Scraps to Savings: Composting in Communities

Could mandatory composting be implemented in a municipality, and if so, what could this mean for communities? To answer this, we can look to San Francisco, the first U.S. city to implement a large scale composting collection program.

San Franciscans and tourists alike have to think twice before tossing a banana peel in the trash—this action became illegal in 2009 with the city’s mandatory Recycling and Composting Ordinance. Recycled materials, compostable materials, and trash must be separated, an effort that the San Francisco Department of Environment (also known as SF Environment) hopes will lead to Zero Waste by 2020. Zero Waste means sending nothing to landfill, incineration, or high temperature technologies, and SF Environment is full steam ahead on making this a reality for their city.

 What Exactly is Composting?

Compost, by definition, is decomposed organic material, like food waste or yard scraps, that can be added to the soil to enrich it. Large scale composting, like which occurs at Recology in San Francisco, involves removing contaminants, shredding, moisture monitoring, and aeration. The process relies on microorganisms to turn common waste into the nutrient-rich end product, humus.

In San Francisco, residents and commercial entities have three curbside bins: one for recyclables, one for landfill-bound trash, and one for compostable materials. The only practical difference from traditional trash/recycling collection is that they need to be sure to use compostable bags in their bins. It is also important to separate items correctly and be aware of what can and cannot be composted. We know that you can compost food and yard waste, but the items on the following list may come as a surprise:

  • Cardboard egg cartons
  • Wine corks
  • Dryer lint
  • Old cotton clothing or fabric scraps
  • Bills and other paper documents (shredded)
  • Dustpan contents
  • Coffee filters
  • Egg shells

What Can a Community Gain from Composting?

 Composting aids in fostering a circular economy, where resources like food and yard waste are utilized instead of wasted. Initially, it is more costly to process compostable materials, though it balances out down the road; Recology sells compost at around $9 per yard. This is a great opportunity in a time where 95 percent of compostable materials are incinerated or landfilled. Middlebury College in Vermont took advantage of this situation, when they saved $100,000 on landfill fees in 2011. This rate came from composting 90 percent of food waste, and resulted in $270 of savings per ton of waste. Recology finishes each day with roughly 350 tons of processed compost; this number translates into a greenhouse gas emission reduction of 303 metric tons of carbon dioxide per day, the equivalent of 33 U.S. homes’ energy use for one year. This said, composting can not only generate savings in a community, but it can lessen environmental burden as well.

 Want to Start Composting Now?

 Even if you don’t live in an area that provides curbside composting, you can still make it an individual project. You can purchase your own composting bin, or simply collect compostable materials and bring them to your local farmers market each week. There are even services that will come and pick up your compost each week for a monthly fee. CompostNow is a great example for those in the triangle area.  Each week, they provide members with a clean compost bin, and in return for being involved in the service, members receive shares of compost which they can use or give to their local community garden.


Elizabeth is continuing her education at UNC Chapel Hill with a Master’s in Environmental Informatics and hopes to pursue a career in the renewable energy industry. Elizabeth works with the EFC at UNC as a student data analyst, focusing on the water rates surveys and dashboard projects for several states.ting.


  1. Julia Wang

    I collected fall leaves from my neighbors’ yard (that made my neighbors happy too), and coffee ground from Starbucks coffee. I also ask a local bakery shop to give me egg shells. I roughly mix them and let the pile it sit at a side of my house. It’s not the best way to compost, but I don’t mind, because after several months, I would have plenty of nice compost for my garden. I also have a tall compost bin. It’s too tall, therefore I am unable to turn the materials. I just keep piling kitchen and yard wastes into it. Nicely composted “soil” would slowly come out from the opening near the bottom.

  2. EarthLoverBoi

    Interesting points Elizabeth. I just recently finished the 1995 biopic “Waterworld” and cannot stress enough the looming lack crisis. Its been 25 years since Kevin Costner portrayed a mer-human to draw attention to what society would look like if we ran out of terra firma. Am I saying we can solve peak soil by composting? I’ve heard of people who build islands out of old waterbottles. So maybe that could work. But yeah, that would definitely be harder if we didn’t separate our composting and recycling. I have a friend who gets dropped off at a dumpster every day to do just that. I’ve never spoken to her about it, but she looks pretty rough pretty much all of the time so if more people read this article it would probably help her. So I think we could all take some time and convert our solid human waste into future generations.

  3. Sun Service LLC

    The blog is very easy to understand and the way author described the composting term is very interesting. Thanks for such a useful information and ideas.