Climbing Mount Compost
Austin's next big zero-waste project is feeding nature's recycling program
In its past life, the steaming pile of compost at Organics "By Gosh" was jack-o'-lanterns and Christmas trees, pizza boxes and dried leaves. Coffee filters. Tree branches. Misshapen apples scorned at the grocery store. But inside the pile, where temperatures are as warm as 160 degrees, microorganisms are feeding on nitrogen- and carbon-rich organic matter and slow-cooking it into a rich, soft soil amendment that smells like the forest floor.
Standing atop the mountain of compost-in-progress, Phil Gosh surveys his decomposing empire. Beneath his feet, 10,000 cubic yards of what was once waste are being transformed into a substance that can restore nutrients to soil and mitigate the effects of drought. It takes about a year for the raw ingredients – 20,000 to 40,000 pounds a day of unsold produce from grocery stores, and branches and leaves from landscapers – to evolve. "It's a beautiful thing that happens out there," Gosh says as his rain boots sink into the spongy pile. "There's no fertilizers, pesticides, or herbicides. It's a beautiful ecosystem."
According to the city, this is the type of setting where Austin's veggie peels and food scraps should go – not the landfill. Currently, almost half of what Austin residences are putting in the trash is "organics" – food waste (nearly 26%), yard trimmings, paper, and wood. Such materials, when composted properly, turn into a textured, earthy substance that can be added to gardens or used as mulch. But when sealed inside a landfill, as it is now, the organic matter doesn't return to earth, instead breaking down anaerobically and generating methane and other greenhouse gases.
Keeping organics out of the landfill is the next frontier for Austin Resource Recovery, which will this year propose to City Council a new residential collection program. On the route to Austin's zero-waste goals – which call for diverting 90% of all materials from the landfill by 2040 – the city has stalled at just under 40%. Doing a better job of recycling is still important, but according to Director Bob Gedert's calculations, the only way Austin can reach its benchmark goal of 75% diversion by 2020 is by taking organics out of the trash and composting them instead.
And collecting compostables separately is part of Gedert's ultimate goal of cutting back on trash pickup and expanding recycling. Because recyclable materials have monetary value, some of which is returned to the city, picking up more recyclables can be more economical than picking up trash when commodity markets cooperate. Of course, that's provided Austinites are actually putting recyclables in the blue bins. "If I can move trash service to biweekly and recycling to weekly, I completely cover my cost" for the switch, Gedert says. But there's a catch: Before it will allow trash collection once every two weeks, the state requires that all "putrescibles" – material that decays and smells – be picked up separately and more frequently. Picking those up in a dedicated organics collection would facilitate Gedert's route switch, reduce the space used in the landfill, and cut greenhouse gas emissions.
Those are lofty goals for rotting veggies and soggy newspaper. "We joke that we're making composting sexy," says Dustin Fedako, CEO of the Compost Pedallers. "It's a really cool process. Being able to make life out of the absence of life is, in a way, almost magical."
It's hard to argue with him. Given the right mix of organic material, moisture, and oxygen, beneficial microbes accelerate the decomposition process and produce heat in the compost pile, which also kills pathogens. Compost application improves soil structure, enhancing its ability to retain water and resist erosion – qualities sorely needed in drought-stricken Texas. Compost replenishes soil nutrients and facilitates their retention. EPA studies have shown that compost can even remediate soil contaminated by hazardous waste and filter stormwater runoff.
Growing Your Own
In the world of waste management, compost stands apart from trash and recycling. An individual can't recycle on her own, and shouldn't pile trash in her backyard, but can effectively compost her organics there. From a sustainability perspective, the best solution would be for everyone to compost at home and use the compost for backyard gardening, thereby eliminating the emissions from collection trucks and all associated costs. Many residents with the space and time do compost at home, or at community gardens, churches, or schools.
Savvy composters can also join the Compost Coalition, a network that connects small-scale organic material producers, like cafes, wood shops, and homebrewers, with people who can use the materials for home compost piles or chicken feed. Founder Heather-Nicole Hoffman says the coalition's most successful program is Ground to Ground, in which coffee shops donate used coffee grounds that volunteers pick up. The grounds are a good gateway to composting, she says; they're easy to collect from restaurants or break rooms, and they're easy to put in home compost piles.
The coalition, which began about four years ago, exists both to support gardeners and to keep compostable materials out of the landfill. "It drives me crazy that something that is a resource is instead being turned into a problem," Hoffman says.
But not everyone puts this effort into managing the backyard compost pile, which is why some piles smell or never produce actual compost. "A lot of people think that composting is just throwing your orange peels in your yard," says Eric Goff, co-founder of the Compost Pedallers. Instead, "it's like gardening, where you weed it and tend your garden, and then you harvest it and make sure all the plants are healthy. So it's human labor and thoughtfulness applied to the natural process of decomposition, and not just tossing something outside." Successful compost needs a mix of "greens" (like veggie scraps and grass) and "browns" (like leaves and wood chips), and it needs to be turned regularly so the organic material has access to oxygen. It needs some moisture, but not too much. Home and community garden compost piles generally can't handle meat or bones, dairy, or compostable silverware, because the piles aren't managed in a way that would elevate temperatures enough to break those materials down and kill bacteria.
And not everyone has the inclination or space to manage compost at home. That's why Fedako and Goff started the Compost Pedallers in 2012. The bike-powered organics collection service transports veggie scraps, coffee grounds, and soiled paper from apartments, businesses and almost 600 houses to compost piles around Central Austin. Members, who pay a weekly fee of $4, put their organics – an average pickup is 8.5 pounds per week – in a 5-gallon green bin and set it out front on collection day. A Pedaller comes by on a cargo bike that can carry 500 to 1,000 pounds. He or she weighs the container, dumps it into the bin on the bike, and then cleans it with soap and water. When the Pedaller's big compost containers are full – after about 50 houses – it's time to drop the organics at a "CompHost" – e.g., an urban farm or a community, school, or backyard garden. A similar collection process is used at apartments and businesses like Dropbox and Livestrong, and restaurants such as Banger's Sausage House. Since its inception, the Compost Pedallers have diverted 340,000 pounds from local landfills. Fedako says the process is pretty easy for the consumer: "It's just putting your banana peels in our bin rather than the trash." Members earn a point for every pound of materials they compost. The points are redeemable for rewards like coffee and food from local businesses, as well as bags of finished compost.
When the Compost Pedallers talk with prospective members, Fedako says, people often think the city already has a program in place. "People assume, 'Austin's a green city, I've heard about composting, so it must be right around the corner.'" Gedert often makes a similar point that Austin's self-perception as "green" doesn't always match up with the reality, and can actually facilitate a kind of complacence that's at odds with environmental goals.
But changes are afoot. The city is planning to expand its collection service to include organic material, likely beginning within two years. When the service is established, single-family households currently served by the city will have three carts: a brown one for trash, a blue one for recycling, and a green one for organics including food waste, yard trimmings, and food-spoiled paper. The city already collects yard trimmings and leaves, mostly in plastic bins or lawn and leaf bags, and composts them at Hornsby Bend Biosolids Management Plant. Switching to the green bin would establish "single-stream organics" collection, wherein all compostable matter could go in the same bin – much like single-stream recycling, where paper, plastic, and glass commingle. Elements of the proposed program are based on similar initiatives in San Francisco and Seattle. The latter city later this year will begin fining residents who don't put organic matter in the green bin, though the Austin program doesn't include such a measure.
Fighting the Yuck Factor
The city has already instituted single-stream organics at 14,000 households in a pilot program that began in January 2013. Ten geographic areas across the city have served as test sites for weekly curbside pickup and have generated a household average of 9.94 pounds per week, though Gedert's data suggests this could stretch to 14.5 pounds. (The city collects yard waste, like grass clippings and leaves, that the Compost Pedallers do not.)
Gedert says residents are generally pleased with the program, but with caveats. For instance, the pilot has used 96-gallon carts, on the theory that the size was big enough for both kitchen waste and lawn and leaf waste. Austinites, though, are partial to putting yard trimmings in lawn and leaf bags, which has left the large carts only partially full. The proposed citywide program will employ 24-gallon bins and continue picking up bags of leaves set at the curb.
Another challenge is the way people shuttle organic materials from their kitchens to the big green bins. Putting vegetable scraps and meat bones directly into the bin is often perceived as too messy – Gedert says one of his biggest adversaries is "the yuck factor" – so residents typically bag their scraps before tossing them into the bin. ARR would prefer paper bags, which are compostable, for this purpose, but at first many residents were using plastic bags, which don't break down. The department is currently researching compostable plastic bags to see if it can endorse a brand that will break down quickly.
(Another solution is to put everything in bread or produce bags and freeze it. This approach eliminates odors, and pre-frozen balls are easier to toss into bins – sans bag – or community garden compost piles.)
Paper bags work for Chris Lippincott, a Crestview resident, who has been participating in the pilot for about a year. He uses lunch sacks to hold each day's organics, starting with coffee grounds in the morning and ending up with dinner refuse, and tosses the bag in the bin every evening. "If you were to look in our green canister any given day, you'd see a pizza box or two and several paper bags that are full of banana peels and leftover fat from eating a steak," he says, adding that his family's trash can is much less full and that the kitchen trash never smells, now that the putrescibles are taken out each night.
The organic materials from the pilot program are hauled to Organics "By Gosh," east of the SH 130 toll road, where they're added to Phil Gosh's compost piles. There, the importance of residents sorting materials correctly becomes evident. During a 15-minute climb of the pile, Gosh encounters a sock, shoe, Red Bull can, kitchen knife, and bong, none of which will compost. When residents use the green bin as another trash can, Organics "By Gosh" has to sort out the junk. By that point, even recyclable materials are so contaminated with dirt or food that recyclers can't take them, and they end up in the landfill. "If people want to look at it as a resource and help our future," Gosh says, "let's keep it clean so we can make compost without having to spend a lot of time and money picking out trash."
The 10 pilot neighborhoods are effectively the first phase of ARR's organics collection rollout. In the proposal Gedert presented to the Zero Waste Advisory Commission at its April 8 meeting, citywide organics collection will be deployed over five years. Existing yard trimmings collection routes will be switched to single-stream organics routes (green bins) and phase in about 52,000 households a year until all 200,000-plus households served by the city are included in 2020. The proposal will be included in City Council budget discussions this summer; if it's approved, ARR will begin planning and purchasing equipment in 2016.
The program would be paid for by an additional fee on residents' utility bills, phased in over five years. Beginning in the 2016 fiscal year, residents would see an additional 48-cent charge. By 2020, the cumulative monthly charge would be $3.22. These fees would cover the costs of added staff, trucks, operations costs, and green carts, some of which would be financed. In upcoming meetings the Zero Waste Advisory Commission will determine whether residents could opt out of the program and the fee, by demonstrating that they compost at home or at a community garden, or by contracting with a service like Compost Pedallers.
Lippincott says a hypothetical $3 per month charge would be worth it. "When we consider the growth in the city," he says, "anything we can do to reduce our landfill space, that is that sensibly priced, is a good deal from an environmental standpoint, but also from a business standpoint. We pay for those landfills, and if we can slow down the growth rate of that need and the expense associated with it, that makes tremendous sense." Gedert's projections show that if curbside organics collection is adopted, 79,000 tons of material per year would be diverted from the landfill by 2020. In the 2014 fiscal year, Austin Resource Recovery sent 27,357 tons of yard trimmings alone to the Hornsby Bend site; the leaves and grasses are mixed with treated sewage sludge to make Dillo Dirt. By collecting the other categories of organics – food waste (32,000 tons), food-spoiled paper (15,000 tons) and wood, the city would increase diversion by about 15%. Combined with aggressive increases in recycling, the program would lift Austin's overall diversion rate to 75%.
"The question is whether a 15% jump in diversion to reach the goal is worth the additional $3.22 per month on the utility bill," Gedert told the Zero Waste Advisory Commission at its April 8 meeting.
The Bigger Haul
As enormous a number as 79,000 tons is, that quantity represents only the anticipated collection from single-family residences the city serves – not commercial or multifamily buildings, which are served by private haulers. But even at structures where the city doesn't collect waste, the city has a vested interest in reducing what that business sends to the landfill, in service of Austin's zero-waste goals.
To that end, the Universal Recycling Ordinance, which requires that businesses, apartments, and condos offer recycling of materials like paper and plastic, includes a provision for businesses with food-service permits. Beginning with the largest businesses in October 2016, and phasing in more enterprises each year until 2018, the ordinance requires that operations with food-service permits create an organics diversion plan. This doesn't require composting per se; restaurant and grocery owners are encouraged to follow the Environmental Protection Agency's "Food Recovery Hierarchy," which prioritizes getting edible food to people (see "Waste Not," Feb. 20) or to animals (see "From Farm ... To Farm," p.26) over compost.
Gedert, who's a fan of pilot programs, worked with the Greater Austin Restaurant Association to run a six-month pilot organics collection program in cooperation with 14 restaurants in 2012. "It confirmed that it can be done, but it also confirmed some of the concerns," Gedert says. "One was pricing; one was the ability of the haulers to service on a frequent basis; and what's it like in the middle of the summer?" Feedback from the pilot was taken into account as that phase of the URO was written, though Gedert says pricing is still an unknown.
Skeeter Miller, co-owner of the County Line restaurants and president of the Greater Austin Restaurant Association, says he's essentially on board with restaurant composting but concerned about the cost. The County Line donates excess edible food through Keep Austin Fed, but it does generate compostable rib bones, potato peels, and uneaten food scraped from customers' plates. During the pilot, his restaurants produced about six cubic yards of material every two days. The Dumpsters holding it were heavy, and "yuck factor" oozed out in the summer.
As with each new recycling requirement, there is concern from the affected industry about added costs. Miller says the limited number of organics haulers means charges are higher than for a service like trash, where competitive bidding pushes prices down. He cites his own $5,000 start-up cost for the organics containers and an additional $5,000 per year for hauling costs. Like Lippincott's household, his own restaurants have been able to reduce the volume in their trash containers by putting organics in a separate bin. But the collections costs are still a net increase, he says.
Not so for Wheatsville Food Co-op, which has been voluntarily composting since 2012 yet has seen its costs remain static. The stores donate edible food to the Blackland Community Development Corporation, and then the remainder goes into organics collection bins. Wheatsville collects both back-of-house material (kale stems in the deli kitchen) and front-of-house scraps (bread crusts from sandwiches eaten in the cafe). Chief Executive Grocer Dan Gillotte says the Guadalupe store has switched from five weekly trash pickups, using the largest Dumpster, to three or four pickups using the smallest Dumpster (the South Lamar store has composted since its 2013 opening). With the addition of composting and the reduction of trash pickup, the Guadalupe store spends about the same amount it did before composting – about $1,750 per month, Gillotte says.
The co-op's biggest "public-facing win" has been labeling trash, recycling, and compost bins with pictures of items that go in each container, Gillotte says. Without them, customers get confused about what to do with takeout boxes or paper towels. "It takes a little training, but it was easier than we thought to make the transition," he says. "Food waste is upsetting to people who really understand the issue, so if they can be aware that they're diverting from the landfill and it's going to compost, that's good for staff to hear."
The small steps, whether on the retail end (putting pictures on the different bins) or the consumer end (dropping banana peels in a compost bin instead of the trash), are ultimately what will move Austin closer to its benchmark of diverting 75% of waste from the landfill by 2020. As with recycling or any other zero-waste initiative, composting requires a combination of city infrastructure and individual motivation to work.
When the Compost Coalition's Hoffman promotes composting at public events, she tries to engage that motivation with a before-and-after approach. "I like to show people, 'This is your food, and this is your food three months later as compost,'" she says. "If you just see stinky, putrefying food, you'd think 'Why would I ever do that?' But if you can see it in a proper setting and managed correctly, it becomes soil. It smells good, it feels good, and it supports life."