D.C. Councilmember Wants To Bring Home Composting To The Masses

by Rachel Sadon in News

Oct 5, 2017 10:16 am

The Department of Public Works launched a new composting program at Eastern Market on Saturday. (Photo courtesy of DPW)

Once relegated to organic farmers and people who live in Takoma Park, composting has slowly but surely entered the trash lexicon of many Washingtonians. As the act of decomposing food scraps into soil goes increasingly mainstream, more than half the D.C. Council wants to help get it into more people’s homes and backyards.

On Tuesday, Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh introduced a bill that would offer a $75 rebate on new composting systems and training on how to use them.

“When you consider that at-home waste is the largest percentage of food waste that we have, if we’re able to get a handle on that, it could have significant environmental and economic benefits,” Cheh says. “We want to give people an incentive to do that and make it accessible for all people.”

The bill was co-sponsored by Ward 6’s Charles Allen, Ward 2’s Jack Evans, Ward 5’s Kenyan McDuffie, Ward 7’s Vincent Gray, Ward 1’s Brianne Nadeau, and At-large councilmembers Anita Bonds and Elissa Silverman.

Individual households in D.C. generate some 60,000 tons of organic waste a year, and that’s not even including large apartment buildings, commercial sites, and landscapers. In total, the District generates somewhere between 166,000 and 238,000 tons of organic waste annually, according to a government-sponsored feasibility study for a curbside composting program.

Such an initiative could divert as much as 149,000 tons of waste a year, but it is at least several years away, since the city would need to build its own composting facility. Under a proposed roll-out plan, pick-up for single family households could begin in three years, with the entire system in place after five.

In the meantime, the District has already enacted a series of smaller scale initiatives as it works to catch up to jurisdictions that have been ahead of the composting curve (San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, and, yes, Takoma Park all have had curbside programs for years), part of an ambitious effort to divert 30 percent of the D.C.’s waste by 2030.

The Department of Parks and Recreation has arranged a citywide community compost network, with 50 sites that count thousands of active participants. A number of schools have on-site compost bins and recycling programs. And on Earth Day, DPW launched a series of drop-off sites, one in each ward, where residents can hand over their compost each week for free.

“We’re really reaching the environmental champions that are excited about going to the farmer’s market to buy food and then return the next week with the previous week’s scraps,” Annie White, the manager of DPW’s Office of Waste Diversion, told DCist in the spring. “But it also raises awareness and educates people about food waste reduction.”

Encouraging the purchase of at-home composting systems is the latest effort in that vein. The tumblers, bins, and a bewildering array of other options typically start at around $100 and go up from there. Part of the idea is to remove that barrier of entry, but the education piece is just as critical. To get the rebate, people would have to take a yet-to-be created class from the Department of Public Works.

“You do have to be informed about it. It’s like anything else. There’s a lot of inertia and a lot of uncertainty about how to [compost],” Cheh says. “I think if we could educate them and show them all the benefits, I think they’d begin to embrace it.”

And, of course, there’s the immediate question of rodents. The training is also meant to ensure that as more households take on at-home composting, it isn’t done in a way that would attract more rats in a city already struggling to deal with an exploding population of “rodent syndicates.”

“There is certainly is an educational component and an incentive component,” Cheh says, “but I think it will fall on receptive ears, either because they have this ethic of progressive environmentalism or because they just like the idea of reconnecting with natural things.”

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