Luca Kolba: Is Burlington ready for mandatory composting?

Editor’s note: This commentary is by Luca Kolba, an  environmental studies student at the University of Vermont.

In case you missed the memo, the final stage of Vermont’s Universal Recycling Law is right around the corner. Starting July 1 all food scraps will be banned from landfills — meaning tossing that banana peel or pizza crust into your trash can will technically be illegal. 

I can’t lie — when I first heard about the ban I was probably a little too excited, considering it’s rotting food we’re discussing. But food waste has been on my mind since my first semester of college. This year I started dumpster diving pretty regularly, inspired by environmental figures such as Rob Greenfield. I’ll go rummaging through bins behind local Hannafords, Market 32, even City Market, rescuing as much viable food as I can. Everywhere I’ve gone I’ve been floored by the sheer quantity of waste. 

According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, approximately 40% of all food in America goes uneaten. A large portion of this happens at the production and distribution level, as illustrated by the discarded bag of perfectly fresh clementines that I rescued this week. However, consumers are also very much to blame here. 

A report by the Commission for Environmental Cooperation, an organization that bands together Mexico, Canada, and the U.S. to tackle North America’s environmental issues, found that Americans waste 915 pounds of food per capita each year (beating Canada and Mexico by a significant margin). A lot of this household waste can be traced to overbuying and strictly abiding to “best by” dates, which are not an accurate measure of food safety. 

When you throw your scraps into the garbage, they decay in a landfill, producing large amounts of methane — a greenhouse gas which traps 21 times as much heat in the atmosphere as carbon dioxide. Mandatory composting is a great method for combating negative consequences of household food waste like this. Food waste bans are popping up more and more across the country, and many of them have had a lot of success. Unfortunately, Burlington is going about it all wrong. 

In 2006 San Francisco became the first city in the U.S. to implement a mandatory composting law. They now contribute less to landfills than any other major U.S. city. The key to their success? Ten years before enacting the compost ban, they established municipal curbside compost pickup throughout the city. This way composting is made as convenient and accessible as possible. You take your scraps out with your trash and let the city handle the rest. Because the city provided the pickup service so far in advance of the law, people were in the habit of composting before it was possible for an apple core to cause a crime. 

The Universal Recycling Law is a statewide policy, and for most of Vermont the transition will be simple. In fact, a 2018 study by a UVM professor showed that most Vermonters do already compost. But their methods? Mostly backyard composting and feeding scraps to livestock. The study further revealed that these methods are used much more frequently by rural Vermonters.  

Most of Vermont is prepared for the transition to mandatory composting, but a city as big as Burlington needs a system in place to make sure its citizens can comply. Many residents of Burlington are renters, often without outdoor space for composting. And many don’t have cars, so they can’t drop off compost at composting facilities themselves. This leaves one more option — hiring a private hauler to pick up your food scraps. But this comes with a price tag. 

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Is it really equitable to corner those without backyard space or convenient transportation into hiring private haulers for an additional service? No. Will this problem decrease the popularity of the food scrap ban and dissuade city residents from participating in full? Almost certainly. 

It’s important to point out here that when Burlington phased in mandatory recycling it did so alongside a city-run curbside pickup project. The same year the mandatory recycling ordinance was adopted, municipal recycling pickup was made available across the entire city. There is absolutely no reason we shouldn’t do the same for compost. 

I really do believe in the food-scrap ban, but I’m deeply concerned for its success. The city of Burlington needs to take a step back and consider whether we’re adopting this policy just to maintain Vermont’s “green” reputation, or whether we really want to make it succeed. 


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