composter — until the critters came.
For years she threw her family’s fruit and veggie scraps into the bin at her house in the Alexandria neighborhood of Del Ray, but she stopped in order to keep the scavengers out. After a two-year hiatus, Soulliere, 48, resumed composting last year. But by wintertime, another unwanted visitor had popped in for a nibble.
“You could see the little tracks going in and out and the little path that it’d made through the snow,” says the mother of two. “I was like, ‘It’s time to stop again,’ which was a bummer for me because I really like composting. I just like not adding to the load of trash.”
Fortunately for Soulliere, in November, the city of Alexandria launched its first food-scraps-collection pilot program, with “resource recovery stations” at four popular farmers markets. “We’re rethinking trash — how we use it for resources,” says Michael Clem, a recycling program analyst for the city and project manager. “It’s not just getting rid of trash and throwing it over a hill anymore or burning it. It’s viewing it as a resource.”
Rather than wasting the nutrients from discarded produce, by converting it into compost — which is essentially nutrient-rich soil — you “complete the food cycle,” says Ryan Walter, co-founder of the Compost Crew. “It’s Recycling 2.0 — recycling your food waste.”
Composting initiatives are springing up one after another in the Washington area. Some towns are piloting community food-waste drop locations, and others are experimenting with curbside collection at homes. And for Washingtonians who don’t live somewhere with a neighborhood program, private companies such as Compost Crew, Compost Cab and Veteran Compost are rapidly expanding into new markets.
In Alexandria, residents can buy plastic counter-size food-scrap bins for $5 at their farmers market. Throughout the week they fill up their bin (or bins) with approved items — fruits, vegetables, nuts, coffee grinds and eggshells, but no meat, bones, dairy or oil — and then dump them back out on Saturday or Sunday.
When Soulliere saw the composting station, she realized, “I don’t have to stop. I can keep composting and not worry about attracting animals in my backyard.”
The city of Takoma Park began two curbside collection pilot programs early last year, partnering with private vendors Compost Crew and Growing Soul. They started with 365 homes and expanded to 1,000 in January of this year, with city personnel collecting half and Compost Crew handling the other. Combined, they’re reaching two-thirds of the city’s homes.
During the next fiscal year, which begins July 1, Takoma Park hopes to expand the program to all homes the city collects trash and recycling from, said Daryl Braithwaite, Takoma Park’s director of public works.
One might think apartments and condominiums would be the key market for this kind of program, as those with yards could do their own composting, but some people don’t have the time or inclination to compost.
Takoma Park residents can put items such as meat, bones, dairy and pizza boxes in the city’s collection bins. “A lot of folks do their own vegetable scraps in their compost, but for these other items use our program,” Braithwaite says.
Government-run composting programs are relatively new on the East Coast. So there are few compost-processing facilities, and each one has different rules on what it will accept. A vendor collects Alexandria’s scraps every Monday and transports them to a composting facility in Wilmington, Del., while Takoma Park’s trucks haul their collections to a composter in Annapolis.
University Park has been limiting its food-waste collection program that began in 2011 to about 150 homes until it can find a dependable compost facility, says Michael Beall, the Prince George’s County community’s director of public works. The city won’t expand collections until the county commits to doing it long-term.
For residents who don’t have access to city-funded programs, there are private companies.
Early last year, Adriel Harris, 36, learned from a story on NPR how food waste in landfills can harm the environment by releasing methane gas as it decays, for example. “I was horrified, because I have two little kids,” she says. “You could carpet my house with all the banana peels and half-eaten apples we go through.”
Like Soulliere, Harris also lives in Del Ray, but Alexandria had not yet launched its composting program when she was ready to begin. She went on a Google hunt but could not find a composting company in Virginia. Eventually Harris contacted Veteran Compost, a Maryland-based business that was looking to expand across the Potomac.
They signed Harris up, provided her with a sealable plastic tub, gave instructions on what they do and do not accept and — for $25 a month — have been stopping at her curb every Saturday since. Even though Alexandria’s program is now available to her, Harris says that she plans to continue using Veteran Compost, in part because it accepts meat, bones and dairy, which the city does not.
Also, the funding for Alexandria’s program was allotted for one year, so council members are now evaluating whether to fund it again in 2015. It’s looking good for the program, but nothing will be made final until Thursday, says council member Justin Wilson. “Assuming we keep it going, I’m hopeful to be able to expand it and possibly look at some type of curbside collection in the future,” he says.
Regardless, Northern Virginians will have more options later this year. Compost Cab will begin service inside the Beltway the week after July 4.
Harris is happy to help the environment as well as her neighbor relations.
“Before I found [Veteran Compost], I was trying to figure out how to minimize my food waste without trying to compost, so I was doing things like throwing green vegetables in my grass,” she says. “I think my standing in the neighborhood has improved since I stopped throwing heads of broccoli in my back yard.”
Looking to unload your food scraps? Here are some options (fees may apply):
→ Old Town Farmers Market
301 King St.; Saturday 7 a.m.–noon, year-round
→ Del Ray Farmers Market
Corner of East Oxford and Mount Vernon Avenue
Saturday 8 a.m.–noon, year-round
→ Four Mile Run Farmers Market
4109 Mount Vernon Ave.
Sunday 9 a.m.–1 p.m., May through November
→ West End Farmers Market
Ben Brenman Park, 4800 Brenman Park Dr.
Sunday 8:30 a.m.–1 p.m., May through November
→ Arlington (Crystal City)
Loading dock of 1851 S. Bell St. (corner of 18th St. and Crystal Drive)
Available every day
→ Dupont Circle Farmers Market
20th Street NW between Massachusetts and Connecticut avenues
Sunday 10 a.m.-1 p.m., April through November. Visit compostcab.com/
other-services/drop-off for offseason times and dates. Compost Cab’s drop-off program will expand to at least one location in each ward of the District by the end of the summer. Visit compostcab.com for updates.
→ Bethesda Central Farm Market
7600 Arlington Rd.
Sunday 9 a.m.–1 p.m.
Krulik is a freelance writer.