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The Green Bin: What Is Wrong With This Picture?

September 12, 2010

It used to all go in one bin. Anything city dwellers disposed of - from cardboard to disposable diapers, from food scraps to glass bottles - all got picked up at the curb and hauled away to somewhere out of sight and out of smell. This pretty much makes sense in a way that thousands of landfills sprinkled throughout a city does not. When we started recycling a significant portion of our waste, this model continued to make sense. After all, most homes are not set up to create post-consumer paper towels from old newspapers, much less recycle a battery. We had already established this system for picking up garbage and taking it to a remote location, so using that model to take recyclables to a remote processing facility was a natural fit. This time, it would be a blue bin, and we were thrilled to see our blue bins get bigger than our black bins.

Now it's high fives all around because we are doing the same with compostable material. Because a worm bin in every kitchen and a compost heap in every backyard is a vision whose day hasn't arrived, we turn to the system that is in place for our other waste. We put our coffee grounds, food scraps, waxy milk cartons and plant trimmings in a bin - a green one, this time. It is picked up and taken away to be added to a really big-ass compost heap somewhere out of sight and out of smell. Makes perfect sense, right?

Consider that composting could make a lot of sense on a neighborhood scale, whether that neighborhood is a large apartment building or eight square blocks of single-family dwellings. A properly maintained compost heap does not smell bad. It requires no investment in expensive equipment, and relatively little labor and space. Finished compost can be used locally for gardens, potted plants, parks, and planted median strips. Compostable materials, handled properly, don't have the characteristics of garbage and recyclables that have led to large-scale, remote processing - nastiness, technological requirements, or lack of immediate local demand for the finished product. What we put in the green bin is only similar to what we put in the black and blue bins in one way: we don't want it in our homes.

Instead of tweaking the color scheme on the same model, let's explore a new one. Yes, there are significant issues to be addressed. The transportation, labor and space considerations are not trivial, and the solutions are not obvious. We have the opportunity to use Hayes Valley Farm as a laboratory for neighborhood scale composting. Let's play around with it.