News and Music Discovery
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Why not all cities are welcoming community composters


Food waste takes up a lot of landfill space. Turning that garbage into something good for the Earth is the goal of a growing number of community composters. But not all cities welcome the effort. Harvest Public Media's Eva Tesfaye reports.

EVA TESFAYE, BYLINE: There's an urban farm in Kansas City, Mo., called Urbavore. That's where owners Brooke Salvaggio and Daniel Heryer holds a scoop of what they call black gold.

BROOKE SALVAGGIO: If you smell it, it just smells like fertility, you know? I love it.

DANIEL HERYER: Yeah. I mean, it just smells like really rich soil. And when we put it out on the fields, it becomes really rich soil.

TESFAYE: That black gold is compost made from food scraps and some yard waste either dropped off by area residents or collected by the couple's other business. It helps keep those items out of landfills where they would rot and produce methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. Salvaggio says the compost is improving the farm's yields. However, a few neighbors find it more of a nuisance than a benefit. They've complained to the city about bad smells and pests, and the city now says the operation requires a special use permit. Heryer says the city gave them permission to expand two years ago and should not be creating obstacles to manage food waste sustainably.

HERYER: I want to create more compost hubs like this. Certainly, the city of Kansas City should be helping us do that.

TESFAYE: There are thousands of composting operations in the U.S., but the Institute for Local Self-Reliance says only about 300 are so-called community composters that make and use the products locally. Brenda Platt of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance says community composting can be a challenge since cities often don't have updated zoning rules that address composting specifically.

BRENDA PLATT: Local governments can either say, oh, you've got a problem, or they can help these operations that support their communities to overcome the obstacles.

TESFAYE: In the past six years, the number of community composters in the United States more than doubled. Most are in New York and California. They're also on the rise in the Midwest, but it's much less of a priority, says Jennifer Trent. She's a program manager at the University of Northern Iowa's Waste Reduction Center.

JENNIFER TRENT: A lot of times, it's a preconceived idea or notion that compost sites are foul places and that they won't be beneficial to the community.

TESFAYE: She says composting is not a nuisance if it's done right, and bad smells can be reduced even in outdoor operations by combining the materials in a specific way.

TRENT: If you have a compost site that's not complying with the regulations, enforce those laws. You know, don't allow them to continue until it's fixed.

TESFAYE: The U.S. Composting Council says having good zoning laws, enforcing them and educating residents about composting helps make sure everything runs smoothly. When Ben Stanger wanted to start his business, Green Box Compost in Wisconsin, a lot of municipalities told him no. But he says officials in Sun Prairie, a suburb near Wisconsin state capital, were willing to change a zoning code for his business.

BEN STANGER: It just happened to be that Sun Prairie, you know, really rolled out the welcome mat and helped us kind of work through this.

TESFAYE: Stanger is composting indoors with containers to prevent nuisances, and the city is also doing its part by educating residents, says Jake King, a spokesperson for Sun Prairie.

JAKE KING: We really try to look at that public outreach and engagement so people know what we're doing and most importantly, know why we're doing it.

TESFAYE: That's the challenge for many cities - figuring out how to battle climate change and manage waste in ways that residents will embrace. For NPR News, I'm Eva Tesfaye in Kansas City.

(SOUNDBITE OF JULIAN LAGE'S "TEMPLE STEPS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Eva Tesfaye is a 2020 Kroc Fellow. She started in October 2020 and will spend the year rotating through different parts of NPR.