With Pay-As-You-Throw Firmly in Place, Decatur Seems Primed for Composting

Now let me start off by saying that I haven’t done a lick of research into the hurdles the city would have to be overcome to actually dispose of compost accumulated from around Decatur.  Perhaps the City’s Lena Stevens will step in and set me straight on that.

But the recently released first draft of the city’s Sustainability Plan goal “Promote the Expansion of Food Composting” got me thinking, “How hard would it be to get Decaturites composting?”

After doing a bit of looking around and some sporadic noodle-scratching, I determined, “Not that hard at all!”.  And I’m not even talking about implementing the kind of militant composting prescriptions of the Pacific Northwest (San Fran, Seattle), which require composting under penalty of “liens, fines, and other fees.”   While Decaturites are often pointed to as some of the most liberal Georgia residents, most actual residents know that if you fly a bunch of us over to the piney lakes of Washington State many of us “progressives” would sound down right conservative.  (“Where’d you get that plastic grocery bag son?  Atlanta, eh??”)

Why do I have such blind and unsubstantiated faith in the potential ease of convincing Decaturites to compost?

Well sure, a lot of us are more inclined than your average metro-Atlantan to latch onto ways to reduce our footprint o’ carbon.  But also, there’s already a system in place that lends itself to encouraging composting – Pay-As-You-Throw.

First implemented in 1982 to encourage zombie-part recycling (many folks weren’t properly “disposing” of their zombies and the city had to step in), Pay-As-You-Throw was eventually expanded to glass, paper, metal and plastic recycling, as folks’ zombie-fears were replaced with zombie-free planetary concerns about air pollution and waste-disposal.

If Decatur were to follow a less stick-ish composting program – like Portland, Oregon’s – we might just see people picking up the habit as fast as a strolling Decaturite crosses the street to avoid a blue or red vested surveyer!  What are the main features of Portland’s program?  I’m so glad I asked!

  • It picks up compost every week.  This includes both food scraps and yard waste – in the same container.  “Accepted items include meat, bones, dairy, grains, cooked foods and pizza delivery boxes.”, according to a Portland pamphlet.
  • They give you a kitchen pail “for collecting food scraps in your kitchen”.
  • They continue to pick up recycling every week.
  • Now here’s the biggie.  They cut down on trash pick-up from once a week to once every two weeks.  (You know, because if you’re composting your trash will have less reason to stink.  Though I’m sure dog/baby owners will be speaking up here to point out my obvious exception to that rule.)

While some may object to such infrequent trash pickup, they should note that such a cutback would minimize any additional cost to the city in disposing of compost, as trash pickup would occur half as often.

Would it be worth it?  Well, that’s up to Decatur’s Sustainability Board and the city’s residents to decide.  Maybe Portland’s plan still goes farther than most liberal Decaturites in the conservative South are willing to wander.  But one thing seems certain.  Decatur looks like it has more than a few options for jump-starting an easy-to-compost initiative here.  And that may just be thanks in large part to a certain recycling program that’s been in place for a good 15 years.

Photo courtesy of KATU

54 thoughts on “With Pay-As-You-Throw Firmly in Place, Decatur Seems Primed for Composting”

  1. Cathi and I lived in Seoul for 3 years from ’06 to ’09. Talk about a dense city with trash logistic problems ! They had and I’m sure still have an excellent system in place. Like Decatur, trash is pay-as-you-throw, though more expensive per bag than Decatur. To offset this, they have pre-sorted recycling bins as well as composting bins.

    I’ll admit that we were one of the worst trash-throwers, as confirmed often by our Korean friends. Despite that, the trash comprised less than 25% of our total output by volume. The recycling and compost were easily 75% of our output. Our more experienced Korean friends did better. Their paid trash was virtually nil.

    If a huge city like Seoul can implement a comprehensive recycling / compost / trash strategy, I’m sure a small, motivated city like Decatur can.

  2. Nothing in my 5 + years of living in Decatur can convince me that the city and its citizens couldn’t pull this off, one of the many reasons I enjoy very much living here. Albeit the tiny issue of cost, infrastructure, etc.:). but I like the idea especially with the growth of the dining scene over the last couple of years – great conversation starter DM

  3. We need to evaluate the carbon footprint implications of collecting our food waste in a separate collection system and transporting it to the composing site. Do the environmental benefits outweigh the environmental costs of developing a centralized collection of food waste for composting? This answer probably differs from community to community. But like most environmental matters, the answer is not simple.

    1. I don’t believe a centralized system is needed for communities with lots of single-family homes. For those of us with yards, the best method is to compost in your own yard. At our house, we compost leafs, grass clippings and kitchen waste. The enviornmental negative is that I use a lawn mower to gather/chop the leaves instead of relying on a truck to pick up my compost. Lawn mowers are notorious pollutors, but if my mower runs for 24 hours in a year, I’d be surprised. A carbon analysis is probably needed, but I would expect that energy consumption and carbon pollution is considerably less with individual on-site composting then with a centralized collection, unloading, turning and distributing system. BTW my compost is much better than any commercial pine nuggets or pine straw.

      1. I don’t put bones and meat scraps in my compost pile, nor oiled pizza boxes. I could divert still more trash from the landfill, if the city had a more accepting compost policy that I have for my backyard compost pile.

    2. Tis a good point. The Portland model collects it with yard waste, so if Decatur did something like that the only potential additional transporting/collection “footprint implications” would be getting it to a separate composting site, no?

      1. And getting it back to the place where it’s being used. A back-yard compost pile is probably being used on site, whereas the centralized version would likely be used for projects throughout the city so would need to be carted back to where it is needed. I have no idea what this adds, but it is an added “footprint implication” to be considered.

        1. Good point but if City of Decatur would be hauling the ready to use compost back to be used how would that carbon footprint be any different than them having to have soil delivered for a project? Seems like the footprint would be much less due to shorter distance of compost travel.

  4. (Feels like I start a surprising number of responses this way, but…) As the the editor of a major trade publication covering the solid waste and recycling industry, the likelihood of bringing residential food waste collection to Decatur is something I’ve often wondered about. As DM and others have asserted, the populace is ripe for participation. My main concern, and it’s something that everyone here seems to be overlooking, is the other end of the route: namely, is there a food waste-compatible composting facility close enough to make this model viable? Though yard waste and food waste are generally composted together, food waste comes with a lot more handling/processing issues, and Decatur/Dekalb and/or the firms it currently contracts with may not be prepared to process that kind of volume.

    If you’re curious about how composting on this scale works, here’s a profile we ran in 2009 of Greenco Environmental, a Norcross-based composter: http://waste360.com/Recycling_And_Processing/organic-waste-compost-200908

    Not sure if someone like Greenco would be equipped to handle Decatur’s total food waste (and yard waste?) output or not.

    1. From that article you linked to…

      “More than 27 percent of municipal solid waste (MSW) in Georgia’s landfills is composed of organic waste that can be reused and turned into organic compost. Of that 27 percent, 44 percent is comprised of food waste, and 17 percent is yard and wood waste.”

    2. We use Greenco at Miller Union for all of our food/paper waste. It has been very easy to work with them; they do a wonderful job and we’ve used the soil in our personal garden. I’d love to see Decatur get started with composting!

  5. What would happen to the compost once it is, well, compost-ed? Would it be free to those of us who garden to pick up and amend our “lovely” Georgia soil? Would it only be used by the city, in parks and such? What do they do with a city’s worth of it in Portland?

    1. Different cities handle it differently. In some places it’s free to residents. In others its sold. Both likely use it in city works. In northern California there’s actually a kind of awesome share system with several Napa wineries where compost from San Fran is used to grow grapes.

    2. When I lived near the National Zoo, their little packets of Zoo Doo would always fly off the gift shop shelves. “DeCompost” isn’t as alluring as elephant and rhino poop, but it could still be a big hit with Metro Atlanta gardeners.

  6. I was hoping that someone would say this before me so I wouldn’t have to embarrass myself, but, oh well…..I have tried and failed miserably at composting in the past. I had one of those huge plastic spheres that one put compostables in then rolled around to mix. I created nasty stuff that bugs liked but not anything usable. And that was before kids when I had free time! So as much as home-based composting makes sense for many, I either need Composting for Dummies, Levels 101, 201, 301, and summer school plus major hand-holding OR a community option if I’m going to help the earth by composting. I would happily and conscientiously participate in a Portland model of community composting. I love the idea of composting; I’m just not good at it.

    1. I’m not good at it either! The best I ever accomplished was growing squash plants right out of my compost pile and…rats.

      1. We’ve backyard composted in a Toro bin for about 15 years. It really cuts down on what we throw in the trash.
        Last year, rats (or something) found our compost bin irresistable even though we only ever put vegetable matter in it. I covered the vents using wire lathe and duct screws. It worked very well.

        1. You are a handy person. The terms “wire lathe” and “duct screws” have never crossed my cortex before. This is why Decatur needs the Komposting for Klutzes service.

    2. I tried and failed with my first one. It was a standing green box looking thing. Gave up and gave away. Then I learned of a spinning sphere type composter from one of my garden magazines. Now I’ve only had it a few months but I like it so much better than the old one. Easy to put together and no problem giving it a spin or two. There are bugs in it but that is part of composting. No rats!!! Haven’t had it long enough to get compost out of it but figure with the spin action should be easy to dump into a wheel barrel.

      In case anyone is interested here is the link.

  7. The other wild card here is a second use for organic waste: anaerobic digestion for power. This is a technology that has yet to be deployed successfully on a very large scale, but there are many great small-scale examples, such as microbreweries and food product manufacturers installing an anaerobic digester onsite and offsetting a lot of their own energy needs.

  8. I would like to do this – all of the apple cores, bad celery and bad lettuce I throw away – would love to find a way to easily dispose of this!

    1. there is a compost bin outside of the oakhurst community garden where you could always dump your scraps..

  9. We have been composting in the back yard for a little more than a year with good success. We don’t turn it, so it doesn’t break down quickly but I did get a wheelbarrow full for the garden this summer.

    We’ve only had one critter problem — I think it was our resident racoon — and, while it scared the heck out of the BF, he must have scared the animal too because it hasn’t been back.

    Great topic! I’d love to see the city offer a program for all.

  10. Actually, the dog bags aren’t smelly when tied and take up little space in the trash can.

    If food & yard waste are being picked up once a week, and recycling once a week, I don’t know what other things people would be throwing away, that would cause a trashcan to overflow if it were only picked up every 2 weeks.

    1. The aforementioned diapers are the most common sticking point for most municipalities trying to cut the frequency of trash pickups. If you don’t have small kids, it doesn’t even occur to you, but if you do, diaper disposal is foremost in your mind.

      We are expecting and were raring to go with cloth diapers right up until we were told it was twins. We’re still going to try to do cloth, but it will be a challenge and we’ll likely have to supplement with the most environmentally-friendly disposable we can find.

      1. One piece of advice re doing cloth diapers, especially if one or both is a Lumpet vs. Lumpette: High quality diaper covers! Go online–there’s a whole cult grown up around organic diaper covers that actually work. Newborn parents make life-long friendships based on similar preferences in diaper covers! One of the online vendors is a Mom based in Tucker.

        1. Two little dudes, as it happens. Just found out last week. Surprised the Hell out of us, as up to that point we had been told at least one girl for sure, likely two. Good thing we’ve stayed strictly gender neutral in our decor and such, with the exception of a few (returnable) clothing purchases.

          And yes, we have done EXTENSIVE research into covers, inserts, etc., (we have a teddy bear that has modeled 10 – 15 potential candidates so far) and you are spot on about the cults. But always thankful for more suggestions if you’ve got ’em!

      2. That’s a good point lump, and double congrats. Well, hmmm… Just thinking off the top of my head…that’s obviously an issue, but one that doesn’t affect all households. So maybe people who request a weekly trash pickup (for diaper reasons, or even just because) could pay the same price they’re paying now, and those who opt for the pickup every two weeks, could get an incentive in the form of a percentage off their city taxes or something similar, to encourage the less frequent pickup.

        To be clear, I’m definitely not advocating raising any fees for those who request a weekly pickup, but a more “carrot” approach for those that don’t.

        1. Isn’t the carrot already there: People who compost or recycle more can use smaller (or fewer) PAYG trash bags and save money.

          1. I mean sure. But I throw trash bags in the category of things I don’t think many people nickle and dime. Like counting the squares of toilet paper, you have to buy it, and you don’t count the cost you spend per square, or roll throughout the year.

            No system is going to be perfect for everyone. There are time we still have to recycle at YDFM. I guess some would find that inconvenient, but I understand that we can’t schedule recycle pickups around the off chance that a household may have a party on Saturday night. A majority are not.

            I think lump or whoever should continue the weekly pickup they want/need, they’re paying for it.. But if the city wants to encourage less trash, and less frequent pickups, why not give people something tangible they can see in dollars at the end of the year if they choose to opt out of a weekly pickup? A percent or 2 may not be anything to many income levels, but I think there are people who would be encouraged to give it a shot if something property tax related were offered. Who knows…

  11. In conversations with high school students, several mentioned a desire to improve recycling and composting in the school cafeterias. It would be interesting to hear more about the costs and feasibility of food-waste composting in Decatur.

    1. They should talk to Agnes Scott. The college is composting most of its food waste at the dining hall and cafe. I’m pretty sure the company that takes it away also brings it back as compost.

  12. Composting isn’t difficult. Buy about ten feet of hog wire, form it into a loop, and stand it up in your yard. Grind your leaves and start a pile (instead of bagging them!). Bury your kitchen waste in the leaves. Keep it moist. Turn it once a year and move the beautiful soil to your garden, flower beds, or back under the trees that gave you this richness.

    I have concerns about grass that has been treated with herbicides and other chemicals. We keep these clippings out of the garden compost.

    The best example of composting we’ve seen was at Len Foot Hike Inn. They use earthworms in wooden boxes in the basement to compost everything, including paper. Takes a little expertise, since mealy bugs and other critters can infest the soil.

  13. Um, what is a leaf grinder? Will a blender work? 🙂 I love the tour of the composting at the Len Foote Hike Inn! They’ve got both the science and implementation down pat! (But their reading/common area has been infested with ants every time I’ve been there, making me feel itchy and alert. Evidently the ants like the Hike Inn as much as we do. It’s hard to relax and read when one is subconsciously monitoring the progress of the ant march.) I have a friend in Vermont who lives on a farm and has twins, goats, and earthworm composting, plus works part-time outside the home. Some people are talented….

    1. Honda’s typical mower grinds and mulches leaves beautifully. I presume others do, too. You remove the bag, raise the wheels a little bit, and mow the leaves. This works best when the leaves are slightly damp. The mower pulverizes the leaves and spreads mulch on the ground. If I want to add to the compost I run the mower with the bag attached over the mulched lawn then dump the contents into the bin. This has the advantage of saving soil that the mower vacuums up. I leave some mulch in place, which drives my wife crazy…but I believe it is healthy for the trees that shade our house.

  14. As I mentioned above, we compost all of our food waste at Miller Union. The most important thing in getting a compost program going is education for the users. I tried to compost at a school event last spring; I’d prearranged with Greenco for compost pickup. The problem was that people didn’t pay much attention to what they threw in the compost bin, and we ended up with bits of plastic and glass mixed in. As a result, I had to throw out all of the compost.

    That said, we do it effectively at Miller Union, so I have hope for Decatur getting on board. We do keep a compost bin, but I’d like to be able to compost meat scraps residentially too.

    1. Composting meat scrape, i.e., culling deceased chickens in Gainesville’s chicken houses, started the coyote’s comeback in Georgia. Just sayin’. Meat scraps should be rendered, a lovely process that you don’t want in your back yard.

      1. I’d never compost meat scraps in my backyard. We do it through the restaurant through Greenco, who have a major, heat controlled composting facility.

        Would love to have a compost pickup at home.

    2. I do wonder how well we do with compliance. I’m not sure what the state of the art is in recycling but it used to be that spoilage (too many non-compliant items in the recycling stream) was causing quite a lot of trashing recycling loads. When I walk around the neighborhood, I see some of the craziest stuff in the recycling bins. I mean car air filters, old shoes, pieces of wood, etc. I worry that people just don’t pay attention and I don’t know how fault tolerant our current system is, let alone something like this.

      1. The term you’re looking for is “contamination,” and with the advent of single-stream recycling (also known as commingled recycling, which minimizes or eliminates the need for source separation), it’s less of an issue than in the past. Of course, the preference is that completely unacceptable items [especially hazardous waste (batteries, chemicals, paint, etc.) and putrescent waste (food, diapers, etc.) that could render the recyclables unusable] do not wind up in recycling bins, but there are both automatic and manual mechanisms in place at material recovery facilities (MRFs) to cull items like you describe before the actual sorting of recyclables begins, which is itself an amazing process — you wouldn’t believe how much of it is automated and the clever ways they’re able to separate everything, including water baths, magnets, weighted chutes, and even robotic eyes equipped with lasers that shoot through plastic and can determine in a millisecond what kind of plastic it is and then use puffed air to route it accordingly.

        That said, higher contamination levels in the end bales of recyclables are a fact of life with single-stream. But the infinitely higher participation rates (over source separated recycling) more than make up for it.

  15. I wonder what the response will be when you post in the near future:
    “City considers cutting back on trash pick-up to once every two weeks to encourage composting”?

    1. Perhaps some of the responses will be similar to mine. I hate the thought that future generations are going to have to figure out what to do with all the landfill garbage we’re creating right now that is perfectly capable of being recycled or reused in some way, but for whatever reason, hits the trash can.

      I think many will be pleased to be part of a forward thinking approach to handling waste. At some point in the future, this will be standard procedure and not a huge deal, just like recycling.

      1. I see these as two different issues: On the one hand encouraging recycling and composting is good and the more information and resources the city puts out there, the better.

        On the other hand, the weekly trash pickups make sense for people that travel frequently or use diapers … or whatever needs they may have. These people will ultimately end up paying more for that convenience eventually because they will use more Decatur trash bags.

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