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Saturday, January 31, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 34.0° F  Overcast
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Honey, can you take out the compost?
A curbside pilot program that accepts even kitty litter shows promise
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Residents participating in the pilot program transfer their composting materials from the kitchen container (left) to the collection bin for curbside pickup.
Residents participating in the pilot program transfer their composting materials from the kitchen container (left) to the collection bin for curbside pickup.
Credit:Carolyn Fath

On a scale of one to ten, Amanda Gromoski and Bob Matty agree they are a "six" for environmental consciousness. The east-side couple recycle and are generally knowledgeable about the food they eat and energy they consume. And, like an estimated 10,000 families in Madison, they compost their food scraps.

For the past few years, Gromoski and Matty have used these composted food scraps as potent fertilizer for their yard. But starting last June, they joined a city-sponsored pilot program that picks up their organic "waste" and trucks it away for composting. The Organics Collection Pilot Program has started small, with 300 families who live along the East Johnson Street corridor and another 200 from southwest Madison. If successful, the program could radically change the entire system of garbage management in the region.

Gromoski pulls out a plastic army-green container that the city provides for the pilot program. Tucked under her kitchen shelves, it's about the size of a breadbox. "I don't think it has changed our habit that much," she notes, "except I can throw away pretty much anything now." In contrast to home composting, the city-run program encourages participants to throw out all organic items, including meat, bones and even kitty litter.

Already such West Coast cities as San Francisco and Portland have adopted citywide composting programs and have seen massive reductions in their trash hauls. Throwaway, nonrecyclable garbage has been reduced by nearly one-third, providing relief to bulging landfills and reducing methane emissions, which lead to global warming. It is estimated that the toxic methane gases produced by rotting organic waste in trash heaps are 20 times as potent as the much-maligned carbon dioxide from cars' tailpipes.

Hoping to emulate these successes, the city of Madison launched its pilot program last summer. The program is voluntary, but nearly half of the households contacted accepted the challenge. Since it started, only two families have bowed out; one family preferred composting at home, and the other simply stopped putting out materials for composting.

Over the past 15 years, the city has sold roughly 20,000 small, household composting bins. About half of these are currently in use, estimates George Dreckmann, the city's recycling coordinator. But Dreckmann says the citywide composting program has one big advantage, accepting "pretty much everything - gravy, coffee grounds, spaghetti sauces, greasy paper towels, pizza boxes, cat litter, dog waste." And, he adds, "We're looking at diapers."

"We're really going after meat and fish," Dreckmann says. "More maggots," he adds with zeal. Meat, he explains, helps fuel the rapid breakdown of organic materials into richer fertilizer.

Currently, the city trucks the approximately three tons of organic debris it collects from the 500 households to a facility in Columbia County, which houses a specially designed processing plant that transforms the garbage into fertilizing dirt. Because the compost collection is part of existing routes, the cost of the pilot program is negligible - roughly $50 a week. Dreckmann says it's a cost that could quickly be turned into savings and revenue.

"It's a new way to look at waste," he says. "Not as a liability, but as a resource."

Municipally managed compost is a twofer, he says. For starters, it greatly reduces the trash stream. A group of University of Wisconsin students who have been monitoring the compost pilot program estimates that the average weekly haul of garbage has gone from 30 to seven pounds. The diverted waste stream is also transformed into viable resources, including fertilizer and mulch for commercial sale. Potentially it could be transformed into compressed natural gas to fuel vehicles.

"This is not futuristic," Dreckmann says about the potential to transform organic waste into car fuel. "This is available technology."

Three years ago, Toronto became the first North American city to build a so-called anaerobic digester, which breaks down organic garbage and transforms it into biofuel. And in late March, Portland, Ore., announced an agreement with a private firm to build and manage a biogas facility to transform that city's food waste into fuel. Dreckmann spitballs that a $15 million investment would build a facility for Madison's organic waste, and that those costs could quickly be recouped from retail sales.

In May, the Common Council approved hiring a consultant to study the economic feasibility of building a biodigester in Madison. The study is slated for completion in September, though construction, if approved, would still be a couple of years away.

"It's really a no-brainer," says Dreckmann.

Dreckmann wants to slowly roll out the composting program to more families. Forty households in southwest Madison have been added, and there's room for 60 more. Plans to expand compost pickup citywide are more than a year away.

But already the pilot program has inspired new habits in its participants.

"We've been composting table scraps at home for 20-plus years," says Baxter Exum. But since joining the program, he adds, "we have been shocked that what we call our 'trash-trash' has basically dwindled to one small 13-gallon bag each week."

Exum's wife, Keola, hopes to replicate that waste-not want-not lesson at Cherokee Middle School, where she manages the lunchroom program. Students there have begun work on a composting program, putting up posters in late April to educate students and teachers about the need for such a program and how it would work.

Along with the food scraps, Keola says that deli and condiment packaging could be dumped into compost bins.

"The only true garbage I can think of would be the plastic silverware," she says. "It would be quite amazing to perhaps have one bag of garbage in the lunchroom each day."

[Editor's note: This story has been changed to reflect that reducing garbage waste results in lower methane emissions, which contribute to global warming.]

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