Support Our Work

Seattle to Fine Residents Who Fail to Compost

A citywide swear jar is being set up in Seattle, only this jar will be topped up by residents who have trouble swearing off an ingrained impulse to toss paper cups, coffee grounds and banana peels into the wrong bin. And participation isn’t voluntary.

Seattle introduced a composting system for yard waste in 1989, which it expanded to include all food waste in 2009. City residents have one curbside bin for compostables, another for recyclables, and a third bin for the plastic film, styrofoam and other detritus that isn’t normally recycled or composted. Municipal composting systems, which reduce climate-changing methane pollution and help put organic, nutrient-loaded waste back to agricultural work as carbon-rich compost, are spreading in popularity nationwide.

Seattle
Credit: Howard Ignatius/flickr

This week, Seattle’s City Council voted unanimously to make composting mandatory, with homes that toss their compostables into the wrong bin liable to be punished with an “additional collection fee” of $1 for each food-filled bin. Businesses and apartment building owners face fines of up to $50 for violations.

“One dollar is not going to impact anybody,” said councilmember Sally Bagshaw. “It was more of a, ‘Hey, pay attention here people.’”

The additional fees could start to be levied next summer. Warnings will be issued during the first half of 2015, with warning tags placed on bins found to contain excessive amounts of food waste or compostable paper. Recycling is already mandatory in Seattle.

By city estimates, about half of the city’s food waste, or about 90,000 tons of it, is sent to composting facilities. The other half ends up in landfills. The city is getting close to reaching its goal of diverting 60 percent of its total waste away from landfills by 2015. The new fines could help it reach that goal.

“We’ve reached over 56 percent,” Bagshaw said. “Thats good, but that’s not 60 percent.”

According to EPA estimates, about 2 percent of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions come from waste, with most of that bubbling out of food waste-loaded landfills in the form of methane, which is a relatively short-lived but potent heat-trapping chemical.

To help reduce levels of methane pollution, the EPA is moving to force landfill operators to capture the escaping methane, which can be used as a fuel.

Credit: EPA

“Landfills are a major source of methane emissions, and burying organics in landfills is a big part of the reason why,” said Eric Goldstein, an attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Measures like this, that discourage or that provide an incentive to residents to keep food wastes out of landfills, is a positive thing for climate change.”

About 40 percent of America's food goes uneaten, and households send more wasted food and food scraps than any other material to landfills. Of the 36 million tons of food waste produced in the U.S. every year, 95 percent of it ends up in landfills.

Goldstein said that more than 150 U.S. cities now offer composting programs.

“It’s the next generation after recycling, which really spread nationwide in the ‘80s and ‘90s in a significant way. Separating organics for composting is really the next wave of sustainable waste policy that’s slowly but surely sweeping across the nation,” he said.

Credit: Quinn Dombrowski/flickr

When food waste rots in a landfill, it’s mostly broken down by microbes that don’t have any oxygen to breathe, resulting in the production of oxygen atom-free methane molecules. Composting, if done properly, by contrast, feeds oxygen to microbes as they break down long carbon molecules into carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide is a less potent greenhouse gas than methane; one that the crops that gave rise to the wasted food inhaled to begin with.

“If you’re monitoring it very well, then you can have an aerobic compost pile and no methane emissions,” said Stephanie Lansing, an assistant professor at the University of Maryland’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources. “It’s basically carbon neutral.”

Seattle will become the second city in the U.S. to threaten households with fines if they fail to compost their compostable waste. San Francisco introduced $100 fines in 2009, but it has yet to hand out a single fine, said Guillermo Rodriguez, the spokesman for the city’s environment department.

“Face-to-face outreach has proven effective in helping residents and businesses become compliant with laws,” Rodriguez said. “However, the city can impose fines to repeat offenders.”

Something similar might end up playing out in Seattle. “I don’t expect there will be too many [fines],” said Hans VanDusen, a city official who oversees recycling programs. “But we’ll see.”

You May Also Like:
Three Decades Until Carbon Budget Is Eaten Through
NASA Ranks This August as Warmest on Record 
The $90 Trillion Climate-Stabilizing Cookbook
What Will Survive in Hot, Acidic Oceans?
Arctic Sea Ice to Reach Sixth Lowest Extent on Record