Why Isn’t Everyone Composting Yet? Part 3 – Telling the Story

By Tim Dewey-Mattia, Public Education Manager, Napa Recycling & Waste Services and NCRA Board Member, 4/1/2021

Part 3: Telling the Story        (Part 1)       (Part 2)      (Part 3)

Former NCRA President Arthur R Boone recently posed a question to me via email on “Why the conversion of the yard debris green cart into the full-service organics cart has stumbled badly in getting rolled out? Would love to understand all that resistance better.” Here were my thoughts, which we both thought would be valuable to share with the rest of the NCRA News readers.

In Part 1 and Part 2 of this series, we talked about behavior change and uneven access to programs. For the third and final article, we’ll look at how we can “tell the story” of composting in a more compelling and effective way.

Organics program branding has also been an ongoing problem. Recycling is recycling… but in this case, is it the compost cart, or the organics cart, or the green bin or the yardwaste (+) cart, etc? I think this brings up the larger issue that customers don’t value organics; not like they would an aluminum can or cardboard box, which provides some perception of value because it can be made into a new can or box. There is a solution here – call it one thing. In Napa, we call it the “compost cart” since we make compost from it all, just like the “landfill cart” is the stuff we take to the landfill.

You also need to aggressively educate the community about making compost, and why making compost reduces greenhouse gas emissions, and adds nutrients back into the soil… while also reminding them of the bad stuff that happens when it goes to landfill. I think facility tours (or videos) are key here. Nnot being able to give tours of our composting facility during the pandemic has been a big bummer. There is still a lack of perception of why it’s important to compost – but the reasoning is compelling, so we need to tell the story more powerfully and effectively.

We definitely need more data to figure out exactly where we are – we’ve found it’s really hard to measure participation in curbside organics programs, since if you look in the compost cart the food is often hidden in the yard trimmings. Meanwhile, if you look in the trash, everything is hidden in bags. This is one of my big hopes with SB 1383 – the law requires us to sample all routes, and facility streams, each year. This could give us really powerful data on what is ending up where, and how it progresses over time. Also, while San Francisco and Alameda County have had mandatory programs for a while now, this will be the first time in most places that it will be illegal to put organics (or recyclables) in the trash…up to now, you really only got in trouble if you contaminated your recycling or organics streams.

One silver lining from the pandemic is that we do seem to be seeing more participation in the residential curbside organics collection… but it’s still not where it needs to be. I will say that, as a whole, I’m much more optimistic about organics than recycling at this point… so even with all of these hiccups I think things are generally going in the right direction with organics programs, so there’s that!

Questions or comments? As always feel free to contact me at tim@naparecycling.com… or follow up with a Letter to the Editor or article of your own in the NCRA News!

Why Isn’t Everyone Composting Yet? Part 2 – Uneven Access

By Tim Dewey-Mattia, Public Education Manager, Napa Recycling & Waste Services and NCRA Board Member, 4/1/21

Part 2: Uneven Access      (Part 1)       (Part 2)      (Part 3)

Former NCRA President Arthur R Boone recently posed a question to me via email on “Why the conversion of the yard debris green cart into the full-service organics cart has stumbled badly in getting rolled out? Would love to understand all that resistance better.” Here were my thoughts, which we both thought would be valuable to share with the rest of the NCRA News readers.


In Part 1 of this series, we talked about behavior change. For Part 2, we’ll discuss issues with uneven access to organics collection programs.

Organics program coverage is still not universal. While most single-family residential customers in the Bay Area may have access, a lot of multi-family and commercial still do not. It’s not ideal to have a situation where you compost the organics at home but have to throw it in the trash at work (or the other way around). There is a processing infrastructure issue here (fortunately not for us in Napa, but for other communities) – since the development of full-spectrum organics facilities is still lagging the pace it needs to keep.

These disparities in access mean this is an equity issue as well. Organics diversion will never be successful without full investment in access, education and ongoing support to all communities, and specific focus and resources need to go particularly to disadvantaged communities that have historically not been the focus of enough of waste diversion efforts.

It takes longer than we’d all like to onboard new organics customers, since they have to be trained to get organics out of the trash and into the compost containers. Napa has found that if you want a business to do it right and keep doing it, it takes a 6-week training process – which is hard to keep up and would require way more staffing than most communities have.

I think there is a $$ thing here – if you try and do it on the cheap, your program isn’t very successful. A massive investment in organics diversion, particularly for infrastructure but also for inclusive outreach – through increasing the state landfill tip fee, additional cap and trade money, green infrastructure funding, the Recology ballot initiative, whatever it is – would be very much appreciated.

Questions or comments? As always feel free to contact me at tim@naparecycling.com… or follow up with a Letter to the Editor or article of your own in the NCRA News!

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Edible Food Recovery Tech Council – April 6 Webinar – Free

Join the Edible Food Recovery Technical Council for their upcoming webinar about the Food Industry and Edible Food Generators. Join in on Tuesday, April 6 from 1 pm – 2:30 pm for an afternoon webinar and learn more about:

  • Generator awareness of 1383
  • Outreach and education to generators
  • Barriers and benefits from the food industry perspective
  • Strategies for engagement & guidance for implementation

Register here: https://crra.wildapricot.org/event-4242232

Why Isn’t Everyone Composting Yet?  Part 1 – Behavior Change

By Tim Dewey-Mattia, Public Education Manager, Napa Recycling & Waste Services and NCRA Board Member, 4/1/21

Part 1 – Behavior Change       (Part 1)       (Part 2)      (Part 3)  

Former NCRA President Arthur R Boone recently posed a question to me via email on “Why the conversion of the yard debris green cart into the full-service organics cart has stumbled badly in getting rolled out? Would love to understand all that resistance better.” Here were my thoughts, which we both thought would be valuable to share with the rest of the NCRA News readers.

It’s true, the roll out of full-service organics across the Bay Area hasn’t been as successful as we all hoped. It’s tough to get a good read on participation levels, but I think from lid flips, load checks, customer surveys and anecdotal evidence, most Bay Area full-spectrum organics programs still see no more than 50% participation in the food scrap/soiled paper portion (as opposed to just using the cart for yard trimmings). The idea of the trash being the catch-all bin for throwing away everything is still strong and the default for many… and flipping that paradigm has proven to be tricky.

However, I do think there is still some optimism to be warranted – after all, curbside recycling had a multiple decade head start on curbside composting, and it took a while for recycling to become a commonplace activity for many people (of course, we know there are serious issues with curbside recycling, but at least we see the vast majority of customers participating – perhaps incorrectly – in the program).  One thing that composting has over recycling is that it’s less complicated with fewer rules of what can and can’t go in the cart, so over time we’ll hopefully see it become more successful.

For the first article of this series, I’ll focus on behavior change.

I think we badly underestimated the “Ick Factor.” We told customers that it’s the same stuff they were throwing in the trash and that it just needs to go in that different bin next to your sink. But, of course, they use a trash bag for trash, and without a bag the kitchen bin got gross, smelled bad abd attracted fruit flies, etc.  So, customers immediately gave up.

I do think that a solution to this is more widespread usage of compostable liners in the kitchen pails – obviously some people are fine with cleaning the bin frequently, using old newspaper as a liner or freezing their food scraps, but for a lot of the public it needs to be an easy solution like the bag.  The compostable bags are available at a lot of stores now (and in Napa we now provide samples to customers along with their Sure-Close pail), but I think that a potential option here (which I’ve seen as fairly commonplace in Italy, among other places) is to have grocery store produce bags be mandated to be compostable, and then they could be used to collect kitchen food scraps.

We also are dealing with the issue of customers just shoving most of their food scraps down their sink disposals.  The wastewater treatment folks don’t want this to happen, but it’s still commonplace – so we continue to work on outreach to get customers to get the food out of the sink and into the pail.  Also, often customers have an idea of what can go in a backyard compost pile, but don’t grasp that the full-spectrum curbside programs also take meat, bones, pet food, and all soiled paper products.

While many communities have delivered the food pails (Sure-Close, or other options) and conducted ongoing outreach campaigns, I realize that the program roll out was still fairly passive. After all, for most programs in our region, it wasn’t even necessary to deliver a new cart – it was just “throw it all in your yardwaste cart… which isn’t just a yardwaste cart anymore” or whatever. While we may have slapped a new sticker on the cart lid – or ordered new carts with inmolds showing all the stuff that can go in the compost cart – there are a lot of carts out in the field that still don’t have proper labeling…or the labeling just isn’t compelling enough to drive behavioral change. With SB 1383 roll out, we all have the opportunity be more active in our outreach campaigns going forward.

Questions or comments? As always feel free to contact me at tim@naparecycling.com… or follow up with a Letter to the Editor or article of your own in the NCRA News!

 

Oregon Composters Push Back Against Compostable Packaging

By Steve Sherman, Steven Sherman Consulting, 03/12/19
Oregon compost facility operators are pushing back on the large and growing stream of challenging materials being sent to their facilities. Their joint statement, “A Message From Composters Serving Oregon: Why We Don’t Want Compostable Packaging and Serviceware”, emphasizes that such items “compromise our composting programs and limit many of the environmental benefits of successful composting.”

The statement lists nine reasons why they do not want “compostable” packaging and food serviceware delivered to their facilities:

      1. It does not always compost
      2. It introduces contamination
      3. It hurts re-sale quality
      4. The composters cannot sell to organic farmers
      5. It may impact human and environmental health
      6. It increases compost operators’ costs and makes our jobs harder
      7. Just because something can be composted does not mean that is necessarily better for the environment
      8. In some cases, the benefits of recycling surpass those of composting
      9. Good intentions are not being realized

The compost facility operators’ main point is: “We need to focus on recycling food and yard trimmings into high-quality compost products. Compostable packaging does not help us to achieve this goal.”

Signatories to this statement include some of Oregon’s leading compost facility operators, including independent, regional companies such as Rexius Compost and Organics, Dirt Hugger, Lane Forest Products, and Deschutes Compost Facility, as well as large, integrated companies such as Recology (Organics Oregon) and Republic Services (Pacific Region Compost).

It is not a National Sword policy in the making. Still, clearly there is growing tension, at least in Oregon – land of the first container deposit legislation in the country and consistently one of nation’s most eco-friendly states – over what to do with potentially compostable materials not yard trimmings or food scraps.

We can use this statement from Oregon to remind ourselves that composting is not a magic solution. Instead, the term “composting” represents a suite of technologies that operates within a generally thin-margin industry that must make saleable products of reasonable quality and consistency in order to survive.

In California, several processors are being challenged by borderline materials like plastic-lined milk cartons, other food-soiled paper, and whatever you want to call those plastics that we send to compost facilities in the hope that it will all work out well. “This material is a Trojan horse that brings in even more problematic material,” according to Jack Hoeck, VP Environmental Services Rexius Compost and Organics. “In Eugene, we’re going back to a ‘food only’ program for businesses,” he said.

We in Northern California may or may not be facing the same situation as Oregon. Then again, as SB1383 ramps up, as lower quality feedstocks make up a larger fraction of what is sent to compost facilities, who knows?

Feedstock quality counts. A business model that focuses on “pulling” in higher-quality feedstocks to produce valuable products for markets generally stands a reasonable chance of succeeding over the long run. Less certain of long-term success, however, is the more capital-intensive business model for organics processing that responds primarily to the “push” from well-meaning legislation and from municipalities’ need to get rid of stuff of questionability quality and utility.

Again, Northern California’s composting industry dynamics may differ from Oregon’s, but we should remain mindful about the importance of delivering higher-quality feedstocks to compost facilities that want them.

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