Policy Memo: Municipal Composting in the Town of Davidson

To: Doug Wright and Jesse Bouk, The Town of Davidson Public Works Department

From: Dodi Allocca and Anna Ramgren

            Imagine the 92,542-seat Rose Bowl stadium as a giant serving bowl. Now imagine it filled to the brim with food—tomatoes, pork chops, milk, all kinds of edibles. Finally, imagine all that food being trucked straight to a landfill.[i]

The imagery in the excerpt above depicts how much food Americans waste every day[ii]. In the United States, 30 to 40% of all food produced is ultimately wasted.[iii] The majority of this waste is sent to landfills where it accounts for an average of 21% of landfill volume.[iv] Food waste also wastes the resources used to produce the food including farmland, water, and fossil fuels.[v] While Americans waste excessive amounts of food, about 16% of Mecklenburg County residents experience food insecurity.[vi] Additionally, 24% of residents in Mecklenburg County suffer from obesity.[vii] These high food insecurity and obesity rates are symptomatic of larger inequities in the food system, which include food waste.

As stated above, food waste is a large-scale social and environmental issue. The following policy memo provides background on food waste in municipalities, explains our analysis criteria, analyzes four policy options, and concludes with an elaboration of our policy recommendation and next steps for the Town of Davidson’s Public Works Department. Based on our analysis of four food waste policy options, we propose that the Town of Davidson implement a pay-as-you-throw tax on trash and a compost drop off system. By diverting food waste from landfills this policy could reduce costs and mitigate the environmental impact of food waste.

 

Food Waste Background:

Composting is one of several ways to address food waste. The EPA’s Food Recovery Hierarchy prioritizes source reduction, feeding hungry people, and feeding animals over composting.[viii] Given that most food waste occurs at the household level, local governments can work to reduce food waste by targeting households.[ix] How governments can best address food waste depends on an area’s physical and social landscape.[x] Many towns and cities in North America have municipal composting programs which aim to mitigate household food waste.[xi]

Compost can be used for several purposes. The most common application of compost is to agricultural soils where it can increase availability of nutrients, decrease erosion, and increase water holding capacity.[xii] Compost can also be used to remediate brownfield sites, produce heat, and create biogas.[xiii] Well planned municipal composting operations can generate income for towns and create jobs.[xiv]

In addition to focusing on food waste, local governments can work to reduce landfill bound waste more generally. WasteZero’s “pay-as-you-throw” program charges households for each bag of trash they produce.[xv] In over 800 participating municipalities, pay-as-you-throw programs have resulted in an “average waste reduction of 44% and often double recycling rates.”[xvi] As such, pay-as-you-throw policies are a promising tool for governments striving to reduce landfill bound waste.

Given the rapid population growth of Mecklenburg County, reducing landfill-bound waste is critical to mitigating the costs associated with landfills, which include formation of leachates, emission of landfill gas, property depreciation, and land opportunity costs.[xvii] Within the county, the Town of Davidson has the highest recorded rate of recycling, which makes it a promising target for household food waste reduction.[xviii] Compost Central is one of several composting facilities in Mecklenburg County.[xix] From 2014 to 2015, 55% of Compost Central’s capacity went unused.[xx] A 2012 study found that, in Mecklenburg County, 2% to 5% of residential food waste was taken out of the waste stream through home composting.[xxi] The authors note that, “A comprehensive residential food waste program would capture . . . 36%- 46% of food waste generated.”[xxii] Overall the costs of landfill waste and the benefits of expanding composting programs in Mecklenburg County present an opportunity for the Town of Davidson to implement a municipal composting system.

 

 

Policy Analysis Criteria:

The following criteria were used to analyze four food waste policy options for the Town of Davidson. This analysis is reported in table one in our appendix and is discussed in the policy options and analysis section.

Economic Costs and Benefits: Assesses monetary costs of the proposed policy.

Social Costs and Benefits: Describes how the policy would impact the town on a socio-cultural level.

Political Feasibility: Weighs the political barriers and/or opportunities to implementing the policy.

Environmental Costs and Benefits: Describes how the proposed policy might impact the environment (i.e. greenhouse gas emissions and land use).

 

Policy Options and Analysis:

Option 1. Status Quo

            The town collects garbage, recycling and yard-waste. The town and county governments provide information about at-home composting.[xxiii]

Maintaining the status quo would not be politically contentious and would continue to provide residents with the opportunity to reduce their landfill waste through the town’s recycling program. However, this policy does not provide residents with any means to mitigate their personal food waste beyond the basic information about at home composting provided on the Town of Davidson’s website, and on Mecklenburg County’s website.[xxiv] Considering that about one-fifth of landfill waste is food waste, the monetary cost of sending food waste to the landfill is worth considering.[xxv]  While the town has budgeted for the status quo policy, the growing local population presents further challenges to the current system.

Option 2. Educational Initiatives to Encourage Composting

This policy could utilize local groups and free composting curriculum materials from the Cornell Waste Management Institute.[xxvi]

Educational initiatives would be a low-cost policy option, as the town could rely on existing non-profits and free curriculum to educate the public. This initiative would raise awareness about the importance of diverting food waste from landfills. However, as shown in the literature, this policy is unlikely to lead to an increase in composting. For example, Matthias Finger found that “environmental information, knowledge, and awareness predict little of the variability in most forms of environmental behavior.”[xxvii]  Because knowledge about food waste might not lead to changes in behavior, an education- only policy is unlikely to change the amount of food waste being sent to landfills. For this reason, the environmental costs of this program remain high and similar to the costs of the status quo.

Option 3. Compost Drop Off and Pay-As-You-Throw

            The Town of Davidson works with the county’s composting facilities or partners with a composting company like Crown Town Compost to process the town’s food waste. Davidson incentivizes households to reduce landfill waste through a pay as you throw bag program, with the option of delivering their food waste to a composting facility or drop-off location in town.[xxviii]

Coordinating with existing composting facilities could be costly. However, the proposed pay-as-you-throw program could offset costs and discourage waste. Additionally, food waste compost can produce a nutrient-rich compost product, which is valuable.[xxix] Similar programs in many municipalities across the US meet their targets for food waste diversion, leading towns and cities to continue these programs.[xxx] For example in Worcester, MA, implementation of a composting drop-off program increased the total residential waste that was composted from 8% to 27% in 4 years, thereby diverting an additional 19% of total residential waste from landfills and creating a useful compost resource.[xxxi]

Option 4. Food Waste Collection and Pay-As-You-Throw 

            The town collects compost from homes and provides reusable bins in addition to implementing all aspects of policy option three.

This policy choice maintains all of the costs and benefits of policy option three. However, collecting compost creates additional costs, in terms of everyday operations. Even so, the overall environmental benefits of composting food waste would offset these costs.[xxxii] Because of the recent success of the recycling program in Davidson, this policy may be politically feasible in that it requires similar government action and changes in behavior. Arvin, CA, a town of similar population size to the Town of Davidson, noted a 30% increase in composting with the adoption of a compost pickup program, which suggests that residents would respond to the implementation of this policy and compost their waste.[xxxiii]

 

Recommendations and Next Steps:

Due to the significant environmental benefits, the reasonable economic cost, and the likely political feasibility, we recommend Option three, Compost Drop Off and Pay-As-You-Throw.  We advise that the Town of Davidson conduct a cost-benefit analysis as a first step in implementing this policy. This cost-benefit analysis should include contacting existing municipal food waste composting programs about the town’s successes and challenges. As a part of the cost-benefit analysis, the town should survey residents to understand their interest and ability to participate in composting programs. We also suggest that the town discuss potential composting programs with compost processors to evaluate their ability to accept compost from the Town of Davidson.

 

Appendix:

The following table summarizes analysis of each policy option. The criteria that we felt were more influential in decision making were weighted higher; however, there were no vast differentiations made between categories so that no one category could determine the overall score.

Each policy option was given a score for each criterion from 1-3 where;

1 = The costs are greater than the benefits

2 = The costs equal the benefits

3 = The benefits are greater than the costs

In this scoring matrix, the highest and best total weighted score that a policy option can possibly receive is a 3.0 and the lowest and worst total weighted score a policy option can possibly receive is a 1.0.

Table 1: Option-Decision Matrix Table

Economic Costs and Benefits Social Costs and Benefits Political Feasibility Environmental Costs and Benefits Total

Weighted Score

Criteria Weight 0.25 0.25 0.3 0.2
1. Status quo 2 2 3 1 2.1
2. Educational programs 2 2 3 1 2.1
3. Separation and Facility 1 3 2 3 2.2
4. Separation, Collection and Facility 1 3 1 3 1.9

 

 

 

[i] Brennen Jensen, “America’s Food Waste Problem Is Bigger than You Think,” The Hub Johns Hopkins Magazine, September 11, 2015, https://hub.jhu.edu/magazine/2015/fall/america-food-waste/.

 

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Brennen Jensen, “America’s Food Waste Problem Is Bigger than You Think,” The Hub Johns Hopkins Magazine, September 11, 2015, https://hub.jhu.edu/magazine/2015/fall/america-food-waste/.; Roni A. Neff, Marie L. Spiker, and Patricia L. Truant, “Wasted Food: U.S. Consumers’ Reported Awareness, Attitudes, and Behaviors,” PLOS ONE 10, no. 6 (June 10, 2015): e0127881, https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0127881.

 

[iv] Ibid.

 

[v] FAO, “Food Loss and Food Waste,” Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2018, http://www.fao.org/food-loss-and-food-waste/en/.; Roni A. Neff, Marie L. Spiker, and Patricia L. Truant, “Wasted Food: U.S. Consumers’ Reported Awareness, Attitudes, and Behaviors,” PLOS ONE 10, no. 6 (June 10, 2015): e0127881, https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0127881.

 

[vi] Maureen Berner, “Food Insecurity Statistics in NC,” Hunger Research: Understanding Food Insecurity in Your Community, 2015, http://hunger-research.sog.unc.edu/content/2015-mecklenburg-county-nc.

 

[vii] Ibid.

 

[viii] US EPA, “Food Recovery Hierarchy,” Overviews and Factsheets, US EPA, August 12, 2015, https://www.epa.gov/sustainable-management-food/food-recovery-hierarchy.

 

[ix] US EPA, “Food Recovery Hierarchy,” Overviews and Factsheets, US EPA, August 12, 2015, https://www.epa.gov/sustainable-management-food/food-recovery-hierarchy.;

Roni A. Neff, Marie L. Spiker, and Patricia L. Truant, “Wasted Food: U.S. Consumers’ Reported Awareness, Attitudes, and Behaviors,” PLOS ONE 10, no. 6 (June 10, 2015): e0127881, https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0127881.

 

[x] Jennifer S. Evans-Cowley and Angel Arroyo-Rodríguez, “Integrating Food Waste Diversion into Food Systems Planning: A Case Study of the Mississippi Gulf Coast,” Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development; Ithaca 3, no. 3 (Spring 2013): 1–19.; Mary Griffin, Jeffery Sobal, and Thomas A. Lyson, “An Analysis of a Community Food Waste Stream,” Agriculture and Human Values; Dordrecht 26, no. 1–2 (March 2009): 67–81, http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s10460-008-9178-1.

 

[xi] Licia Paddison and Donna Chaw, “Composting on All Fronts in Alberta,” BioCycle; Emmaus 41, no. 3 (March 2000): 44–48.; Emily S. Rueb, “How New York Is Turning Food Waste Into Compost and Gas,” The New York Times, June 2, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/02/nyregion/compost-organic-recycling-new-york-city.html.; Alexis Schulman, “Food Waste Composting in Seattle: The Political Perspective,” in Sowing Seeds in the City: Ecosystem and Municipal Services, ed. Sally Brown, Kristen McIvor, and Elizabeth Hodges Snyder (Dordrecht: Springer Netherlands, 2016), 125–30, https://doi.org/10.1007/978-94-017-7453-6_8.

 

[xii] M. Farrell and D.L. Jones, “Critical Evaluation of Municipal Solid Waste Composting and Potential Compost Markets,” Bioresource Technology 100, no. 19 (October 1, 2009): 4301–10, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biortech.2009.04.029.

 

[xiii] M. Farrell and D.L. Jones, “Critical Evaluation of Municipal Solid Waste Composting and Potential Compost Markets,” Bioresource Technology 100, no. 19 (October 1, 2009): 4301–10, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biortech.2009.04.029.; Daniel Sjoberg, “Compost Water Heater With The Jean Pain Method,” Walden Labs, 2015, https://waldenlabs.com/compost-water-heaters-from-jean-pain/.; Emily S. Rueb, “How New York Is Turning Food Waste Into Compost and Gas,” The New York Times, June 2, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/02/nyregion/compost-organic-recycling-new-york-city.html.

 

[xiv] Jorge Montezuma, “Organics Recycling in North Carolina,” BioCycle, September 15, 2016.

 

[xv] Ann M. Simmons, “The World’s Trash Crisis, and Why Many Americans Are Oblivious,” Newspaper, Los Angeles Times, April 22, 2016, http://www.latimes.com/world/global-development/la-fg-global-trash-20160422-20160421-snap-htmlstory.html.

 

[xvi] Ibid.

 

[xvii] Adam Bell and Gavin Off, “Charlotte-Area Counties among the Fastest Growing in NC,” Newspaper, The Charlotte Observer, March 23, 2017, http://www.charlotteobserver.com/news/local/article140187138.html.; Stephen Hirshfeld, P. Aarne Vesilind, and Eric I. Pas, “Assessing the True Cost of Landfills,” Waste Management & Research 10, no. 6 (1992): 471–84, http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/0734242X9201000602.

 

[xviii] Republic Services and The Town of Davidson, “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, and Compost, Davidson!” (Davidson, NC, 2016).

 

[xix]  Jorge Montezuma, “Organics Recycling in North Carolina,” BioCycle, September 15, 2016.

 

[xx] Ibid.

 

[xxi] “Mecklenburg County NC Food Waste Diversion Study Final Report” (Mecklenburg County Solid Waste Waste Reduction/Composting, March 2012), https://www.mecknc.gov/LUESA/SolidWaste/homecomposting/Documents/Food%20Waste%20Diversion%20Study%20Final.pdf.

 

[xxii] “Mecklenburg County NC Food Waste Diversion Study Final Report” (Mecklenburg County Solid Waste Waste Reduction/Composting, March 2012), https://www.mecknc.gov/LUESA/SolidWaste/homecomposting/Documents/Food%20Waste%20Diversion%20Study%20Final.pdf.

 

[xxiii] LUESA, “Home Composting​,” MeckNC, 2018, https://www.mecknc.gov/LUESA/SolidWaste/homecomposting/Pages/default.aspx.

 

[xxiv] Ibid.

 

[xxv] Roni A. Neff, Marie L. Spiker, and Patricia L. Truant, “Wasted Food: U.S. Consumers’ Reported Awareness, Attitudes, and Behaviors,” PLOS ONE 10, no. 6 (June 10, 2015): e0127881, https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0127881.

 

[xxvi] “Composting Education for Schools and Communities,” Cornell Waste Management Institute, 2012, http://cwmi.css.cornell.edu/solidwastecurriculum.htm.

 

[xxvii] Matthias Finger, “From Knowledge to Action? Exploring the Relationships Between Environmental Experiences, Learning, and Behavior,” Journal of Social Issues 50, no. 3 (April 14, 2010): 141–60, https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1540-4560.1994.tb02424.x.

 

[xxviii] “Pay-As-You-Throw 101,” WasteZero, February 19, 2015, http://wastezero.com/the-trash-problem/pay-as-you-throw-101/.

 

[xxix] Ava M. Christensen, “Best Management Practices (BMPs) for Incorporating Food Residuals into Existing Yard Waste Composting Operations” (Bethesda, MD: the US Composting Council, 2009).

 

[xxx] Virginia Streeter and Brenda Platt, “Residential Food Waste Collection Access in The U.S.,” BioCycle 58, no. 11 (December 6, 2017): 20–22.

 

[xxxi] Brenda Platt and Kelly Lease, “Cutting the Waste Stream in Half Community Record Setters Show How,” Solid Waste and Emergency Response (United States Environmental Protection Agency, October 1999).

 

[xxxii] Ava M. Christensen, “Best Management Practices (BMPs) for Incorporating Food Residuals into Existing Yard Waste Composting Operations” (Bethesda, MD: the US Composting Council, 2009).

 

[xxxiii] Alexis Schulman and Judith A. Layzer, “Municipal Curbside Compostables Collection What Works and Why?,” Work Product of the Urban Sustainability Assessment (USA) Project (Department of Urban Studies and Planning, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2014).

 

 

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