DC Department of Public Works (DPW) has announced that sign-up for their pilot Curbside Composting Program will begin at 9 a.m. on Earth Day, April 22.
DPW Zero Waste Program Analyst Rachel Manning said the precise date has not been set for pilot collections to begin, but DPW is planning for summer of this year.
“This is something that residents have really been asking for,” Manning said, “and programs we’ve seen in other cities have been really successful. We are excited to launch it here in the District and hopefully down the line, expand it to all DPW-serviced households.”
Up to 12,000 households will participate into the program, about 1,500 from each of the eight wards. That’s a bit more than eleven percent of the 105,000 households served annually by DPW, which provides services including trash and recycling collection to single family dwellings and buildings with three or fewer apartments (larger residential buildings, which have private collection, will not be eligible for the pilot).
Participants will receive a starter compost kit, including a curbside collection bin, a countertop kitchen compost caddy and a set of compostable liner bags. DPW estimates that the project could capture up to 6,000 tons of food waste over the year of the pilot.
Composting has an important environmental impact. When food waste is put in the dump, all the nutrients are lost for future growth. But when food waste is composted, essential nutrients are captured and can be returned to the soil. Composting also reduces emissions: food waste releases methane and other greenhouse gases as it decays. But when food waste is composted, it can be aerated, adding oxygen which prevents the microbes from producing methane. Instead, waste becomes a nutrient-rich soil amendment, or fertilizer.
Preparing for Pick Up
The program has been a long time coming. Impetus for the curbside program was provided by the Sustainable Solid Waste Management Amendment Act of 2014. The bill set a goal to divert 80 percent of District waste through reduction, reuse, recycling and composting.
In 2016, DPW brought on a consultant to develop an analytical model to address the feasibility of curbside composting. In 2017, the analyst found that area composting facilities were not large enough to accept waste from the District. However, it has since become feasible due to expansions to facilities such as the Balls Ford Composting Facility in Manassas, Va.
In part due to land limitations, the District does not have a composting facility, or any plans to build its own. Now, DPW is in the process of securing a contractor to haul away the waste and bring it to the composting facility, Manning said. So the destination of DC’s food waste is wrapped up in the solicitation process.
DPW currently facilitates some District-based composting. For instance, DPW composts collected leaf and yard waste. Residents have been able to drop off their compost at weekly Food Waste Drop-Off program sites, offered on Saturdays at Farmer’s Markets throughout the District. Those have been extremely successful, Manning said. Between 5,000 and 7,000 tons of collected yard waste are composted annually. 32,152 participants have dropped off food waste at the Food Waste Drop-Off sites in 2022, sending 919,687 pounds (or nearly 460 tons) of food waste back to the soil. These programs will not be interrupted by the pilot.
DPW has also offered Home Composting lessons, teaching residents how to compost successfully and offering a rebate on composters purchased. Those are being revised but will reopen later this year, Manning says. And DC residents have benefited: DPW will fill up to five 32-gallon bags with free compost on weekdays from 1-5 p.m. and Saturdays from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Fort Totten Transfer Station (4900 John F. McCormack Dr. NE, bring your own bags!).
The end goal for the curbside program is for every one of the 105,000 DPW-serviced households to participate. That’s a big task. According to Biocycle, in 2021, 181 communities offered curbside food waste pickup in the United States. In Howard County, 30,000 households have access to curbside collection. Nearby, that includes Prince George County, University Park and Takoma Park, MD, nearly 6,000 households participated.
That’s altogether about a third the size of the operation the District is contemplating — and one reason why a pilot is needed, Manning said. “It’s not as easy as collecting trash or recyclables,” Manning noted of curbside composting. “It’s a material that can’t be left on the street for a long period of time, because people would have to deal with the smell and rodent problems.”
There’s a lot to work through, from determining proper bins and collection strategies as well as educating residents on how to properly compost. Education is key, Manning said. “Things like trash and recycling have been happening for years and years, so people are used to those services, but something like this could be a huge learning curve for a lot of folks,” she cautions. Testing the program out in a smaller subgroup that opted into the program gives the city a group that is interested in this and perhaps educated on it to some extent. This will help DPW get a sense of challenges and ways to improve the program before it is launched to all DPW-serviced households.
The investment will be worth it if it helps meet the District’s zero waste goals, according to DPW Acting Director Timothy Spriggs. “DPW continues to invest in the DC’s sustainability efforts,” said Spriggs. “By launching a new curbside compost pilot, unveiling a comprehensive zero waste plan for DC that reflects the diverse perspectives and priorities of our community and adding two new food waste drop off sites, we are empowering residents and businesses to take meaningful action towards reducing waste and building a more sustainable future.”
Composting in the Future
The pilot will run from Summer 2023 to Summer 2024. After that, DPW will assess lessons learned, Manning said. What happens next will depend on what those lessons are, DPW officials said. DPW may find they need additional resources, or different equipment, such as bins or liners. Manning said it is possible that the program will step up in increments of larger samples, rather than jump to serving the entire residential community that receives DPW services.
Sign up for the Curbside Composting Pilot begins online at 9 a.m. April 22. Selected households will receive a confirmation email from the Department of Public Works’ Office of Waste Diversion via email@example.com and will be informed when weekly collection will begin as soon as that information is available. Kits will be received by families a week before collection begins.
Learn more about the pilot by visiting zerowaste.dc.gov/curbsidecomposting. Learn more about food and yard waste initiatives at zerowaste.dc.gov/page/food-yard-waste-residents