Madison’s curbside composting program limps along amid lack of funding, contamination

December 18, 2017 GMT

When Madison started a municipal composting program in 2011, the city was viewed as part of the vanguard of an emerging nationwide movement. Six years later, the program has barely doubled the number of participants and remains one of about 200 cities that collect food waste curbside.

Moreover, residents continue to put non-compostable items into the stream, prompting processors to leave the program. As the city looks for its fifth processor, compostable waste is now ending up in the landfill.

“The issue that has dogged us ... has been contamination, mostly plastics in some form or another,” said city recycling coordinator Bryan Johnson. “Plastic bags, plastic bottles, plastic food containers. ... Even though our program is basically volunteers, plastics keep finding their way into the cart.”

In 2013, the goal was to take the program citywide by 2016. As 2017 comes to a close, the program remains a pilot, growing from about 500 to about 1,100 of the city’s more than 108,000 households.

The first East and West side households participating in the program got a bin to keep in the kitchen for scraps and a 35-gallon black cart to dump the waste into before rolling it to the curb on garbage day. Eligible food waste included everything from vegetable and fruit scraps, bones and animal fat to food-soiled paper and cardboard pizza boxes.

“We really like it,” said program participant and East Side resident Amanda Crim, who called her experience “hassle-free.” “We try not to create a whole lot of waste, generally speaking, anyway.”

Neighbors she’s recruited into the program have seemed similarly enthusiastic, she said.

By 2012, city officials were already looking to build the city’s first anaerobic digester, according to records from the city’s Solid Waste Advisory Committee. Taking curbside composting citywide was the public’s most-named priority for the 2014 city budget, according to an online poll. Then-recycling coordinator George Dreckmann requested $20 million in city funding to build a digester and buy more garbage trucks and carts.

But by May 2014, expansion of the pilot was put on hold, a victim of state Department of Natural Resources concerns about composting pet waste and plastics showing up among compostables. It almost ended entirely late that summer amid questions about whether the city could pay for equipment needed to screen plastic bags and other noncompostables from waste.

More households have been added steadily, if slowly, to the program since October 2015, but it’s continued to have problems with residents contaminating the compost stream and processors who object as a result.

A city newsletter devoted to the pilot program appears to have published only one issue, in April 2013.

Growing popularity,

best practices

If Madison’s composting program has been slow to expand, government and other institutional composting programs have become more prevalent. Citing federal data, a paper published this year on municipal composting in the journal Resources, Conservation and Recycling reported that in 2014, 5.1 percent of food waste was being turned into compost, nearly twice what it was at the start of the decade.

The paper referenced a 2014 survey that identified 198 communities in 19 states with curbside food-waste collection programs, and dozens more with drop-off programs.

Lily Baum Pollans, who co-authored the paper and studies sustainability and solid waste management at Hunter College in the City University of New York, said so-called “pay as you throw,” or PAYT, pricing appears to be key to city composting programs. PAYT is supposed to create incentives for recycling and composting by charging for trash pick-up based on how much is thrown away.

But Johnson said the upfront costs for sensors to weigh refuse containers are prohibitive, and even if pricing were based on cart size, there are multiple administrative and policy considerations to implementing such a model.

For instance, “how we would prevent people from placing refuse into other people’s carts to dodge paying higher fees?” he asked.

Johnson said adding yard waste to the materials that can be put into compost bins “would be a boon to any food scrap program” because not having to go to the yard-waste drop-off site or have city vehicles collecting yard waste from the terrace “would help get reluctant folks on board with the program.”

But there are caveats. The city would need a processor that’s configured for yard waste and large enough to handle it, he said, and yard waste doesn’t produce as much marketable biogas as food waste.

Crim, who has two children and a dog, said it was unfortunate the program stopped taking disposable diapers and pet waste, which the city banned in July 2013 and October 2014, respectively.

Johnson and Pollans agreed about the importance of keeping residents informed about their cities’ composting programs. Jonathan Krones, a co-author with Pollans on the composting paper and a postdoctoral associate at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, said such messages have to include meaningful interactions with residents that go beyond just “patronizing” residents with leaflets about what to do with their waste.

Pollans and Krones also emphasized the importance of having powerful people in government or elsewhere — not just city staff — who champion composting.

Told of the length of Madison’s pilot program, Krones said “the lack of leadership seems to be apparent.”

Funding concerns

Even with strong leadership, there might be little money, especially amid a variety of competing city needs and Mayor Paul Soglin’s aversion to more debt.

Soglin described himself as “extremely disappointed” in 2014 when the pilot project was at risk of being terminated, but last month he named “issues related to poverty” and “dealing with the emerald ash borer” as among the funding priorities ahead of curbside composting.

City Council president Marsha Rummel said the council still supports the project but that the “big financial issue” is the lack of a plan to build a city digester. Expanding it beyond the pilot “will take time before we can afford the capital costs,” she said.

“Really, the biggest barrier comes down to funding,” Johnson said. “There is a cost for additional trucks, personnel, carts, and the processing equipment. That’s not to say that the cost (is) so prohibitive that this will never take root citywide because partnerships and other options can develop to lessen the cost — but there will still be a cost. And without investment, the program cannot grow.”