Lessons Learned from Launching a Composting Collection Program

Caption Photograph courtesy of Karen Khor

Sophia Psaila and Courtney Hewson volunteering for a municipal food waste recycling program in Westchester County, NY

Uneaten food is the single biggest component of municipal solid waste. More food - we're talking roughly one-fifth of discarded municipal solid waste - reaches landfills and incinerators than any other single material comprising our everyday trash, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency.

But don't fret; there is hope on the horizon. US municipalities are increasingly introducing programs to capture this discarded food and transform it into compost, often called "black gold." According to the second edition of the Natural Resources Defense Council's Wasted report, an update of the group's groundbreaking 2012 report, there was a 50 percent rise in the number of communities with food waste collection programs between 2014 and 2016 and an almost six-fold increase since 2007. Cities such as Seattle, San Francisco and Portland, Ore. have established mandatory separation of food scraps as part of their residential sanitation pick-up and, earlier this year, New York City launched a curbside organics collection program that served, at the inception, more than a million residents in parts of all five boroughs, making it the largest program of its kind in the country. By the end of 2018, all of the Big Apple's residents will have access to curbside organics collection or to a convenient drop off location. (Last month, NRDC released two new reports and a series of case studies to help cities waste less food.)

Towns and other municipalities have been getting in on the act too. Inspired in part by neighboring municipalities, the Town of Mamaroneck and Village of Larchmont, just to the northeast of Manhattan in Westchester County, recently introduced a voluntary residential food waste composting program as part of their joint municipal sanitation program. "An interest in food waste collection had been percolating in these communities for some years," says Beth Radow, a resident of the Town of Mamaroneck, who spoke with me about what prompted her community to start their program and some of the lessons learned from launching it.

"Several years ago, I started researching common sense ways to address climate change at the local level and decided to focus on food," says Radow, a lawyer, professor of Sustainability Action at Manhattanville College and member of the Mamaroneck Sustainability Collaborative, a volunteer committee created to advise the Town on environmental issues. "I learned that our trash consists mostly of food waste once paper, plastic and glass are separated from the waste stream for recycling. In Westchester County we incinerate our food waste which has a typical moisture content of 70 percent. In essence, we are burning carbon-containing food scraps consisting mostly of water. It became a personal goal to limit greenhouse gas emissions and handle food waste more efficiently."

Radow, other volunteering local residents, including Karen Khor and Arlene Novich who were inspired by Pope Francis' encyclical on climate change to sponsor zero waste events throughout the community, and Mamaroneck Town Supervisor Nancy Seligson collaborated to launch the program.

Here are some lessons learned and key takeaways from their collective experience:

Composting: A Practical Way for People to Become Active in Their Community

"The food waste composting program in the Town of Mamaroneck has been an exciting new way for people to participate in helping the environment and the community," says Mamaroneck Town Supervisor Nancy Seligson. "Instead of creating trash, residents are helping to produce soil enriching compost." And the decrease in solid waste could cut garbage collection costs.

Know the Different Stakeholder Perspectives

Radow notes the importance of taking into consideration five main perspectives when starting a voluntary food composting program:

1 ) The perspective of the people generating the food waste

Mamaroneck's program involves selling residents a $20 starter kit consisting of a two gallon counter-top receptacle, compostable liner bags and a six gallon receptacle with a capacity to hold up to four bags of food scraps.

2 ) The perspective of the municipality facilitating the transformation of food waste into compost

Mamaroneck's program provides designated receptacles at the Town's recycling facility where participating residents can deposit their food waste five days a week during hours of operation.

3 ) The perspective of those hauling the food waste

A commercial hauler under contract with the Town of Mamaroneck transports the food scraps once a week from the Town's recycling facility to a composting facility.

4 ) The perspective of the composting facility

A reputable composting operation selected by the hauler where the food scraps cure into "black gold." Ask the hauler for a sample of the compost to independently determine whether the composting operation produces a reliable product.

5 ) The perspective of those using the compost to enrich the soil that grows food

Farmers who purchase the compost for use on their farms and local participating residents who can receive free compost on designated give-back days for use in their home gardens.

Ensure Designated Staff

When starting a similar program, Town Supervisor Seligson recommends "having at least one person singularly devoted to organizing and rolling out the program." Mamaroneck benefitted from such a person focused on all aspects of launching the program, including contracts with suppliers and haulers and coordinating the community outreach and volunteer effort overseen by three dedicated people.

Leverage All Possible Venues to Engage the Public

Town Supervisor Seligson also recommends "outreach to community members through all possible venues to excite people about the program and engage them in implementation." For them, outreach included incorporating zero waste practices into outdoor concerts and sporting events in the months prior to launch of the food composting program. The Town and Village websites, the Town's Facebook page and hand-outs available at community events described the program. Local public schools are also being engaged to reinforce the use of recycling and zero waste at school and engage students' families to participate in the Town's composting program.

Make the Program as Accessible as Possible

In keeping with Supervisor Seligson's goal of making program entry as accessible as possible, starter kits were made available for sale at the Town and Village municipal buildings, the Town's recycling facility and the local Saturday farmers' market. The Town is also experimenting with food waste drop-off at the farmer's market to reach more residents. Radow finds the face to face contact with residents at the farmers' market "the ideal way to demonstrate how the kits work, talk about the environmental benefits of composting and simply connect with likeminded neighbors who can become ambassadors of the program through word of mouth."

Be Patient and Flexible; the Results Will Come

Karen Khor shares the following insights based on her experience as the volunteer organizer and work with the Town of Mamaroneck in getting the food waste recycling off the ground: "Remind yourself that you're planting seeds...you don't necessarily see immediate results from your efforts. However, your efforts do pay off, sometimes in unexpected ways down the road, at a later time. We're asking people to change the way they see things and change their behavior which many people are naturally resistant to doing." Khor also offers: "Be prepared to do things outside of your comfort zone and experience and even beyond your notion of a 'volunteer's role.' If you're flexible and willing to take on tasks that really seem to be the job of somebody else, you're more likely to get more things done and faster."

With Volunteers, Focus on Building Trust and Being Respectful

When it comes to volunteer recruitment, Khor says, "it's all about building trust and relationships and being attentive and responsive to different individual's needs and situations. Be respectful of different people's time and talents and what they're willing to do. And remain grateful of whatever help you can get."

Remember, It's a Team Effort

"Be willing to ask and receive help, recognize other people's efforts and contributions, and be a good team member," notes Khor. "Ultimately, any effective social change requires group and collective planning and action. The desired social outcome is rarely the result of just one person's genius or efforts." Organizing volunteer Arlene Novich adds, "Having a lot of volunteers working on this initiative is very helpful" as it creates more opportunities to be on hand at events. "And it also sends the message that we are your neighbors and if it is important enough for us to be involved, it may be worth a try."

Don't Reinvent the Wheel

Beth Radow recommends that communities seeking to start a composting program should enlist the interest of residents and local officials and make contact with people who have already started a similar program to streamline the learning curve. "There is no need to reinvent the wheel. Our community's food waste composting program has benefitted tremendously from the generosity of information provided by our neighbors in Scarsdale. As a Town resident, I find this composting program easy to adapt to. As a citizen committed to establishing sustainable practices, this approach enables us simultaneously to reduce food waste, lower greenhouse gas emissions that result from food waste and replenish the soil that grows our food. I defy anyone not to feel great about that!"