Washington, D.C.'s Up and Coming Composting Scene

Despite the growing culture of composting throughout the United States, not all cities have the resources necessary to start full-fledged organics recycling programs that include services like residential curbside pickup for organics. However, some cities like Washington, D.C. are figuring out how to provide residents a variety of composting services in a convenient and cost-effective way.

In addition to the Urban Master Composter Certificate Course and Community Compost Cooperative Network where dedicated members maintain compost bins in various gardens throughout the city, Washington, D.C.’s Department of Public Works (DPW) has tried two new approaches in the past two years to make composting accessible for all residents: The Food Scrap Drop Off Program and the Home Composting Incentives Amendment Act.

FWDO_Banner_Web2.jpg

DC’s Food Scrap Drop Off Program is a convenient and cost effective initiative that provides residents from all over the city with composting services. Every weekend from around 9am-1pm, farmers’ markets in all of D.C.’s eight wards have food scrap drop off tents, so residents can bring their weekly food scraps without paying for privatized services or maintaining a home composting system. These sites are run through a public-private partnership with the D.C. DPW and Compost Cab, a private composting business that operates in the D.C. area. They are in charge of sorting, hauling, and processing the food scraps that are collected. However, the sites do not allow meat, dairy, or compostable packaging products to enter the compost stream. More specific information about accepted items and farmers’ market locations can be found on this fact sheet.

From its inception in the spring of 2017, the success of this initiative has been immense, with over 12,000 individuals dropping off their household food scraps in 2017, each with the average of over 8 lbs per week. Last winter, when only three farmers’ markets had food scrap drop off tents, the participation rate still continued to grow. This year’s numbers have increased, with one weekend this past July collecting over 8,200 lbs of food scraps from over 1,300 participants, not to mention the community’s overwhelming praise.

“[Residents] are surprised to learn how much food they had previously been throwing away and have become more conscious of the amount of food waste they generate,” said Chris Shorter, the Director of D.C.’s DPW’ “In this way, our food waste drop-off program has been successful in two ways: first, it reduces the amount of trash that would otherwise be sent to landfills or incinerators; and second, it’s changing the way people buy and cook food, which helps reduce food waste overall.” This success proves that although residential curbside organics collection programs are proposed as the best option, low-cost pop-up composting programs in locations with high foot traffic can still make a large impact, especially if cities lack the infrastructure or funds to maintain a full-fledged program.

Another way the D.C. DPW is making composting accessible to residents is by providing rebates and vouchers for up to $75 for purchases of home composting systems, in-person trainings for the proper handling and processing of compost, and educational materials to educate residents about the benefits of home composting. All of these services are provided through the Home Composting Amendment Act, which was just passed by the D.C. City Council in May 2018.

Although incentivizing home composting may not seem intuitive for an urban city like Washington, D.C., the Institute For Local Self-Reliance (ILSR) just released a report that highlights the benefits of home composting and provides case studies of other cities’ programs. Brenda Platt, Co-Director of ILSR and one author of the report, explains that “Home composting has traditionally been undervalued, but now that there is more interest in curbside collection, many cities realize that they can’t find facilities to process such a large quantity of food waste. With home composting, cities don’t have to worry about that.” Focusing on accessible do-it-yourself opportunities diverts significant volumes of waste without requiring extensive infrastructure development and services, while also decreasing tipping fees and collection costs. This method saves money for the city and replenishes local soils with nutrients.

As beneficial as home composting is for cities, compost’s “yuck factor” still remains a barrier to uptake for residents. However, these barriers can easily be overcome. Free educational trainings allow residents to learn best management practices and mitigate these side effects. The Home Composting Amendment Act features education dissemination as a major pillar of the initiative and will hopefully mitigate fears and incentivize home composting for D.C. locals when it becomes operational in 2019.

Overall, with many community and home composting efforts underway, D.C. DPW is doing a fantastic job to provide its residents with a variety of composting services in a convenient and cost-effective manner. Recently, there has been chatter that D.C. DPW will create a commercial-scale composting facility in the next few years, but in the meantime, D.C. residents still have great options to choose from.

Maya Hiraki