City Composting 101: Stickers, Bags, and Containers

by Maggie Tauranac

3/26/19

For city dwellers without a backyard composting option, there are increasingly more ways to do your part to keep food waste out of landfill. More and more cities are introducing industrial composting facilities, and these programs will play a major role in helping not just simple landfill reduction, but in fighting climate change. Yet, there’s still a lot of confusion about how these systems operate, so here’s the low-down on how to be the best composter you can be to keep the system running smoothly.

Keep Stickers Out of the Compost

That sticker on your avocado, if not removed, will drive your local composter crazy. It might seem harmless, but composting is finicky business and contamination will ruin your composter’s day. (Don’t be scared off, you can do it!) Basically, anything that isn’t derived from a plant just can’t go in your bin. That means produce stickers and the twisty ties that tie up your kale stems have to be weeded out before hitting the heap or bin, or that compost is unsellable down the road.

Confused About Biodegradable Packaging or Compostable Products? We Asked the Experts.

It turns out the jury’s still out on how compostable those “compostable” flatware and takeout containers truly are.  For a compostable container to biodegrade properly, it first has to be sent to the right facility. Many cities are equipped with sidewalk trash cans, some even with recycling bins, but few have compost pickup available at every corner. This means that if you throw the eco-container from your takeout lunch into a sidewalk’s trash can, it’s most likely going to the landfill. If you do manage to get it into a compost bin, you have to be sure that compost pile is headed to a commercial composting facility, because those hefty materials won’t breakdown in a backyard compost bin. (New York farmers’ markets, for instance, accept organics, but not compostable products or packaging.)

If you’re not sure what to do with this information, don’t feel bad; it seems the experts haven’t reached a consensus yet on whether or not it’s a good thing to use/buy compostable containers and flatware. James McSweeney, Owner & Technical Lead of Compost Technical Services and author of the book Community-Scale Composting Systems, says one of the arguments for composting is to divert greenhouse gases. But when food packaging goes to landfill, it generates methane upon breaking down. What’s worse, organic matter does this even more so than plastic, which breaks down very little. Which suggests that compostable food packaging might be even worse than plastics.

Knowing this and considering whether these products are making it to the compost pile at all, James wonders if we might be “jumping the gun” on pushing a lot of these alternatives if they aren’t even going to make it into a composting facility. A skeptical mind might also wonder if these products allow various food companies to get credit for going green while not actually changing much about the end circumstance (lots of food packaging in landfills).

But Louise Bruce, an industry consultant and former Senior Program Manager of NYC Organics at the NYC Department of Sanitation, says our number one priority has to be moving away from our reliance on plastics. She says these industry solutions — compostable packaging and flatware — are crucial for increasing demand for these products, which will lay the groundwork for us to get better at creating the right ways for people to dispose of this stuff. Whether the cart or the horse comes first, we need to have both.

Look for Validated Compostable or Biodegradable Product Labels

If you are purchasing compostable products to be sent to industrial composting facilities, look for labels that ensure the products are actually compostable. Be sure not to confuse “Certified Compostable” — a certified label — with “biodegradable,” an uncertified term which has a lot of ambiguity. BPI (Biodegradable Products Institute) is a leading certifier of compostable products and packaging. Their logo ensures your waste can be commercially composted and they have a publicly searchable database of certified products so you can make sure you’re getting it right.

Buy Your City’s Compost

Much like with recycling, so much of our focus is on “diversion rates” (keeping it all out of the trash can); getting it into the compost bin makes us feel like the job is done. But organic waste has a whole life cycle after the brown bin. It goes to your local composter or your municipal composting facility where it’s either turned into soil or — with an anaerobic digester — biogas.

That soil needs a buyer: become that soil shopper! Showing there’s a market for high-quality compost will encourage municipalities to invest in composting solutions. And hard as it is to believe, compost is a useful purchase no matter where you are. “Even city dwellers have a use for compost in their houseplants, or in the tree planters on the street outside of their apartments.” Says Nora Goldstein, editor of BioCycle Magazine. “If you have a garden, or participate in a community garden, use compost.” And conveniently, the US Composting Council has a Compost Locator Map, which can you help you do just that!

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