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Citywide composting expands, but large carts, ‘ick factor’ slow growth

Addie Broyles

Let’s talk about rotting food for a minute.

Managing decomposing organic material, especially once-edible food that was just on a dinner plate a few nights before, is not a particularly fun task the oversee, but that’s exactly what you’re doing when you set up a composting system in your backyard. As someone who sees the benefits of keeping organic material out of landfills (where it produces methane) and putting them back in the soil (where it enriches dirt in a way that helps us rely less on synthetic fertilizers), I’ve been composting — off and on — for about five years now.

As such, I’ve been particularly interested in the Austin’s foray into citywide composting. The city launched a pilot program last year and collected 1,825 tons of organic material from 7,900 households in five neighborhoods across the city.

In today’s Statesman, environmental reporter Asher Price tells us that even though only 30 percent of the current participants have been setting out a cart each week, the city is expanding the free program to another 6,500 households starting next Monday. (You can see the map on the left to find out if your neighborhood is included.)

A few thoughts about the participation rate and expansion. For one, I totally get the “ick factor” that is likely keeping the majority of those Austinites from collecting their scraps, including raw and cooked meat, for once-a-week pickup. I scrunch my nose at my own compost pile, especially when I’m running low on “browns,” or carbon-filled materials such as leaves or paper. Composting isn’t difficult, but it can take a few weeks or even months to get the hang of making sure there’s enough moisture to facilitate the right kind of decay and not too much so that you have a sloppy mess.

Jeff Paine, who runs Break It Down, a local composting company, and had the chance to participate in the pilot program, also points out that the size of the composting carts are just too big. Only large-scale users such as restaurants and grocers could fill a 96-gallon cart every single week.

In most cities that already have curbside composting, including San Francisco and Portland, the containers are much smaller and the largest you can get is in the 64-gallon range. Some cities, like Brattleboro, Vermont, allow customers to order 12-gallon containers, which would certainly be easier to manage.

The point of a pilot program is to make tweaks to improve the process. Let’s hope city officials will realize that the carts are too big and that Austinites will realize that it’s in their best interest to get over their fears of decay and catch up with so many other Americans who live in cities where composting is mainstream.

You can’t fancy yourself progressive if you’re put off by a little rotting food.