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  • Jenica Barrett

The Benefits of Curbside Composting

Updated: Mar 21, 2021

Not interested in getting your hands dirty with all that backyard compost? Luckily for you, in the U.S. there are around 100 cities that offer a curbside composting option. These programs allow residents to receive a compost bin, just like a trash bin, that is picked up by the city and brought to an industrial composting facility. These programs are key to allowing people in the city to reduce waste!

How do Curbside Composting Programs Work?

Curbside composting systems are designed to function similarly to residential recycling and garbage pickup. Typically, a large bin is provided for residents to place on the curb and fill with food scraps and yard waste. Some programs may also provide an indoor compost pale that can be used to collect scraps inside and transfer out to the large bin.

Some composting programs are run by the city and available as part of the recycling and garbage package. Other industrial composting facilities may be independent and privately run, allowing residents to pay for the service at their own discretion.

Read about my experience with three different curbside composting programs across three cities!

Curbside Composting vs. Backyard Composting

Curbside composting programs normally process their collected material in an industrial facility. Unlike backyard composting, these industrial facilities can regulate the temperature (to hot, hot, hot!) to break down the compost quicker. They also have large machines that optimally rotate and turn the compost to provide sufficient aeration.

These industrial facilities therefore turn food scraps into soil in a much shorter time line and can handle a large quantity of material (like from an entire city). Processing that much organic material into soil using traditional backyard composting techniques would simply require too much space and too much time to make it feasible.

Jenica dumping her compost pale into a curbside green waste bin
Compost bins often look like regular trash bin - only green!

The Benefits of Curbside Composting

Normalizing Composting

When the city offers a curbside composting system, it creates a sense of "normalcy" around composting in general. What once might have been considered something only hippies or eco-conscious people do, it now is engrained in the soul of the city itself.

You don't have to identify as an environmentalist or Democrat or progressive or zero waste or whatever to participate in the composting program. It just IS what residents do.

Making Composting More Accessible

Although there are other ways of composting if you don't have a backyard, some of them are going to be more time intensive to set up and potentially cost some to maintain. Having a curbside composting program increases accessibility, especially for people in group housing and apartments that might not otherwise have the space to set up a worm bin inside or a backyard compost pile.

It also reduces the time it takes to actually compost. People don't have to worry about turning the pile or keeping pests away as there is no maintenance required on the city wide bins. That savings in time can benefit a lot of people!

And since the setup isn't permanent, people that may move frequently can easily access composting from one place to another, without worrying about losing any compost bins that setup.

Reducing Residential Landfill Bound Waste

Did you know that ~40% of our landfilled waste is organic material in the U.S.? And 22% of landfilled waste is just food alone! Implementing comprehensive composting programs gives us the opportunity to reduce our landfill trash by almost half - increasing the lifespan of a landfill and requiring less space!

Making Composting for Businesses Possible

Businesses have often found barriers to composting as there is not usually space to process the large quantity of food waste left on plates at restaurants. Large office spaces may not want to participate in worm bin composting either for the "aesthetic".

Providing a curbside option for these companies allows greater implementation of composting practices outside of just residents. When restaurants can easily pop their food scraps into a curbside bin at the end of the shift, composting doesn't seem like quite as big of a burden.

reusing plastic bag to dump food scraps in Seattle curbside compost bin
Plastic bags can't go in the compost bins!

The Cost of Curbside Bins

Financial Cost

It also must be acknowledged that many curbside composting programs come at an extra cost to residents and businesses. However, there are some exceptions! In Portland, Oregon the cost of a compost bin is included in the cost of the garbage and recycling fee so it's all inclusive.

Generally speaking though the cost of a residential bin typically runs $9-$13 a month. Although to some this is an insignificant amount, others may find this cost a total barrier to participating in the program.

More Incorrectly Sorted Compost

The other potential downside to such widespread composting programs is that more people make mistakes in sorting their compost. When composting bins are on ever corner and in every household, contamination is going to be higher. If you don't have to opt-in to a special composting program, it's less likely you'll do a lot of research before tossing a questionable item into the bin.

Plastic bags, for example, are used to collection trash and frequently used to collect wet food scrapes. Industrial compost facilities can't accept plastic bags however because, well, they're plastic. Residents need to either dump their compost straight into the bin without a bag or purchase certified compostable bags to use in the kitchen.

If you participate in a composting program, make sure to look up the specific rules around what can and cannot be placed in your bin. Unfortunately there is no standard and some companies will accept things that others will not.

Compost bin at coop
Cities with curbside composting programs will often have public compost bins are stores and parks.

Does my city have curbside composting?

Unfortunately there is no massive database to tell you whether or not your city has a curbside composting program. The easiest way to figure it out is to do a quick internet search with the simple question "Does [city name] have curbside composting?".

If you don't have curbside composting, don't despair! There are still ways for you to compost at home using more traditional methods such as backyard composting, worm bins, and bokashi systems. You can also bring the idea to your city council to see if there is enough interest in setting up a new program city wide!

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