Big Brother Wants Your Compost – Or Else

In October, San Francisco’s newest garbage management law goes into effect, potentially fining residents up to $100 per violation – businesses up to $500 – for failing to separate compostable garbage from their trash. Fines can also be incurred if garbage collectors notice an individual is not producing enough compost – at least a cubic yard of compostable waste each week.

Compost includes tree trimmings and leaves, soiled paper, and food waste. Composting has numerous benefits, and has been popular with a segment of the population for years. Composting those degradable materials limits landfill volume by keeping out material that will decompose. It also minimizes methane gas emissions from landfills that stem from decomposition of compostable materials in the anaerobic conditions of a landfill. Carbon and nutrients can be recovered from the compost, and for this reason compost is a popular additive for home gardeners or small-scale agricultural producers.

That said, mandatory composting in San Francisco is well-intentioned but troubling nonetheless. The city already operates a successful voluntary composting program. City officials, however, estimate that voluntary programs will not be sufficient, to meet the 75 percent diversion rate by 2010. On the surface, mandatory composting seems like a reasonable way to help meet that target. But the city is likely to see a significant difference between the quality of voluntary and mandatory compost separation.

People who participate in voluntary programs are those invested in the concept, and who are likely to take seriously what they put – and do not put – in the green compost-ready waste bins. Some portion of people forced to participate in a mandatory program will be diligent trash separators, but many others are probably going to do so half-heartedly. Unfortunately, when it comes to compost, one bad apple can ruin the whole bunch, though in this case the bad apple would be any stray non-compostable garbage.

More importantly, having trash collectors and city garbage officials scrutinizing household waste is itself a kind of waste, not to mention intrusive. Would the program really penalize people who, for instance, compost for their own backyard garden purposes and thus are not contributing the minimum level to avoid suspicion? Or people who just don’t generate very much waste in the first place?

Probably not. In fact, the Board of Supervisors claims the fines would only be for repeat offenders and extreme cases, but the ordinance leaves it completely open to the city’s discretion. A gap between government intentions and claims, and the ensuing results and reality, especially where potential revenue is in play, would not be a new development in San Francisco or anywhere else.

San Francisco, and the rest of the nation, can learn a lesson from Cincinnati, which recently suspended its yard-waste composting law due to insufficient funds. The EPA determined the law was difficult to enforce anyway. In these times of strained local budgets – and when residents of San Francisco have some pressing needs from their local government – devoting city resources to garbage inspection for a probably unenforceable law is not responsible stewardship.

Cincinnati, by the way, returned to voluntary programs and city drop-off locations for handling yard waste.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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