March 4, 2014

Can Composting Become Default Behavior?

Ruthie Burrows

Ruthie Burrows

Research Assistant

Center for a Livable Future

2014-compost-cardThis is the first in a series of posts about food waste.

This year, Bloomberg School students, faculty, and staff will have one more reason to think before they toss. At the School, 3,000 small composting bins will begin to appear underneath office desks as trash cans start to become sparser. Department by department, Environmental Services Operations will introduce a new desk-side composting initiative, making composting as accessible as recycling. The program is a part of a larger push to increase the School’s diversion rate, or increase the amount of waste that is diverted from disposal.

This new project seeks to make composting a default behavior by increasing access to and awareness of composting opportunities within the Wolfe Street building. Small bins with compostable corn-based liners clip onto the edge of the recycling bins underneath desks. Trash cans will be removed from desks and placed in office common areas. The initiative is still in its pilot stages with only administration and the Environmental Health Sciences department taking part. Robert Gair, manager of the Environmental Services Operations, expects to introduce the program to two more departments this winter and hopes to have the entire school covered by Fall 2014.

2014-compost-binMr. Gair explained that most of the waste produced at a desk could be either recycled or composted. Food scraps, soiled paper products, and corn-based take out containers are compostable, while aluminum cans and plastic containers must be recycled. To ensure that people are aware of what waste can be composted, small infographic cards will be left at desks. Mr. Gair also plans to attend department meetings to personally explain the process and answer questions. The most significant barrier to the program, he says, is noncompliance, which could lead to unacceptable levels of contamination of the compostable materials by recyclable or disposable waste such as wrappers and plastic bottles. (The central composting facility to which the School’s compostable waste is hauled allows for 3 percent contamination, and so far Gair has not had any problems with contamination levels.)

Although the program is still in its beginning phases, diversion rates are starting to increase. When composting was first starting to gain traction at the School in early 2011, the diversion rates were around 46 percent. Just last month, the School diverted 60 percent of its waste from the landfill/incinerator. Gair says that his ultimate goal is to reach an 85 percent diversion rate.

Currently, Americans throw away about $165 billion in food waste each year, straining natural and economic resources. When food waste rots in landfills, it produces methane gas, a powerful greenhouse gas with 20 times the potential to warm the atmosphere compared to carbon dioxide. According to the EPA, 20 percent of America’s methane emissions are attributed to landfill decomposition.  If food waste is composted properly, it breaks down into a nutrient-rich soil without producing a harmful amount of methane gas[RN1] . While the end users of these large composting facilities vary, the majority of the compost generated is used in the landscape industry.

While composting is a more preferable alternative than incineration or landfill, the EPA recommends an overall reduction in the amount of food that is wasted at the source. At least 90 percent of Americans have thrown away food that is still safe to consume, straining the natural resources required to produce and transport these goods. Even if this wasted food was composted, it still has a large environmental impact. “Any food that gets composted still includes all the embodied resources used and greenhouse gas emissions from its production, processing/packaging, distribution, storage and preparation,” explains Roni Neff, PhD, director of the Food System Sustainability and Public Health program at the CLF.  “Therefore, the overall priority should be preventing wasted food in the first place.”

Perhaps future initiatives can push for more reductions in the amount of food wasted but in the meantime, expanding the composting program at the Bloomberg School is a step toward sustainability. While the composting program does cost more than trash and recycling, Gair is an adamant supporter. He explains that the School should be a role model for other institutions: “We are the School of Public Health, it is just the right thing to do.”

Photos: Ruthie Burrows, 2014.

The Really Radical R: Reduce – by Christine Grillo
Can Composting Become Default Behavior? – by Ruthie Burrows
Are You a Member of the Clean Plate Club – by Patti Truant
Fighting Food Waste—with Gleaning and Facebook – by Kathryn Rees


  1. Posted by Emma

    Green Mountain College has a long-standing composting program. I attended from 2005-2008, and the compost collected form the dining hall was used on the campus farm. This behavior can become ‘default’. More schools should adopt this, and I am glad to see it being adopted by Bloomberg.

  2. Posted by Mariann

    So glad to see that composting is beginning to be included in serious discussion with recycling. It is difficult for me to comprehend how we are not further along in managing our household waste in this day and age! Too many adults ignore the need that is true, sadly, too many young people are unwilling to make the changes fearing it will be too challenging to maintain. Our household has always composted – not just for concern about the waste and gases but also out of concern for the amount of water that becomes trapped in the waste stream instead of being a part of the water cycle.

  3. Posted by Andrew

    I work for Garbage to Garden, a curbside composting company in Portland, Maine. I have watched our residential participation rate triple within the last year and it continues to grow. Not only do we service residents in the greater Portland area(Portland, South Portland, Falmouth, Yarmouth, and Westbrook), but we also service commercial businesses as well as schools in the area. As recycling was a major part of my elementary experience, our goal is to do the same for composting, making it second nature for students. Well done and keep up the good work!

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