Iowa City is running out of space to turn the 11,500 tons of yard and food waste it collects every year into soil. It’s among two large-scale composting sites in Iowa that accept food, even though food scraps makes up 20% of the state’s waste stream. That means Iowans send an estimated 556,313 tons of compostable food to landfills each year, according to the most recent estimates. It not only takes up space and stinks up the air, but also generates methane, a greenhouse gas. But even if more Iowans decided to sort their food waste, the state’s current composting infrastructure wouldn’t be capable of processing it.
The Iowa City Press-Citizen reports that just six facilities are permitted by the state to accept more than two tons of compost per week, and two of them accept food scraps. Another 77 sites process compost — not necessarily including food — but can’t cross the two-ton weekly threshold.
None of this is news to Jennifer Trent, program manager at the Iowa Waste Reduction Center. She’s also the vice president of the U.S. Composting Council. “When I started looking at ways to divert food from the landfill through composting (in Iowa), I noticed a huge deficit. But it seemed so easy to me for a municipality to start something,” she said. “And I found out, it’s definitely not the low-hanging fruit, it’s clear up at the top of the tree, and it’s a problem that we have to solve.” Iowa passed a law preventing yard waste from ending up in landfills in 1991 and, as a result, kickstarted a checkerboard of yard waste composting programs.