City planners envision a future in the nation’s capital where every household is provided government-issued bins for organic waste alongside recycling and trash bins. A truck would pick up food and yard scraps at the curb once a week and transport them to a composting site inside the city limits.
District officials estimate that with curbside pickup, about 148,000 tons of organic waste could be composted annually — about 60 percent of the food and yard waste generated in the city each year. As a bonus, it would create a nutrient-rich soil additive for growing food and plants.
It’s part of a five-year composting plan that officials say could contribute to an 80 percent reduction in the city’s waste by 2032.
“We have a long way to go before we get there,” said Christopher Shorter, director of the D.C. Department of Public Works. “Ultimately, we are going to be a more environmentally friendly city because many more of our residents will be separating their food waste and reducing landfill, which is the ultimate goal.”
The District still has to secure a site of about 10 to 20 acres that it can transform into a composting center. The site must be suitable to compost both yard debris and food scraps — a potentially pungent combination if nitrogen and carbon levels aren’t properly balanced during the composting process.
Shorter said the city is on track to begin rolling out the plan and delivering bins for organic waste in the next five years.
In 2014, the D.C. Council passed the Sustainable Solid Waste Management Amendment Act, followed by completion of a compost feasibility study earlier this year. The study found a growing demand for composting in the city, but a composting infrastructure that hasn’t kept up.
It costs more to dispose of trash in a landfill than to compost it, so if all goes according to plan, officials say the composting program eventually would pay for itself. The District, which has committed $8 million toward the effort, now pays to dispose of waste at commercial sites in Maryland and Virginia.
The District is hardly the first city to attempt citywide composting.
Seattle, San Francisco and Takoma Park, Md. — just across the District line — have implemented curbside programs. New York has a curbside composting program that serves more than 2 million residents; by next year, the city says, all residents will be served either through curbside pickup or neighborhood drop-off sites.
Arlington County launched a curbside composting program in 2016, although it accepts only yard trimmings.
Phil Bresee, chief of the environmental management office in Arlington’s Solid Waste Bureau, said the county collected 7,242 tons of material through its yard trimmings program in fiscal 2017. The county calculated that yard trimmings in residential trash dropped from about 27 percent of total trash to about 6 percent.
Bresee said it costs about $43 per ton to dispose of trash but $32 per ton to compost yard trimmings. The compost is then used to create topsoil for parks and county projects.
Arlington is working to expand the composting program to include food scraps.
“The next frontier for us is going to be food waste,” Bresee said. “We have been very pleased by the success of our yard-trimming program, so we are pretty confident that if we are able to offer food waste collection to our residents, it will be well received.”
In the District, a citywide composting program would cap a series of smaller initiatives. The Department of Public Works earlier this year allowed residents to begin dropping off waste for composting at farmers markets in each ward. Since the first location opened on April 22, nearly 4,000 people have dropped off 26,206 pounds of organic waste, according to city data.
The District also has more than 50 community compost sites at community gardens and schools.
Brenda Platt, co-director of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance — a District-based national nonprofit that has pushed for composting programs — said the success of a wide-scale composting program depends on education. She urged the city to establish more programs in schools to teach children the importance of composting, while ensuring residents understand how it helps the environment and how to get involved.
“It builds a culture of composting know-how in the community,” she said. “There’s also a connection between the schools and the curbside program: Young composters become adult composters.”