3 Tips Every City and Hauler Should Follow for a Successful Composting Program

By taking the extra effort upfront to research the community, investigate equipment choices, and develop an education and outreach plan, haulers and municipalities will be armed for composting success.

By Mike Gorelick

From fallen leaves to leftover potato skins, food and yard waste are piling up, and with tighter waste diversion regulations, more haulers and municipalities are employing composting programs. By collecting food scraps, yard trimmings and food-soiled paper to convert into nutrient-rich compost, composting programs can make a huge difference in the waste stream cycle. However, the collection and maneuvering of heavy food scrap and yard waste can present a whole host of challenges for those who do not consider the right factors when implementing a composting program. With a simple checklist, haulers and municipalities can have a solid understanding of best practices when starting their plans for composting programs.

A Hauler’s Perspective: Recology

The City of San Francisco’s hauler, Recology, has been recognized for one of the most advanced curbside compost programs in North America. Since 1996, Recology has been collecting food scraps for composting. In 2002, the City of San Francisco set the goal to achieve zero waste by 2020. Today, Recology collects approximately 700 tons of food scraps and yard trimmings per day through their curbside compost collection program. Recology’s composting program has surpassed their curbside recycling program (as measured in tons collected each day), which illustrates how the City of San Francisco has reinvented the way it manages waste and how the community has embraced composting.

“Working closely with the City and having the right plan in place is essential to the success of a compost collection program,” said Recology spokesman Robert Reed. Recology stresses that education and outreach are crucial components for an effective composting program plan. “Constant communication is key. If you want the community to know that composting provides significant environmental and economic benefits, you must find engaging ways to get your story out and give people all the tools they need to participate in the program,” said Reed.

Recology encourages education and outreach across the City of San Francisco and says one key is to educate students of all ages about the importance of composting. Recology tours 4,500 people (mostly students) per year through their San Francisco facilities, publishes articles, hosts news conferences, and shares information through Web sites and social media to deliver updates of their composting program.

A Municipality’s Perspective:  The City of Austin

Recently, the City of Austin has followed the City of San Francisco’s lead by implementing a successful composting program. In 2013, Austin Resource Recovery started a curbside composting pilot program with approximately 7,000 homes to collect organic materials. The pilot was expanded to an additional 7,000 homes in 2014. Based on customer feedback and learnings from the pilot phase, staff began a city-wide expansion of the program in 2017. By next summer, the City of Austin expects to provide the service to about 90,000 of its 194,000 curbside customers.

“Taking the time to collect solid data and make good equipment choices helped to provide a good foundation for our success,” said Amy Slagle, Interim Division Manager of Litter Abatement for the City of Austin.

The City of Austin conducted research during the pilot program to shape the current and future phases of their composting program. Their experience of research and cart selection motivates municipalities nationwide to do their homework before launching their composting programs.

Tips for Implementing a Successful Composting Program

Based on input from haulers like Recology and municipalities like the City of Austin, we suggest that haulers/municipalities take the following factors into consideration when implementing a composting program.

Define Your Vision 

The key to implementing a successful composting program is collecting data to define your vision. Through information gathering, haulers/municipalities can understand the effect that a composting program could have on their communities. By identifying the level of food waste within a community’s waste stream, haulers/municipalities can help determine the impact that a composting program will have on diversion. “We found that almost half of all material that residential customers send to the landfill is compostable, in a 2015 waste characterization study,” notes Slagle.

After discovering that the City of Austin could really benefit from a composting program, these data findings made them fully-equipped for a successful composting program. Surveys, focus groups, and quantitative and qualitative research help haulers and municipalities to fill in the gaps of knowledge needed to start their composting programs. Key questions to ask target audiences are about the desire for the program, scale of the program, understanding of materials/equipment needed, resources, timing, limitations, costs, route size, regulations and more. Other considerations include potential partnerships and the strengths, opportunities, and threats of the composting initiative. By taking the time to ask the right questions, it saves haulers and municipalities time and trouble, while providing a path for a well-defined program.

Select the Proper Equipment

Make composting collection from the kitchen to the curb easy by selecting specially designed bins and carts for transporting and storing heavy, wet organic waste.

The kitchen collector bin is important because it provides participants with a place to put their kitchen scraps the moment they generate those materials. When selecting a kitchen collector bin, haulers and municipalities should consider one that is equipped with top and bottom handgrips for easy dumping, a snap-tight lid and a locking seal to prevent odors, and dishwasher-safe material so it is easy to clean. Compostable bag liners make the storage and transfer of food waste from the kitchen collector bin to the cart clean and easy.

It is best to invest in a cart with a load rating that is equal to the higher density of food waste to eliminate safety risks, a rotationally molded body to avoid cracking and odor issues, and a molded-in sealed stop bar design to prevent leakage and contamination. Wheels are also critical design features, but be sure to “test-drive” the cart first to see how it maneuvers. This will tell you how much force is needed to tip or roll the cart and how stable it is when loaded. Rugged wheels make maneuvering a breeze, even when the composting cart is completely full.

“At the curb in San Francisco, we’ve utilized Toter carts since 1999. These carts have attached wheels, which makes it easy for customers and our collectors to wheel them,” said Reed. “They also have attached lids, so the lids always stay together with the bins to make sure the material inside stays contained.”

Another factor to consider is cart size. Find a manufacturer that supplies a wide range of cart sizes to ensure an easy composting program for residents. For example, the City of Austin provides residents with four trash cart sizes. The smaller the cart, the less it costs each month, which offers residents options and ensures enhanced customer satisfaction.

“When selecting a cart, municipalities should consider that it will be utilized for more than food scraps. The larger the cart, the fewer yard waste bags that will be placed at the curb, which decreases collection time.  However, the cart should not be too large as customers may have space constraints,” said Slagle.

By selecting the proper equipment for a composting program, haulers/municipalities will improve customer satisfaction while avoiding liability and the associated costs.

Educate Your Community

Education is a big factor for a composting program’s success since it is vital for encouraging participation, so that the program runs smoothly. Every community member should be informed properly about the reasons to compost and how to take part in the city’s composting program. Education can solve challenges like low participation, contamination and other roadblocks that affect the efficiency of the composting program. “Getting the owners of multi-story apartment buildings to fully institute compost collection systems in their buildings was a big challenge for all cities,” said Reed.

Through education and outreach, Recology helped the Cathedral Hill Apartments, a multi-story complex with 169 apartment units, institute a successful compost collection program. This model is helping owners and managers of other multi-story apartment buildings in San Francisco and other cities and counties. Ongoing communication, community discussions and media interviews help improve public education about composting programs, which results in increased participation.

Education can also prevent setbacks that can be averted through informational outreach. When residents are not properly educated on what goes into their composting carts and what does not, that is when problems can arise. “Contamination in the compost stream has been an obstacle for us. We educate our residents by following our internal process to tag the addresses with a notice of why the cart was not collected,” said Slagle. “Austin is lucky because our community was very receptive to adding a compost program, which made educational efforts easier.”

Experts suggest hitting the streets with door-to-door outreach and talk directly to residents face-to-face about their questions and concerns regarding the program. Start a dialogue at an open house that brings together community members for Q &A participation with community leaders. Contact neighborhood associations to put signage up in neighborhoods to teach residents about collection times. Create how-to educational materials about the program to be sent through direct mail, to be posted on local community bulletin boards and handed out at community events. By providing tools and education for the community, it alleviates miscommunication that can cause program challenges, while increasing customer satisfaction.

Get Started

Smart haulers and municipalities will do their homework first to create a simple checklist of factors to consider before starting a composting program. Haulers can begin with a pilot program to gauge their community’s participation rate and to calculate the amount of compost waste generated. Purchase carts and bins by contacting the local manufacturer’s regional sales manager for pricing and options.

By taking the extra effort upfront to research their community, investigate equipment choices, and develop an education and outreach plan, haulers and municipalities will be armed for success. Following a checklist of best practices from other successful composting programs can save time and money, improve safety and enhance customer loyalty and satisfaction—the ultimate win-win.

Mike Gorelick has more than 30 years serving as Regional Sales Manager for Toter, a Wastequip (Charlotte, NC) brand. Prior to his employment with Toter, Mike was an independent consultant for major northern California waste haulers focusing on implementing roll-out cart pilot programs and route restructuring. He can be reached at mgorelick@wastequip.com. For more information, visit www.toter.com/request-information. To learn more about hauler solutions, visit www.toter.com/waste-haulers and to learn more about municipality solutions, visit www.toter.com/municipalities.