Skip to main content

Composting in a city: Are you kidding?

By Melanie Nutter, Special to CNN
updated 8:12 AM EDT, Thu June 20, 2013
Manuel Vera dumps a bin with compostable materials into a truck while collecting recyclable materials in San Francisco.
Manuel Vera dumps a bin with compostable materials into a truck while collecting recyclable materials in San Francisco.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Mayor Bloomberg in New York wants people to compost. Is that even possible?
  • Melanie Nutter: San Francisco has thriving composting program, goal to send nothing to landfill by 2020
  • Nutter's advice to New York: Get people over the ick factor, set goals, teach, make it simple
  • Composting, recycling creates jobs and substantially reduces waste to landfill, she says

Editor's note: Melanie Nutter is director of the San Francisco Department of Environment, which helps San Francisco residents and businesses take an active role in protecting and enhancing the urban environment. Formerly, Nutter was deputy district director for then-U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

(CNN) -- There are things one has come to expect in New York -- cold winters, sweltering summers, and walking fast through throngs of tourists. Now composting?

As you may have heard, San Francisco set a goal to achieve zero waste by 2020; that means sending nothing to the landfill. Thanks to the efforts of our businesses, residents, commuters, schools, city agencies and tourists, our city diverts 80% of all waste from landfill disposal through source reduction, reuse, and recycling and composting programs.

New York's announcement to require residents to separate food scraps for collection to be composted by 2016 is a laudable and achievable goal. Since the implementation of San Francisco's mandatory recycling and composting ordinance, composting collection has increased by more than 50% within three years. We went from collecting 400 tons daily to more than 600 tons daily.

Melanie Nutter
Melanie Nutter

A thriving composting and recycling effort in San Francisco has not only been good for the environment, but also good for the economy. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, recycling creates nearly five times as many jobs as sending material to a landfill. A study from the Blue Green Alliance also states that if we increased our recycling rate to 75%, 2.3 million jobs would be created nationwide.

Decreasing the amount of refuse the city is sending to the landfill is also helping San Francisco reduce our carbon footprint. Waste sent to a landfill produces methane, a greenhouse gas that is up to 21 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

That's why Mayor Michael Bloomberg's decision to begin a composting program this year in New York is music to the ears of those of us in the zero waste movement. Composting has been key to increasing our diversion rate.

As New York and other cities roll out their composting collection efforts, there are some lessons learned from the road to zero waste in San Francisco to share.

Success does not happen overnight. Behavior change is hard business.
Melanie Nutter

Set a goal: By creating a goal, such as doubling your composting rate, city leaders are able to communicate a vision of success. Our own San Francisco Giants have embraced a zero waste goal, and diverted more than 80% of stadium discards from the landfill in last fall's playoff games. Celebrate your incremental successes toward that goal to build momentum.

Make composting simple: Conduct outreach to your businesses and residents to determine the steps needed to make composting easy. We found out that providing residents with free kitchen composting pails as well as providing commercial recycling and composting training were two easy ways to get the community engaged and participating.

Teach the next generation: Educating young San Franciscans about what goes in the green composting bin has helped not only increase the composting rates in our schools, zero waste education has helped raise awareness about protecting nature and understanding the source of food.

Success does not happen overnight. Behavior change is hard business. In San Francisco, when recycling and composting was mandated, we experienced some initial resistance because of the "ick" factor: the idea that composting could be foul smelling and belongs on a farm, not in a city.

Overcoming these misconceptions is as easy as reminding people that compostables have been in your kitchen trash can all along. Now, you are separating out your coffee grounds, food scraps, soiled paper and dead flowers and putting them toward a good cause.

In San Francisco our good cause is wine and fresh produce. San Francisco has collected more than a million tons of food scraps, yard trimmings, and other compostable materials and turned it into nutrient rich compost that is in demand by local farmers and wineries in Napa and Sonoma counties.

Can New York compost? Without a doubt. By setting up an easy to use system, investing in teaching New Yorkers what goes in the compost bin and celebrating incremental successes, New York will be well on its way to making composting second nature, too.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Melanie Nutter.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 7:44 AM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Rick McGahey says Rep. Paul Ryan is signaling his presidential ambitions by appealing to hard core Republican values
updated 11:39 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Paul Saffo says current Google Glasses are doomed to become eBay collectibles, but they are only the leading edge of a surge in wearable tech that will change our lives
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
updated 5:29 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say the Kansas Jewish Center killings are part of a string of lethal violence in the U.S. that outstrips al Qaeda-influenced attacks. Why don't we pay more attention?
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Danny Cevallos says families of the passengers on Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 need legal counsel
updated 11:23 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Frum says Russia is on a rampage of mischief while Western leaders and Western alliances charged with keeping the peace hem and haw
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Most adults make the mistakes of hitting the snooze button and of checking emails first thing in the morning, writes Mel Robbins
updated 1:54 PM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Wheeler says as middle-class careers continue to disappear, we need a monthly cash payment to everyone
updated 7:55 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Democrats need to show more political spine when it comes to the issue of taxes.
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Donna Brazile recalls the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act as four presidents honored the heroes of the movement and Lyndon Johnson, who signed the law
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Elmer Smith remembers Chuck Stone, the legendary journalist from Philadelphia who was known as a thorn in the side of police and an advocate for the little guy
updated 2:56 PM EDT, Sun April 13, 2014
Al Franken says Comcast, the nation's largest cable provider, wants to acquire Time Warner Cable, the nation's second-largest cable provider. Should we be concerned?
updated 11:22 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Philip Cook and Kristin Goss says the Pennsylvania stabbing attack, which caused grave injury -- but not death, carries a lesson on guns for policymakers
updated 3:06 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Wikipedia lists 105 football movies, but all too many of them are forgettable, writes Mike Downey
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
John Sutter and hundreds of iReporters set out to run marathons after the bombings -- and learned a lot about the culture of running
updated 12:49 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Timothy Stanley says it was cowardly to withdraw the offer of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The university should have done its homework on her narrow views and not made the offer
updated 10:16 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Al Awlaki
Almost three years after his death in a 2011 CIA drone strike in Yemen, Anwar al-Awlaki continues to inspire violent jihadist extremists in the U.S, writes Peter Bergen
updated 9:21 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
David Bianculli says Colbert is a smart, funny interviewer, but ditching his blowhard persona to take over the mainstream late-night role may cost him fans
updated 1:31 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Rep. Paul Ryan says the Republican budget places its trust in the people, not in Washington
updated 5:28 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Aaron David Miller says Obama isn't to blame for Kerry's lack of progress in resolving Mideast talks
updated 11:22 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Weinberger says beyond focusing on the horrors of the attack a year ago, it's worth remembering the lessons it taught about strength, the dangers of idle speculation and Boston's solidarity
updated 12:32 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Katherine Newman says the motive for the school stabbing attack in Pennsylvania is not yet known, but research on such rampages turns up similarities in suspects and circumstances
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Simon Tisdall: Has John Kerry's recent track record left Russia's wily leader ever more convinced of U.S. weakness?
updated 12:40 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Mel Robbins says Nate Scimio deserves credit for acting bravely in a frightening attack and shouldn't be criticized for posting a selfie afterward
updated 2:39 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Wendy Townsend says the Rattlesnake Roundup -- where thousands of pounds of snakes are killed and tormented -- is barbaric
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Dr. Mary Mulcahy says doctors who tell their patients the truth risk getting bad ratings from them
updated 9:28 AM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Peggy Drexler says the married Rep. McAllister, caught on video making out with a staffer, won't get a pass from voters who elected him as a Christian conservative with family values
updated 7:43 AM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
David Frum says the president has failed to react strongly to crises in Iran, Syria, Ukraine and Venezuela, encouraging others to act out
updated 4:57 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Eric Liu says Paul Ryan gets it very wrong: The U.S.'s problem is not a culture of poverty, it is a culture of wealth that is destroying the American value linking work and reward
updated 7:51 AM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Frida Ghitis writes: "We are still seeing the world mostly through men's eyes. We are still hearing it explained to us mostly by men."
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Chester Wisniewski says the Heartbleed bug shows how we're all tangled together, relying on each other for Internet security
updated 3:26 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Danny Cevallos says an Ohio school that suspended a little kid for pointing his finger at another kid and pretending to shoot shows the growth in "zero tolerance" policies at school run amok
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT