New sustainability initiative aims to break down compost barriers in Ann Arbor

Tuesday, June 26, 2018 - 9:32pm

A compost label located on a recycle bin on the West side of Ann Arbor

A compost label located on a recycle bin on the West side of Ann Arbor Buy this photo
Alec Cohen/Daily

Volunteers participating in a pilot sustainability initiative called “More Composting, More Carts!” have been working to decrease the amount of food waste headed to landfills along Ann Arbor’s garbage route six, which runs through the city’s fifth district Thursday mornings.

Over the course of four Thursdays in April, May and June, the team has placed stickers on trash cans, recycling bins and compost carts informing residents where various types of waste can go. The $9,000 project, funded by the city grant program Sustaining Ann Arbor Together, also enables residents to buy a city compost cart for $15 instead of the usual $25 and have it delivered. That deal is set to end June 30 with the close of the fiscal year, though project organizers are hoping for an extension.

“More Composting, More Carts!” is led by Jan Wright, head of the Climate Change and Earth Care committee for the Interfaith Council for Peace and Justice, and Joe Ohren, head of the Ann Arbor chapter of Elders Climate Action. Wright and Ohren, both retired academics with an interest in local climate activism, joined forces in Fall 2017 in the hopes of brainstorming a food waste-oriented sustainability initiative for the city. According to a “More Composting, More Carts!” flyer, 20 percent of Ann Arbor’s trash comes from food waste.

Working with city contacts like John Mirsky, Ann Arbor’s executive policy adviser for sustainability, Wright and Ohren learned many Ann Arbor residents didn’t realize the city has allowed food scraps to be composted since 2014.

“Most everybody knew that you could do yard waste, but back in 2014, the city changed its policy to allow food waste to be composted,” Ohren said. “We discovered that a lot of people didn’t know that.”

Ohren said the pair talked to friends during the proposal process and found misunderstandings even among those who already composted. Some Ann Arbor residents were composting food waste like lettuce and vegetables but didn’t know they could also include items like meat scraps and bones.

When Ann Arbor changed its laws to allow residents to compost food waste, Ohren said the city spearheaded some marketing initiatives — such as handing out magnets with pictures of compostable food and providing countertop compost bins — but only did so for about a month, so the message didn’t necessarily spread. Wright, Ohren and Mirsky decided better labeling might help Ann Arbor lower that statistic, and began discussing new labeling stickers for trash, recycling and compost bins.

Mirsky informed the Ohren and Wright of the Sustaining Ann Arbor Together grant, which was new at the time, and in late December they submitted a proposal for a multifaceted approach to reduce discarded food waste. In addition to their sticker initiative, Wright and Ohren proposed a method of making composting more accessible. They suggested using grant money to purchase compost bins from the city, selling those bins to residents at a discounted price and using the profits to pay the city for delivery.

“Because getting a compost cart is not the easiest thing in the world, we thought removing some of the barriers to getting the cart would be helpful,” Wright said.

According to Ohren, he and Wright chose to focus on trash route six because the city informed them it comprises about 850 residences with individual waste bins, and they estimated they could gather the resources to tackle a neighborhood of that size.

Wright and Ohren stayed in touch with the city, incorporating feedback on the proposal and tweaking their plans, and received formal approval for $9,000 in early April.

The team recruited volunteers from various organizations in Ann Arbor, including the ICPJ and Elders Climate Action. According to Ohren, 31 volunteers stepped forward in total, with about 20 people participating each time. Volunteers spent two Thursdays in late April and early May handing out flyers about food waste and about the program, and then spent another two Thursdays in late May and early June placing informative stickers on receptacles in the designated neighborhood.

So far, Ohren estimates they have stickered 450 compost carts and 850 trash bins. He and Wright have received 34 compost bin orders so far and delivered 38; they hope to deliver 50 before the program’s tentative end date of June 30.

To measure the program’s success, Wright and Ohren will use waste data from trash route six and trash routes in three adjacent, similarly sized neighborhoods. While the city does not weigh compost, Ohren said they can look at trash weight to see if the rate of trash production in their target neighborhood has gone down due to an uptick in food waste composting. Wright and Ohren will look at trash weight year-to-year, including data up to October 2018 to investigate whether the impact of “More Composting, More Carts!” lasts after the program formally ends.

Wright and Ohren said they faced several obstacles in the development of their project. For one, they aimed to place stickers on bins owned by private residents — not by Ann Arbor — so the city advised them to provide residents with an opt-out clause. In addition, composting is actually more expensive than dumping trash in the state of Michigan. Ohren said private landowners have driven down the price of dumping, so he and Wright couldn’t market their composting initiative as cost-saving.

“If you own a big piece of property and you want to invite people to dump garbage, there are rules and regulations that you’ve got to follow, but you get to set your own price,” Ohren said. “The price in Michigan is very, very low in comparison to other places.”

Still, Ohren noted landfills are not a good long-term investment because they will eventually reach carrying capacity. He added there are large, non-financial costs to dumping items that could otherwise be recycled or composted.

“The price that you pay to dump at the landfill doesn’t include what the economists refer to as the social costs,” Ohren said. “There are costs to society from doing it that way. For one thing, if you put food waste in there, you’re going to release methane gas, and that actually is even worse in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide.”

So far, both project leaders say they have received positive feedback from residents of the fifth district.

“Ann Arbor has lots of people who really do care about the environment and care about climate change and care about doing what makes sense for the earth with their waste,” Wright said. “There’s lots of openness and receptiveness for this kind of thing.”

Bob Douville, who lives in the neighborhood and placed one of the first orders for a $15 compost cart, said he appreciates having a city compost bin. Before, he composted yard waste and some vegetable scraps in an outdoor receptacle, but now he can compost items that might otherwise attract animals and have them collected each week.

Douville’s compost bin was actually delivered to him as part of a publicity boost organized by Ohren and Wright. Broadcasted on local television June 14, a bicyclist pulling a 10-foot trailer loaded with seven compost carts dropped off a cart at Douville’s home. Douville and a few other residents were interviewed, and Douville was filmed using his compost cart. The display was effective, Douville said, because it exemplified eco-friendly transportation while spreading the word about “More Compost, More Carts!”.

“I thought it was another good way of minimizing what we do in terms of affecting the environment, et cetera, and also showing that a lot of times, going back to man or woman power is a pretty good way of doing things,” Douville said.

Looking forward, Ohren and Wright have discussed ways to extend their project. Because the city was late in organizing its review process for the Sustaining Ann Arbor Together program, Ohren and Wright’s proposal was the only one selected for the current fiscal year and there is $91,000 left in the city’s fund. The pair, however, does not anticipate needing more money, because their project was fairly inexpensive. Ohren said they are considering doing more stickering in Fall 2018, when many residents are using their compost bins for yard waste.

Ohren and Wright hope they have succeeded in making Ann Arbor residents more informed about food waste. Ohren said even if the stickers eventually wear off, he expects the behavioral change will already have taken root.

“Behavioral change, if it’s going to occur, is going to occur in the first five, six months, maybe the first year,” Ohren said. “What we’re talking about is a cultural change, getting people to think differently about food waste.”

Wright is proud of the project but also encourages Ann Arbor residents to consider the bigger picture — reducing the amount of food waste they produce in the first place.

“It’s even better for the environment if we learn to waste less food,” Wright said. “If we could learn to use the food we buy and waste less of it and then compost what we have to waste, that would be ideal.”