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The Dirt on Compulsory Composting

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Here at National Geographic’s D.C. headquarters, our cafeteria is big on composting: There’s even a photo of a landfill on the trash can to guilt you into throwing that paper cup into the right receptacle.

Pretty soon, if you live in San Francisco, you won’t have a choice. On June 23, mayor Gavin Newsom signed the first mandatory composting law in the United States for consumers and businesses.

The law, which goes into effect October 21, is in fitting with the mayor’s “lofty green goal” — zero waste by 2020, he said in a statement.

The city already keeps 72 percent of recyclable material out of the landfill, and turns about 400 tons of leftover food into nutritious organic compost, dubbed “black gold.”

The fertile stuff is quickly snapped up by farms and vineyards in the Bay Area, Newsom added.

Composting not only keeps landfills down, the practice also prevents the powerful greenhouse gas methane from being released. That’s because bacteria that break down food waste in landfills create a lot of methane as a byproduct.

If you compost food, on the other hand, you return carbon to the soil and encourage plant growth at the same time.

Not to mention compost can work wonders for your lawn, especially commercially made compost, which has high levels of naturally occurring phosphorous and nitrogen that is released gradually and is absorbed more easily by plants. (See our fertilizer buying guide.)

So we get it — composting is cool, not only because it doesn’t heat up a warming planet — but how do you dig in? First decide if you want to set up shop indoors or in your backyard. If indoors, you can either buy a special bin or make one yourself out of a plastic garbage can. A properly managed bin, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, won’t attract pests or smell bad.

If you head outdoors, select a dry, shady spot near a water source for your compost pile or bin, and moisten dry materials as they are added.

The whole rundown on what you need to know can be found on the EPA’s composting site.

Newsom said he hopes that composting will “become second nature for Americans, just like sorting bottles and paper.”

With up to a $100 price tag for any San Franciscan who fails to compost, that sounds about right.

Christine Dell’Amore

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Related:

Get the dirt on how to turn your trash into fertilizer treasure.

Try out composting by starting a carbon diet.

Image courtesy Kessner Photography

Comments

  1. John
    June 28, 2010, 3:09 am

    A nice and informative post.Well what i feel is If you compost food, you return carbon to the soil and encourage plant growth at the same time.
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  2. melanie
    June 20, 2010, 12:48 pm

    great article. i have a compost tumbler that I use to compost with in my backyard.

  3. Dusty99
    June 6, 2010, 12:37 am

    Wow, this is really inspirational, I hope other cities take it up.
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  4. jessie31
    May 13, 2010, 12:10 am

    I just can’t understand the difference between produced compost and the recycled one….
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  5. JoeAnne
    September 7, 2009, 9:55 am

    This are great news honestly especially for me cause I work in this domain. When I am not going at my usual job, at Minneapolis plumbing company, I work with soil and plants as a hobby.

  6. Christine Dell'Amore
    June 29, 2009, 10:33 am

    Thanks for your comment! The difference is in oxygen levels. Landfills tend to be packed tightly, causing airtight conditions without a lot of oxygen. Eventually, anaerobic bacteria (bacteria that don’t use oxygen) proliferate, and produce methane. Compost piles — especially if managed properly by turning the material — aren’t as compacted, and so they have more oxygen than landfills. As for the enforcement aspect, Mayor Newsom didn’t mention how that will be handled in his statement. But this MSNBC story said that while there won’t be a trash police, trash collectors will keep an eye on what’s in the garbage, and may leave a note for a household if food scraps are seen. Presumably if a household is a multiple offender, they will get a fine.

  7. GreenBean
    June 28, 2009, 7:59 pm

    “Composting not only keeps landfills down, the practice also prevents the powerful greenhouse gas methane from being released. That’s because bacteria that break down food waste in landfills create a lot of methane as a byproduct.
    If you compost food, on the other hand, you return carbon to the soil and encourage plant growth at the same time.”
    I don’t get it. Are the bacteria not present in compost? What keeps them from turning the food waste in a compost bin into methane the same way they do in a landfill? What’s the difference here?
    Also, how is anyone in SF going to know if a person isn’t composting? That seems like a daunting task. It will be interesting to see how this plays out.