Finding the sweet spot in food waste compost programs

Finding the sweet spot in food waste compost programs

Food waste composting presents some challenges no matter the scale. From Knoxville to New York City, to organizations of any size, here are a few tips to encourage participation and satisfaction with scrap collection programs.

A storefront flyer near our office recently announced the advent of Knoxville, Tennessee’s “only year-round residential food scrap pickup service.” With the current push for urban gardening, I’d been surprised to learn that only 20 percent of Eco Pulse™ respondents from around the country compost.

I was excited that, thanks to the business efforts of Bryan Alexander, a recent University of Tennessee graduate, our downtown residents now have a simple, affordable way to raise that number.

Alexander’s Knox Composts provides a lidded bucket, and customers put it where they want (front or back porch, garage, etc.), choose how often he picks it up, and then get a portion of their waste back as compost if they choose.

The rest of the end product goes to community gardens around the area, where Alexander carries out the actual composting process.

The model sounds great. Then why, according to the local paper, did he only have nine customers after three months?

It‘s more than a simple issue of lack of advertising or limited radius of service.

A year after the Natural Resource Defense Council’s announcement that America is wasting nearly 40 percent of its food, the subject of food waste is back in mainstream media with New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s food scrap composting plan.

With food waste and yard trimmings together making up nearly a third of the solid waste nationwide, composting is clearly the next frontier in recycling.

So what’s going to make a compost pickup program successful, whether as a business venture at the scale of downtown Knoxville or a municipal program for the dense expanses of New York City?

Composting in New York City

There’s great potential for home composting in spacious Knoxville, but composting is really pay dirt in dense urban areas like San Francisco and NYC. The density allows for a convenient compost collection infrastructure, as it did for recycling. And food waste recycling can save large cities millions of dollars they’re spending to ship trash away.

The Bloomberg administration’s plans definitely take monetary benefits into account. Since nearly one-third of NYC’s residential trash – which is exported to other states for disposal – is food waste and organic materials, the city could save roughly $100 million per year by keeping it out of landfills.

The program will begin as voluntary, but is predicted to become mandatory in a few years. Recycling has made leaps and bounds, but took quite a while to become the norm. Requiring citizens to compost will normalize it and cause real impact in a much smaller time frame.

The NYC program will likely have to face the same questions and hesitations Knoxvillians have about compost collection. Beyond, of course, making the actual process for residents as easy as possible, a few things have to happen in the communications realm to promote behavior change in order to grow voluntary participation and transition to mandatory in the future.

Save the scraps! Stirring positive emotion

Quoting numbers like, “In 2011 alone, more than 36 million tons of food waste were generated,” isn’t going to make people happy to save their scraps. Many Americans don’t have the gardens, extra time, or dulled sense of smell they imagine are prerequisites for composting. They may feel a program like NYC’s asks something ridiculous of them.

First and foremost, NYC (and Knox Composts) must create emotional resonance that opens up the imagination to the possibilities a compost program offers. This has to come before education – we often see efforts to connect with an audience through the logic of educational materials, and it just doesn’t motivate behavior change in most cases.

In a city like New York, with more liberal and avant-garde tendencies, an appropriately delivered environmental message (less landfill waste, more community gardens) can have a strong, positive emotional impact.

But another strong connector, and one that works well with liberals and conservatives alike, is tax relief. Municipal cost savings, like those predicted for NYC, are something taxpayers with no interest in composting or recycling can feel good about.

As an added bonus, according to a new report on composting in Maryland, the Institute for Local Self-Reliance has found that composting food and yard waste can support twice as many jobs as sending it to landfills.

Levels of convenience

Convenience typically trumps the environment, we find, but it doesn’t generate a desire to perform an action. Alexander has made composting incredibly convenient for Knoxville residents … but only in comparison to other methods of composting/compost collection, not compared to an unchanged habit of chunking scraps in the trash can.

No matter how easy NYC makes its program, there will be people who find it an added burden. This is going to be the main barrier to overcome – and a primary reason why a mandatory program will likely be necessary for majority participation.


The possibility of indoor compost bins and curbside collections attracting pests is a concern cited in many articles about NYC’s plan. While there are plenty of ways to prevent that (i.e., dump the containers regularly), this concern needs to be addressed directly.

In fact, this concern could be a barrier for more sustainably minded residents. We found in Eco Pulse that one reason the greenest consumers shy away from buying used items – the most sustainable buying behavior there is – is hygiene. Be sure your most reliable, green audience isn’t harboring hygiene concerns that decrease their willing participation.

Cities aren’t the only ones with opportunities

Businesses can get ahead of the curve in composting, too. They can establish their own food waste recycling programs in their facilities, help their employees make a personal connection to the issue, and teach them how to avoid food waste altogether at home.

It will pay to be proactive. NYC, for instance, doesn’t handle commercial waste, but legislation may be proposed that requires restaurants and food businesses to recycle their food waste. That will likely spread to other municipalities and other industries. It’s time to start thinking about how you could build a composting infrastructure and a well-planned employee engagement campaign.


Posted on

July 23, 2013

About the Author

Meghan McDonald

Meghan concepts and writes copy for clients and also reviews creative deliverables for clarity, grammar and brand alignment. She brings an interdisciplinary background in environmental studies and journalism to our team. If you want to know the name of a tree or flower, she’s the one to ask.

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