The Dirt on Compulsory Composting


Here at National Geographic’s D.C. headquarters, our cafeteria is big on composting: There’s even a photo of a landfill on the trash can to guilt you into throwing that paper cup into the right receptacle.

Pretty soon, if you live in San Francisco, you won’t have a choice. On June 23, mayor Gavin Newsom signed the first mandatory composting law in the United States for consumers and businesses.

The law, which goes into effect October 21, is in fitting with the mayor’s “lofty green goal” — zero waste by 2020, he said in a statement.

The city already keeps 72 percent of recyclable material out of the landfill, and turns about 400 tons of leftover food into nutritious organic compost, dubbed “black gold.”

The fertile stuff is quickly snapped up by farms and vineyards in the Bay Area, Newsom added.

Composting not only keeps landfills down, the practice also prevents the powerful greenhouse gas methane from being released. That’s because bacteria that break down food waste in landfills create a lot of methane as a byproduct.

If you compost food, on the other hand, you return carbon to the soil and encourage plant growth at the same time.

Not to mention compost can work wonders for your lawn, especially commercially made compost, which has high levels of naturally occurring phosphorous and nitrogen that is released gradually and is absorbed more easily by plants. (See our fertilizer buying guide.)

So we get it — composting is cool, not only because it doesn’t heat up a warming planet — but how do you dig in? First decide if you want to set up shop indoors or in your backyard. If indoors, you can either buy a special bin or make one yourself out of a plastic garbage can. A properly managed bin, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, won’t attract pests or smell bad.

If you head outdoors, select a dry, shady spot near a water source for your compost pile or bin, and moisten dry materials as they are added.

The whole rundown on what you need to know can be found on the EPA’s composting site.

Newsom said he hopes that composting will “become second nature for Americans, just like sorting bottles and paper.”

With up to a $100 price tag for any San Franciscan who fails to compost, that sounds about right.

Christine Dell’Amore

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Get the dirt on how to turn your trash into fertilizer treasure.

Try out composting by starting a carbon diet.

Image courtesy Kessner Photography

Human Journey

Meet the Author
Christine Dell'Amore, environment writer/editor for National Geographic News, has reported from six continents, including Antarctica. She has also written for Smithsonian magazine and the Washington Post. Christine holds a masters degree in journalism with a specialty in environmental reporting from the University of Colorado at Boulder. Her book, South Pole, was published in 2012.