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Missed Connections: Commercial Composting and Carbon Dioxide - The YEARS Project

Missed Connections: Commercial Composting and Carbon Dioxide

As I breathe in the chilly Colorado air and smell cedar, the steaming compost pile is hot and fluffy in my hands and the color of wet coffee grounds. This microscopic community holds millions of pieces and has come from many different places, evaded the landfill, and will now add nutrients to fresh soil. The Colorado county where this pile lives is lucky enough to have the resources to run a leading commercial composting program, which helps get them closer to meeting their zero emission targets. I’ve come to learn that not many communities are as fortunate. 

Climate Benefits

Communities with composting services eliminate methane emissions from landfilled food waste and sequester CO2 instead. This is significant because food waste releases more methane than any other landfilled material, which has the ability to trap up to 36 times more heat in Earth’s atmosphere than the same amount of CO2. Composting food waste also recycles nutrients instead of sending them to the tomb known as a landfill; these same important nutrients will reappear in a fresh compost batch, then in enriched soils, and finally in new crops. 

Other natural resources are saved from the landfill when waste collection programs accept compostable food packaging, like plastic-free paper cups or bamboo forks. This ultimately reduces plastic reliance in food packaging. And less single-use plastic helps communities avoid recycling limitations, such as dealing with hard-to-recycle plastic containers and utensils. This benefit has a larger ripple effect: buying less single-use plastic directly reduces fossil fuel dependence for consumers. Not only can more materials go into a commercial compost bin, but citizens get to learn about consumer waste problems and solutions. 

How Commercial Composting Works

There are two direct pathways to effective compost. The backyard method is what most people have heard or know of, and then there is commercial compost. A citywide commercial composting program can be very effective when designed thoughtfully. This system reduces consumer waste through more than just the 3Rs of reduce, reuse, recycle. Ideal programs allow certified bioplastics made from plants to be put into the same collection bin as all food scraps — yes all food scraps — and most other organic materials like hair, nail clippings, and many paper products. This makes sorting your compost bin much easier.

Residences and businesses utilize curbside collection bins that are later picked up by local waste services and taken to the nearest processing facility. The resulting organic load melds into compost after maturing with heat and time. 

Since modern agriculture has significantly depleted our soils of nutrients, adding mineral-rich compost infuses new life through microbes and bacteria for healthy crops. Compost can even improve gardens and arboretums in suburban areas and city centers. Many compost programs choose to sell their compost back to local organizations. The top industries that use commercial compost are landscaping, agriculture, and erosion management. This system can work incredibly, and naturally, as it is literally a highly progressive version of what nature itself designed. 


There is an untapped opportunity to standardize commercial composting. We can teach people how composting programs work and give them tools to try it themselves. This can look like public events that include compost bins, contracted staff to break down expectations of composting, educational workshops, and waste sorting guides, etc. 

You can find commercial composting in some progressive U.S. cities but not most. Only 9 U.S. states have active food waste collection mandates, and these states claim nearly half of all food waste composting facilities in the country. Additionally, many cities that do offer household compost collection require citizens to pay a service fee, which can limit participation. It's uncommon in most U.S. cities, but even more rare outside of them. Community composting programs in rural areas are especially scarce in the central states. A road trip through Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, or the Dakotas will quickly reveal the lack of normalized composting options, as these states average one commercial composting facility each. It’s unlikely to see compost collection bins in restaurants, stores, or on curbsides in these rural places.

City compost programs typically run on funds from state budgets or external grants so even if a municipality has interest in composting, they often cannot receive funding when sustainability isn’t prioritized in a community. Commercial composting programs can cost millions of dollars when infrastructure, staffing, and community outreach expenses add up. Cities without well-staffed sustainability departments often don’t have the capacity to apply for federal grants that support composting programs. Still, the benefits significantly outweigh the cost of these programs when you look at the full life cycle, and diversion of waste from traditional facilities. 

Plus, general awareness and sustainability education is often missing from classrooms and community spaces of cities without composting options. It requires QR codes, apps, flyers, workshops, and demonstrations at community events to get these programs on the map. Most locals are likely not aware of the potential pollution of their food waste. 

Missing community composting programs are only half of the problem. The average midwestern city doesn’t have curbside compost bins, but they also don’t have compostable food packaging to encourage them. Compostable options are absent from producer mindsets; grocery stores and mom-and-pop shops alike are full of cheap plastic packaging designed for the landfill. Imagine how different a bag of household trash would look without plastic food wrap and food waste altogether. There’s not much left! 


Successful commercial composting programs take the combined efforts of consumers, producers, and governments. Citizens must encourage their governments to locate and dedicate funds for compost program development. Cleveland, Ohio, for one, is currently using federal funds from the American Rescue Plan Act to establish more compost drop-off sites with a focus on expanding composting accessibility for disadvantaged communities. 

We must also make responsible consumer choices whenever possible. It’s admirable to avoid plastic food packaging, though it can be near impossible between the lack of plastic-free options, extra effort, and the sometimes increased price of plastic alternatives. Therefore, it’s crucial to pressure companies to redesign product packaging. Innovation and producer incentive can lead to durable and sustainable plastic-free materials. A boom in compostable packaging would cut plastic waste everywhere while feeding local compost piles and generating more funding sources.

Another important solution are policies known as Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), which are regulations that target top-down waste reduction and push producers to do better. Many EPR bills focus on increasing statewide waste diversion rates. For example, New Hampshire House Bill 1630-FN would create new regulations on the recyclability of all product packaging in the State. NH will reimburse cities that divert packaging products from landfills and eventually start fining producers that sell non-divertible packaging.  

Washington is also working on passing an EPR bill that will standardize statewide compost collection and ban plastic produce stickers, a common contaminate. This top-down action is an example of firm legislation that can create quick results. Normalizing EPR policies across the nation is the one of the most efficient ways to cut consumer waste. You can find policies in your state with a quick search on this EPR Guide and make plans to ask your representatives about how to begin or improve existing programs. 

Composting is a beautiful climate solution that has been here all along; nature has always recycled organics back into soil, even when we didn’t realize it. These nutrients belong in fields and green spaces, not rotting in landfills. Commercial composting gives organics another life and diverts community waste all while fighting climate change. Not only is composting an incredible option, it's a feasible one. We just need the community awareness and general will to make it happen.