The largest category of waste generated by U.S. households is paper. The second largest isn’t cans or bottles or e-waste. It’s another organic material: yard trimmings and food scraps.
Grass clippings, leaves, fruit peels and the like make up about 27% of the solid waste stream, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. They take up a serious chunk of landfill space and create other environmental problems, namely methane gas, a greenhouse gas that is up to 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide.
Organics that are composted, on the other hand, bring a wealth of benefits. Compost replenishes soil, helps trap carbon and retains water and nutrients for plants.
Salt Lake City is one of many communities across the country that is correctly treating organics as a valuable resource rather than waste. Since 2008, residents have had the option of receiving large brown yard waste bins to place at the curb on trash collection day. The city accepts leaves, branches, grass, fruit and vegetable scraps, coffee grounds and tea bags. During two weeks in January, it adds Christmas trees to the list of compostable items.
Prohibited from the bins are dairy, bones, meat scraps, paper products, construction debris, food and beverage containers marked as compostable, pet waste and dirt (which can make the containers so heavy that they break).
Items are picked up once a week and transported to the Salt Lake Valley Landfill, where they’re ground and put in windrows. After six to eight weeks, the result is a dark, crumbly garden supplement. Local residents can buy compost in allotments of approximately 3 yards for $30. The program became mandatory in 2010, and has helped the community increase its overall diversion rate from 19% to 35%.
“We had really great voluntary participation even before we made the program mandatory,” says Debbie Lyons, Recycling Program Manager with Salt Lake City’s Division of Sustainability and Environment. “About 20 to 25% of households were already participating.
“We’re diverting more than we originally expected,” she continues. “The numbers are showing that the program is a great success.”
Five-year projections show that the yard waste collection program will spike the city’s diversion numbers to 42% if the program makes no changes. However, Lyons says the city is already in talks with the composting facility to expand the type of material it can accept. She’d like to see the city take all kinds of food waste, not just vegetative material.
Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker and the City Council have set an ambitious goal of diverting 50% of waste from the local landfill by the end of 2015. The yard waste program alone should help get pretty close to that target.