Skip to main content

Composting in a city: Are you kidding?

By Melanie Nutter, Special to CNN
June 20, 2013 -- Updated 1212 GMT (2012 HKT)
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
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1626 GMT (0026 HKT)
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2242 GMT (0642 HKT)
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2335 GMT (0735 HKT)
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1126 GMT (1926 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2053 GMT (0453 HKT)
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2019 GMT (0419 HKT)
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1919 GMT (0319 HKT)
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1558 GMT (2358 HKT)
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1950 GMT (0350 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2052 GMT (0452 HKT)
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1629 GMT (0029 HKT)
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2104 GMT (0504 HKT)
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2145 GMT (0545 HKT)
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1231 GMT (2031 HKT)
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
August 24, 2014 -- Updated 0105 GMT (0905 HKT)
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2247 GMT (0647 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1450 GMT (2250 HKT)
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1103 GMT (1903 HKT)
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1538 GMT (2338 HKT)
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1200 GMT (2000 HKT)
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2203 GMT (0603 HKT)
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
ADVERTISEMENT