Coming to a curb near you: Compost collection


Sanitation worker William Laster picks up food from a compost bin in Takoma Park. Behind him is Adrian Dabreu. (Sarah L. Voisin/THE WASHINGTON POST)
March 11, 2013

Richard Vitullo has seen the future of trash, and it is moldering under his kitchen sink.

Eggshell by eggshell, the Takoma Park architect is training himself to bypass the garbage pail and drop food scraps into the new screw-top bucket squeezed in beside the dish soap and sponges. Once a week, he is to leave the bucket on the street in front of his house, where a city trash truck will pick up the glop and haul it to a composting facility in Baltimore.

“It’s taking some getting used to,” Vitullo, 57, said of Takoma Park’s tentative foray into curbside compost collection. The biggest challenge? Overriding decades of kitchen muscle memory. “The first week, it’s been a two-part process. First I throw the food in the trash, and then I remember, take it out and throw it in the compost bin.”

Vitullo’s is one of more than 300 households taking part in Takoma Park’s six-month volunteer pilot program, one of the region’s early experiments in the municipal pickup of residential food waste. The effort is just getting started, but Vitullo’s experience in curbside composting is likely to be shared by homeowners across the region in coming years.

“Within five or 10 years, setting food scraps out on the curb for composting is going to be the norm, just like curbside recycling is now,” said Brenda Platt, co-director of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, a District-based environmental group.

Composting food waste has long been popular with backyard gardeners and zero-waste enthusiasts. Supermarkets and restaurants also ship scraps to commercial composting yards.

But now composting is coming to the kitchens of ordinary families. An increasing number of curbside pickup programs are forming the third wave of household waste handling, with food-scrap containers assuming their place next to trash and recycling bins on more and more sidewalks. More than 160 municipalities pick up separated organic trash, including green trendsetters San Francisco, Seattle and Austin.

In this area, University Park collects food waste from 150 houses and trucks it to a U.S. Department of Agriculture composting station in Beltsville. Howard County has signed up more than 1,000 families around Ellicott City and Elkridge and is planning to build its own composting facility.

Takoma Park officials have been hearing for years from citizens eager to separate their bread crusts and apple cores for sanitation workers. Last month, the city announced a $10,000 trial program in two neighborhoods. Officials hope to expand the collection citywide in coming years.

“We’ve been wanting to do it for a while,” said Daryl Braithwaite, Takoma Park’s director of public works. “When my sister came down to visit from British Columbia, she’s like, ‘Wait, you don’t have food waste pickup?’ ”

The holdup wasn’t with picking up the scraps, Braithwaite said, but in finding a place to drop them off.

“That’s been the real choke point; there aren’t sufficient facilities nearby that can process food into compost,” said John Snarr, an environmental planner at the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.

Now, families in the two pilot neighborhoods are working out their new waste-handling procedures.

One March evening, the Vitullos gathered after dinner to go over the list of items that are approved for the compost bucket and those that are banned. Before clearing the pile of shrimp shells (approved), Jazmine, 12, and Lucas, 10, took turns reading aloud.

Acceptable: pizza boxes (which typically are too greasy to recycle), fish bones, cheese, corn cobs, chicken, orange peels, veggie scraps and cooked leftovers, old yogurt, watermelon rind and non-bleached paper towels, floor sweepings, drier lint, cotton cloth, hair (human and animal), leather, seaweed, sawdust, tea bags (remove the staple), Chinese food cartons (remove the metal handle).

Not acceptable: poop (pet or diaper), cigarette butts, crayon wax, paint, cosmetics, twist ties, bloody bandages, aquarium water, poisonous plants and tea-bag staples.

“How about used tissues?” asked Margaret Weigers Vitullo, their mother. No.

The following Monday, the Vitullo’s compost pail went out to the curb. Braithwaite, keeping an eye on the new trash routine, trotted along with a trash truck as city workers moved along the line of buckets on Sycamore Avenue: spin top, yank bag, toss, jog.

“They say they’re not having any trouble with it,” Braithwaite said, a little out of breath.

But there were not that many buckets. Only about 20 percent of eligible households signed up for the starter program, which Braithwaite called disappointing. She’s heard from many families who already compost (and don’t want to give up the resulting soil) , and others who just don’t want to get so intimate with their food scraps.

“People say, ‘It’s going to smell my kitchen up; I’m going to get fruit flies,’ ” said Jessica Weiss, director of GrowingSOUL, one of two local compost firms working with the city.

According to Braithwaite, participation in the now-popular recycling program was similarly slow to build. Officials would leave reminders for people who left too many cans and bottles in their regular trash or, with repeat offenders, refuse to take away the sustainably incorrect garbage.

“Once someone who hadn’t had their trash picked up in a couple of weeks came in and dumped it on my desk,” Braithwaite said with a laugh.

But recycling became the norm. More than 85 percent of households separate their trash, according to the town’s last survey. “We don’t actively enforce it anymore, the parcipation rate is so good,” she said.

Braithwaite doesn’t expect compost collection, if it expands, to be mandatory. “It’s not as straightforward as separating cans and bottles,” she said. “I have already had a phone call this morning: ‘Are you sure we can take pizza boxes?’ ”

National observers also see similarities to the growth of municipal recycling. And New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s (I) announcement last month of a curbside food scrap pilot program that will start on Staten Island and then potentially go Gotham-wide was seen as a game changer.

“In my industry, this is starting to seem like a watershed moment for organic waste collection,” said John Campanelli, editor of Waste and Recycling News. “It’s gaining a lot of steam with all of these pilot programs.”

Americans dump 33 million tons of food waste into landfills and incinerators every year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, accounting for nearly a quarter of the national waste stream.

Festering piles of garbage cost city governments millions of dollars in tipping fees, fill up dumps and belch methane, a greenhouse gas that the EPA warns can cause 20 times the atmospheric warming as a similar amount of carbon dioxide.

But when those same banana peels and celery tops are allowed to decompose in the presence of oxygen (which is why compost piles have to be churned), they produce a loamy super soil, filled with nutrients and able to retain moisture.

The compost can be bagged and sold to gardeners, used to reduce runoff pollution in sensitive watersheds or stuffed into long tubes for flood control (because compost can hold 20 times its weight in water, compost bags are more effective than sandbags).

Whatever the end product, curbside pickup means change at the top of the waste chain for participating families. Takoma Park’s Sue Holliday found room for the bucket in her laundry room but quickly realized she needed an interim container next to the kitchen sink.

Holliday, a public relations professional, has long wanted to do something “more virtuous” with her food waste than send it to a dump or down the disposal. But the work of home composting and the risk of attracting rats had always put her off.

Now she’s all in.

She and her husband are still getting used to the new routine at their house on Buffalo Avenue. But now that she diverts glass, plastic and newspaper into one bin and food waste into another, she marvels at how little is left in the actual trash can.

“It’s almost empty,” she said. “Pretty much the only things in there are The Washington Post newspaper bag and the metal hanger from the Chinese food carton.”

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