Curbside Compost Pilot Program Launches

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DC Department of Public Works (DPW) has announced its pilot Curbside Composting Program will begin this summer. Sign-up began 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 expand it to all DPW-serviced households.”

The Pilot

Up to 12,000 households will participate in the program, about 1,500 from each of the eight wards ‒ slightly more than 11% of the 105,000 households that receive DPW services like trash and recycling collection at single-family dwellings and buildings with three or fewer apartments. Larger residential buildings, which have private collection, will not be eligible for the pilot.

A starter compost kit will have a curbside collection bin, a countertop kitchen compost caddy and 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 goes to the dump, all the nutrients are lost, but when it is composted nutrients can be returned to the soil. Composting also reduces food-waste decay emissions like methane and other greenhouse gases. Composed waste can be aerated, which prevents the microbes from producing methane. Waste becomes a nutrient-rich soil enhancer 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% 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. The analyst found that local facilities were not large enough to accept curbside composting, which did not become feasible until the recent expansion of operations such as the Balls Ford Composting Facility in Manassas, Virginia.

In part due to land limitations, the District does not have a composting facility or any plans to build its own. According to Manning, DPW is in the process of securing a contractor to haul the waste to a composting facility which will be selected through a solicitation process.

Composting Now

DPW already facilitates some District-based composting. For instance, it 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 farmers markets. Those have been extremely successful, Manning said. Between 5,000 and 7,000 tons of collected yard waste are composted annually. Additionally, last year 32,152 residents brought 919,687 pounds (or nearly 460 tons) of food waste back to the soil. The pilot will not interrupt these activities.

DPW has also offered lessons about how to compost and offered a rebate on composters purchased. Lessons are being revised but will resume later this year, Manning said. DC residents who need compost can get it free ‒ up to five 32-gallon bags’ worth ‒ on weekdays from 1 to 5 p.m. and Saturdays from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Fort Totten Transfer Station (4900 John F. McCormack Drive NE). Bring your own bags.

The goal for the curbside program is for all of the 105,000 DPW-serviced households to participate. That’s a big task. According to Biocycle, in 2021, 181 US communities offered curbside food waste pickup. In Maryland, 30,000 Howard County households have access to curbside collection. Prince George’s County, University Park and Takoma Park have nearly 6,000 households participating.

The participating households in Maryland are about a third the number of the operation the District is contemplating ‒ and one reason why a pilot is needed. “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 long, because people would have to deal with the smell and rodent problems.”

A lot of planning is necessary, from determining proper bins and collection strategies to educating residents on how to compost. Education is key, stated Manning. “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,” she cautioned. Testing the program in a smaller subgroup gives the city a group that is interested in composting 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 DC’s sustainability efforts,” he said. “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 toward 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 may find it needs additional resources or different equipment, such as bins or liners. Manning said the program may step up in increments of larger samples rather than jump to serving the entire DPW-serviced residential community.

Selected households will receive a confirmation email from DPW’s Office of Waste Diversion via zero.waste@dc.gov and will be informed when weekly collection will begin, as soon as that information is available. Families will receive kits a week before collection begins.

Learn more about the pilot by visiting www.zerowaste.dc.gov/curbsidecomposting. Learn more about food and yard waste initiatives at zerowaste.dc.gov/page/food-yard-waste-residents.