(Photo: Hello Compost/Facebook)

Is It Possible to Make Composting Cool?

As America’s food waste piles up in landfills, one design team reimagines composting for the 21st century.
Sep 21, 2014· 3 MIN READ
Jason Best is a regular contributor to TakePart who has worked for Gourmet and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

I’ve been talking a lot about the issue of food waste lately…but don’t tune out just yet! I know, I know—the phrase “food waste” is kind of an immediate turnoff. But once you get past the initial yuck factor that inevitably conjures the reek of the kitchen trash you forgot to take out, the whole subject is actually interesting, and kind of imperative.

You see, we humans—particularly those of us living in industrialized nations—waste a lot of food. I’ve mentioned before that the Natural Resources Defense Council estimates some 40 percent of the food we produce in the U.S. ends up in the garbage. Here’s another stat, courtesy of food-waste activist Tristram Stuart, author of Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal: We grow enough food worldwide to feed 12 billion people, but we’re “hemorrhaging food at every link of the supply chain,” he says.

So in recent weeks I’ve highlighted some novel ways people are addressing, or at least spotlighting, the problem of food waste, from the work of Josh Treuhaft, who hosts Salvage Supperclubs in Brooklyn (where diners eat in a washed-down Dumpster), to Isabel Sores, whose novel CSA in Portugal rescues perfectly edible “ugly” produce from the trash.

No matter how conscious we are about what food we pitch, we’re still going to end up with some amount of table scraps going in the garbage. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, food waste is now the biggest contributor to our municipal solid-waste stream, with more than 36 million tons being dumped in landfills or incinerated annually. As it piles up and rots, it produces methane, which is a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. The EPA estimates that a full 20 percent of our methane emissions come from landfills.

Wide-scale composting would seem like the most promising solution (only about 5 percent of American food waste gets composted). But c’mon, is it realistic? After all, this is a country where, judging by our TV commercials, the mere hint of a whiff of odiferous kitchen trash is cause for mortification and the unleashing of a torrent of chemical air freshener.

Turns out, Americans aren’t quite as put off by the notion of composting as one might think. A survey published earlier this year by the National Waste & Recycling Association found that, no surprise, nearly three-quarters of Americans don’t compost their food waste. But 67 percent of non-composters said they’d be willing to do it if community composting was made available (though most of them don’t want to pay more for the service).

“While America’s waste and recycling industry has developed innovative composting technologies, there are hurdles inhibiting such changes,” says Sharon Kneiss, president and CEO of the NWRA. “Challenges include the collection and transportation of food waste and the siting of food-waste composting facilities more broadly. But a far greater hurdle inhibiting an organics revolution may involve a lack of understanding by the American public about the value of such a change.”

Education is key, no doubt. After all, before the big recycling push of the 1990s, few people thought twice about pitching their beer bottles and milk cartons in the trash. Indeed, one of the reasons food scraps have become the largest share of waste going to landfills is that so much other material now goes into the recycling bin.

Composting could probably use something of an image makeover too. Take the ingenious idea of two graduate students in New York: Hello Compost. Aly Blenkin and Luke Keller were both going for their master’s in transdisciplinary design at Parsons when they teamed up with Linda Bryant at Project EATS, which helps establish urban farmsteads in working-class communities in New York. The concept: Sign up residents willing to collect their food scraps, supply them with handy odor-blocking canvas totes in which to store said scraps in their freezer (a must for New York City apartment dwellers), and then have them turn those scraps in for credits toward fresh produce from Project EATS farms.

Life being life, however, Blenkin and Keller got full-time jobs after graduating, and “the core team has spread out geographically,” as Blenkin puts it—meaning further implementation of Hello Compost is on hold. But so much is right about the project that it’s still worth talking about.

Not only does Hello Compost create a sort of dreamily sustainable feedback loop (rewarding participants who haul in their potato peels and melon rinds with credits to buy more produce), but it makes composting seem cool by design. From the website to the totes to the iPad app that lets composters track their credits and how much they’ve composted, it takes composting out of the moldering bins of 1970s-era back-to-the-earth hippie tracts and puts it smack-dab in the 21st century—where, judging by how much food we’re still pitching, it definitely belongs.

This article is brought to you by IBM's People for Smarter Cities. TakePart is teaming up with IBM to highlight innovative ideas and creative change makers who are helping cities all around the world move forward.