Urban Composting: It’s Always Worth It

By Barbara Pualani

Any household organic material can be composted (and used again!).

Any household organic material can be composted (and used again!).

Earth-friendly urban dwellers know just how precarious composting in the city can be. Storage bags of frozen food waste in the freezer, the subway ride overloaded with multiple bags, sometimes difficult-to-find drop-off sites. I have shared countless stories with friends about urban composting. Shenanigans abound, but we always agree that in the end it’s worth it.

Take a friend of mine that I met as a student at Columbia University. Every week she would bring her compost from New Jersey to the campus farmer’s market. She would carry a week’s worth of food waste one train ride and two subway rides every Thursday. But one day, running late, the farmer’s market closed before she could get there, leaving her stuck with the compost. She wasn’t too worried–until a student meeting ended up lasting four hours. By that time, the forgotten compost was stinking up the room and annoying her fellow students. Luckily, she eventually found a fridge to store it in. Her friends laughed it off.

Composting can sometimes seem pretty inconvenient, so why do it at all? Because food waste is actually a really big problem.

Rotting food in landfills is a substantial source of methane—a greenhouse gas with 21 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide. In the U.S., landfills account for more than 20 percent of all methane emissions. Organic materials make up the largest portion of this waste. Paper materials comprise 27 percent while yard trimmings and food comprise 28 percent. This means that 55 percent of all waste in this country can potentially be composted rather than rotting in our landfills.

The story sounds dire, but it’s not all doom and gloom. Composting has made substantial headway in recent years.

According to EPA’s Advancing Sustainable Materials Management study released this year, Americans recycled and composted over 87 million tons of waste in 2013, which in carbon dioxide equivalent terms is equal to removing emissions for over 39 million passenger vehicles from the road in one year. The most recent numbers show that 5 percent of food is now composted annually. Over 2.7 million households are served by food composting collection programs nationwide. Even in the city, composting is becoming more convenient. New York City recently mandated composting for all hotel restaurants, arenas and wholesalers, and there are various organics collection services & drop off points for residents in all five boroughs.

On a different Thursday, my friend was again dropping off her compost. She mentioned to the man running the booth that she brought it all the way from New Jersey. Upon hearing this, he bowed his head with his hands folded in prayer and said, “You are an inspiration to us all.” Although we giggled about this later, he’s absolutely right.

This is why we compost—to inspire, to reduce our carbon footprint, and to do our fair share in taking care of this planet.

The biggest lesson we can learn is it’s not just for green-thumbed hippies. One of my favorite stories comes from a former colleague who told me (facetiously, of course) that composting had taken a toll on her marriage. After a year of picking his organics out of the garbage, she finally confronted her husband about his incorrect trash disposal methods. He explained how he didn’t really care about it, and even though he knew she had already explained how to do it, he was still unsure. Because her husband is very Catholic, she resorted to quoting the Pope who believes “everyone has a moral obligation to care for the planet.” Now her husband puts his organics in the compost bags; if he is unsure if the item is compostable, he asks. My colleague ended this story with an assurance and a wink: “I am happily married.”

I like to collect these anecdotes—laughter is the best medicine after all—but they serve to amplify the real problem: organic waste is a serious contributor to climate change, and we all need to do our part to address it. If you’re confused about what’s compostable and what’s not, check out your city’s local web page.  Or, like my friend’s husband, if you’re confused, just ask. It never hurts to research or ask around until you do find someone who knows. And it’s always worth it.

About the author: Barbara Pualani serves as a speechwriter for EPA Region 2. Prior to joining EPA, she served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Dominican Republic. She resides in Brooklyn and is a graduate of University of Northern Colorado and Columbia University.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Exploring the Former Fresh Kills Landfill via Kayak

By Murray Lantner

Kayaking at Fresh Kills Park

Kayaking at Fresh Kills Park

On a grey, windy and cool day a group of over 20, including EPAers from several Region 2 divisions, including our Caribbean Environmental Protection Division, and their friends and family took to the estuarine inlet within the former Fresh Kills Landfill site for a one-of-a-kind paddling trip. The trip was organized by Maureen Krudner, Regional Green Infrastructure Coordinator and Staten Islander – through the EPA Region 2 Emerging Leaders Network – and was hosted and outfitted by the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation which provided kayaks and an amazing guide, Chris, who provided an informal informational tour. We started the trip with a short visit to the NYC Department of Sanitation Visitor’s Center at the former landfill where we learned about the decades-long effort to transform the Fresh Kills landfill into a 2,200 acre city park some three times the size of Central Park.

The plan for the park is to combine state-of-the-art ecological restoration techniques with extraordinary settings for recreation, public art, and facilities for many sports and programs. While nearly 45 percent of the site was once used for landfilling operations, the remainder of the site is currently composed of wetlands, open waterways, and unfilled lowland areas. We also learned that the methane gas that is generated in the landfill is collected, purified and sold to the gas company where it is transmitted to over 20,000 Staten Island homes. This landfill gas collection process not only reduces greenhouse gas emissions by converting methane into fuel but also has generated approximately $3-$5 million a year in revenue for the city over the last decade. The Fresh Kills Park is a great example of how New York City is embracing sustainability, both through mitigation and climate adaptation strategies.

Out on the water, the tides were quite high so the restored Spartina alterniflora or saltmarsh cordgrass was partially submerged and only the tops were visible, and in some cases we could paddle right over it. The city has a nearby nursery that grows plugs of cordgrass for use in salt marsh restoration projects, which did seem to be taking root here – a great sign for the park.

The Fresh Kills landfill paddle was truly a treat – open waters, salt marsh, surrounded by mostly vegetated hill slopes (the former garbage dumps) – making for a surprisingly peaceful and natural experience. This is a fantastic area to explore and, once there, it’s quite easy to forget the past use of the site and to look forward to the fascinating restoration and parkland that is being created on top of the landfill. To help facilitate the park creation process Region 2 ELN raised about $200 that was donated to the Fresh Kills Park Alliance. Thanks again to Maureen, EPA ELN, NYC Parks and Recreation and the NYC Dept. of Sanitation for a wonderful experience, I encourage you all to check out the park, and explore future opportunities for educational adventures along the Fresh Kills.

About the Author: Murray Lantner is an Environmental Engineer in EPA’s Water Compliance Branch who conducts enforcement of wastewater and stormwater permits under the Clean Water Act at EPA’s Manhattan office. Murray has worked for the EPA for 20 years, and started in EPA’s Chicago office. Murray enjoys outdoor activities such as hiking, cycling, and paddling. Murray holds a B.S in Civil Engineering and a Masters in Environmental Engineering from the Johns Hopkins University and a Masters in Conservation Biology from Columbia University.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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New Biogas Opportunities Roadmap is Part of Climate Change Solution, Emerging Biogas Industry Offers New Revenue Opportunities for America’s Farmers

Cross posted from the USDA blog.

Farmers have long understood the need to care for our air, land and water. They know that farms are more productive and efficient when they’re properly cared for. Protecting natural resources protects their bottom lines and may be able to improve them as well.

Farmers are always looking for ways to make a living and be good stewards of the land, which is why the emerging biogas industry is so important to rural America. Across the country, biogas systems that capture methane from farming operations and use it to generate renewable energy currently provide enough renewable energy to power the equivalent of almost 70,000 average American homes.

For example, in Kewaunee County, Wisconsin, where agriculture is the third leading employer of county residents, there are two anaerobic digesters, both on dairy farms, and three wind farms in operation. Collectively, these systems generate enough power to support and sustain 8,000 households. With a total of 8,900 households located in the county, renewable energy is virtually powering the entire county.

The potential for the biogas industry is well demonstrated, but there are still relatively few biogas systems in use on farms across the country. Research indicates that an additional 8,000 livestock operations are candidates to support biogas projects, in addition to the 239 anaerobic digesters currently operating on farms across the country. If its full potential was realized, a cost-effective biogas industry could produce enough energy from the livestock sector to power 1 million average American homes.

That is why the Biogas Opportunities Roadmap (PDF), released today by the Obama Administration, is so critical. It supports the Climate Action Plan – Strategy to Reduce Methane Emissions and outlines voluntary actions to support the expansion of the American biogas industry and help it live up to its full potential.

A comprehensive plan to confront climate change should address methane as well as carbon emissions. Methane is the second most prevalent greenhouse gas emitted in the United States from human activities, responsible for about nine percent of US greenhouse gas emissions. Use of biogas reduces emissions of methane, reduces the emissions associated with the burning of fossil fuels, and supports the Administration’s “all-of-the-above” energy strategy.

The Opportunities Roadmap builds on progress made to date to address some of the barriers that currently limit biogas development and supports voluntary efforts to reduce methane emissions already underway across the country. It also reflects a commitment to continue working with industry stakeholders on identifying steps to expand the biogas industry, including through the development of new technologies. Last year, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and the U.S. dairy industry renewed a partnership in support of a voluntary industry goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from dairy farms by 25 percent by 2020. Methane capture systems are a significant component of this effort, and farmers stand to benefit significantly by the advancement of this technology.

It is important to point out that the emissions intensity of the production of meat and milk in the U.S. is much lower today that it was even a few decades ago. A recent report by FAO showed that North American production of milk and beef is among the most efficient in the world in terms of the GHG emissions per unit of production. With cost-effective technology deployment to utilize biogas, operations could capture increased revenues with reduced emission and other benefits, offering a “win-win” for farmers, communities and the country.

The Opportunities Roadmap also lays out a plan for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Department of Energy, and the Environmental Protection Agency to use existing programs to enhance the use of biogas systems in the U.S by conducting research to accelerate the development of bio-based products from biomass systems and strengthening programs that support farmers as they install these systems on their operations, among other things.

American farmers have a long history of innovation, and a strong commitment to conservation. These efforts are more important than ever as we face the challenges posed by a changing climate and weather variability. Supporting and expanding the biogas industry, using the plan outlined in the Biogas Opportunities Roadmap, will help to strengthen those efforts while supporting new opportunities for America’s farmers, strengthening our economy, and ultimately making America more secure by increasing energy independence.

Learn more:

About the authors:

Paul Gunning is the Director of the Climate Change Division at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Todd Campbell is the Energy Policy Advisor at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Reuben Sarkar is the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Transportation at the U.S. Department of Energy

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations.

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Biking to Work and Reducing Climate Change

About the author: Henry Ferland is Co-Director of the Methane to Markets Partnership Secretariat (

I work in EPA’s Climate Change Division on an international methane reduction program that seeks to reduce climate change by encouraging developing countries to capture and use methane.  While there are costs associated with developing methane projects, there are multiple local co-benefits including revenue from the gas,  increased air and water quality, improved worker safety (in coal mines) and reduced dependence on fossil fuels.

How does this relate to biking to work?  I bike commute down to EPA’s office at 1310 L Street –from Tenleytown, DC – about 20 to 25 minutes to work and about 25 to 30 minutes home depending on lights, traffic, how hard I push it.  This bike commute provides a small personal contribution to reducing climate change but, like methane reduction, has significant co-benefits:

Here’s my personal co-benefit list:

  1. May be fastest way to get to work (especially if you live in the city or in nearby suburbs).
  2. Reverses the traffic stress paradigm — instead of getting stressed at the sight of traffic — I get happy   as I zip past gridlocked cars on my bike lane.
  3. Excellent work-out.  Get a free hour of exercise each day without taking other time out of my schedule.
  4. Stress release — grinding up the hill on Massachusetts Avenue is a great way to unwind and decompress after a long day at the office.
  5. No fossil fuels equal zero emissions!
  6. Great way to wake up and greet the day!

All this said – there are some important barriers to consider:

  1. Occasional run-ins with bad or angry drivers.
  2. Lack of clear bike lanes on most streets in DC — one must learn to be an assertive bike rider and also learn to pick good routes.
  3. Proper gear — expensive outfits not needed — but a good wind layer is important for cold days in the winter and nice raincoat is good for rainy days.
  4. Showers and Office Clothes.  If your office is not set up for biking you may need to figure out a system (nearby gym?) for showering and dressing appropriately.  I’ve found it helpful to carry my clothes in a square plastic box in panniers.   It’s also worth investigating using a locker or extra filing cabinet as in-office storage for office clothes.

The bottom-line on bike commuting:  give it a try, and you may find that you arrive home happier and less stressed then before and that’s before considering all the other co-benefits!

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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