Citywide Composting Comes to Cambridge

compostingPhoto by Adrianne Mathiowetz.

Curbside composting will launch citywide on April 2 as Cambridge strives to meet its goals of reducing trash by 30 percent between 2008 and 2020.

The city has run a pilot curbside composting program along the Monday trash route since late 2015 that serves 5,200 households in North Cambridge, an expansion from a 600-household trial that started in 2014. The Monday trash route pilot took in about six to seven tons of compost per week, according to Recycling Director for the Department of Public Works Michael Orr.

The program will expand to all residential buildings with up to 12 units in April, a total of about 25,000 households. The Department of Public Works is hoping to extend curbside composting to larger residential buildings within the next year, Orr says.

Cambridge will be the first city in the state to have free, citywide curbside composting.

The city expects that the composting program will reduce the city’s trash by 2,000 tons in its first year, according to Orr. Cambridge has already reduced its trash output by 23 percent—mainly by making recycling more accessible and by selling backyard composting bins—so this program will make the city meet its 2020 reduction goal, Orr says.

Cambridge currently creates about 14,000 tons of trash annually. Roughly 40 percent of residential trash is compostable food scraps, Orr says, meaning that with high participation the program’s impacts could be enormous.

“There’s a huge potential to drop the number a lot more,” he says. “The main thing is we need participation. Some people may be concerned, for whatever reason, and we’re asking residents just to give it a try. Start with your coffee grounds and your banana peel in the morning, start with your orange peels and your egg shells, start with something easy. Once you get into the habit, you’ll find that there’s more and more items you can put in there. Before you know it, you’re in love with the program and you’re contributing to reducing our climate change impact.”

The Department of Public Works has taken steps to address two of people’s biggest concerns about composting: that the indoor container will smell and that animals will get into the outdoor bin.

Residents of buildings with fewer than 13 units will receive an indoor bin, several months’ worth of bags for the indoor bin, and an outdoor bin (one per building) at the end of March. The bags wick away moisture and the bin is ventilated, which Orr explains will keep the indoor bin from smelling. The outdoor bin is made of thick plastic and has an easy locking mechanism, which will keep animals like raccoons from getting under the lid or chewing through the bin.

The city’s compost will go to a state-of-the-art facility in Charlestown that is run by Save That Stuff and Waste Management. There, the oatmeal-consistency compost material will be turned into fertilizer and create clean energy.

The facility can take food scraps and food-soiled paper.


Photo by Adrianne Mathiowetz.

“We’re able to take in dirtier compost material,” says Marc Galardi, sales and business development manager for Save That Stuff. “A lot of material is getting rejected at the farms due to plastic, even compostable plastic, things that don’t break down as quick as the food waste does. Package material, we can take that in.”

Having such a high-tech plant nearby is one of the main reasons that curbside composting became a viable option for the city, according to Orr. But citywide composting has been discussed for years.

“I was going through some files and I saw a planning meeting that the director before the director before me had with her staff, in 1999. They were saying we should look into curbside composting,” he says. “It just shows us how long and how hard it is to get a program off the ground like this. Sometimes it comes down to the economics.”

As local landfills are closing, making trash has become expensive for the city.

“There’s just nowhere to put the trash,” Orr explains. “Two of the three largest landfills are closing in the next year in Massachusetts, and that’s going to pinch the market, it’s going to put trash costs going up. If you were to look at a food item, a recyclable item, and think, what’s the best way to dispose of these items, financially for the city, the food item should go in the compost and the recyclable object should go in the recycling. They should never go in the trash, because it is more expensive.”

Orr also notes that the City Council was supportive in pushing the curbside composting program through. The FY18 budget approved four new Department of Public Works positions to support curbside composting. Some employees who currently work on trash trucks will switch over to composting collection.

Residents can take advantage of the rich soil made in the composting process. Soil will be available at the Recycling Center from mid-April to mid-October.

“There’s a lot of good reasons to do this, and I think we’re trying to be at the forefront of this before the trash costs get really high, but we do need to be proactive also about mitigating our climate impact,” Orr says. “This is a surefire way for residents to contribute to reducing their climate impact.”

This story originally appeared in the The Arts & Architecture Issue of Scout Cambridge, which is available for free at more than 200 locations throughout the city or by subscription.

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