busy workers managing food waste responsibly

Who pays for composting?

Or how community composting helps us all #minimisemethane

Landfill gas. It’s the problem that underlies the Capital Scraps mission, and we would like to help eliminate it. The UN Environment Program and others see it as a ‘No brainer’ (mitigating methane, including from landfills recently seen as the strongest lever we have to slow climate change, and one that we already have the technology to tackle). The Institute for Local Self Reliance in the USA, a peak body for over 100 community composting organisations (amongst other things) recognises that community composting is a superior option, for social and environmental reasons, to tackle this problem.

Food waste, when sent to landfill, ends up producing huge amounts of methane that otherwise would not be made.
Image credit: Compost Revolution.com.au

So why haven’t we sorted this out yet? It is 2021 afterall.

The reason is economic, but not because of cost. As recognised in the UN assessment this May, addressing landfill gas is very favourable in terms of strict cost benefit analysis. The issue is rather, who pays?

Who is paying for composting? (When we all benefit)

For decades we have had Governments, Environmentalists and waste management advocates urging us all to compost. This saves the Government money, has many environmental benefits and in the long run would allow us to carry out more resource recovery from waste streams.

Recognising these benefits, Australians love their compost piles, or at least a significant proportion of them do. Some others might be a little apprehensive (will it be dirty? smelly? bothersome?) and that is why other solutions have sprung up. ShareWaste is a beautiful example, the sharing economy in action, with nutrients recycled right where they should be on the ultra-local level. Not so fantastic examples are the electric powered benchtop ‘composters*’. 

Choice magazine recently reviewed a well-advertised option: the Breville FoodcyclerTM. They made a good point in that the consumable filters that are purchased along with the machine contribute to the long term cost. The glaring omission is that they didn’t factor in costing the user’s time. The Foodcycler and similar machines sell the promise of convenience (a common source of climate woes). A better comparison would factor in the time needed to manage a compost heap. A conservative estimate for this would be 10 min per week**, and an extra hour once a year. Costed with the take home pay of an average Australian wage this comes to a cost of $1300 over 5 years. If you earn more than the average wage you could cost it higher. This is still cheaper than the Foodcycler.

Capital Scraps service fees are quite favourable in comparison,  at $720 at the discounted level or $900 for our standard subscription (or you may wish to pay more because you know how bloody amazing our service is). The service is more efficient, with additional oversight and extra social benefits such as supporting community gardens.

Democratising composting services

But what if you didn’t have to pay directly at all? Cities and towns all over Australia are going FOGO (Food Organics and Garden Organics, collection and processing schemes for organics recycling). In fact, this article in Waste Management Review predicts that most City Councils will go FOGO within a decade. The ACT Government has already made their own commitment to go FOGO (by 2023), and the scheme is in planning currently.

This is great news, and the reason that the Australian National Waste Policy recognises the need for more processing capacity when it comes to organics recycling. The ACT Govt. are doing their bit there too, installing a new facility that is slated to cost $30 mill (waste management is expensive). The collection of food waste (logistics) to feed the new facility will also bear costs. This guide from the Victorian State Government states that a FOGO scheme can cost $2 per household per week or more.

If you are spending time and mental energy managing your own compost heap do you also want your rates or other fees supplementing the Government scheme? Perhaps you do. I posed this question to someone recently and their answer was along the lines of “Well, I’m a bit of a socialist that way, I know that tackling food waste is important so I’m happy to pay extra to get the job done”. Wonderful news!

In fact, Capital Scraps has a few subscribers right now who pay for our service without using it. These generous folks understand the value that we bring in terms of minimising methane, recycling resources on the ultra-local scale and guiding additional social benefits.

#Minimisemethane

That brings me full circle back to the main point of this post. Our mission is to minimise methane. Any organic material once it has stopped living goes on the same pathway, the easily transformable chemicals in the cells and tissues are converted by other biology into energy and making more life. But the particular pathways and outcomes of this biological degradation and transformation is determined by the environment in which those cells and tissues and components are placed. If we compress the scraps into landfill where they have no access to air the only option is to turn into methane. Manage the composting process well and you get much less greenhouse gases being produced and more useful products like organic acids that help make healthy soil.

The future of composting in Canberra

The ACT Government is going to build a $30 mil. industrial composter that is essentially a concrete sarcophagus (like this one). These types of composting units have engineering process controls to help limit the methane that is produced within (like forced aeration, and recirculated air). Quite a lot of this engineering effort goes into trapping offensive odour emissions. It is worth noting that these offensive odours only occur when methane is also being produced. 

It is well known in the industry that mechanical turning gives superior results in both methane minimization as well as quality of the end product, but on the large scale this is a more expensive option. Counter-intuitively,  by using manual turning (pitchforking) on a smaller scale the whole process is not necessarily more expensive. By carrying out community composting on the ultra-local scale, we can do the absolute best in terms of methane minimisation, without the engineering effot.

So FOGO is good, but community composting is better. Here at Capital Scraps we have known this all along. We also started with the full knowledge that the ACT Govt was planning their own FOGO scheme. In an ideal world individuals could choose to contribute to the FOGO scheme, to the Capital Scraps effort, or to other options (composting themselves, feeding livestock, ShareWaste). This is where appropriate scaling (mentioned in a previous blog post) comes into play. 

Unfortunately, the size of the centralized facility that the ACT Gov is going to commission is larger than that required to process the amount of food waste currently produced in households in the ACT. There are various reasons why our Government are pressured to build an oversized facility. Once it is built it will need to continually process a minimum volume of waste in order to be profitable/financially viable. Therefore the ACT Government wants all of the household food waste, and may even need to find more. Not a great situation to be in when we’re also trying to reduce food waste***. Of course there is plenty of food waste from commercial enterprises… but no-one is tackling the issue of ‘who pays for that’ just yet, at least not across the board (some businesses are tackling the issue head-on without any assistance). Perhaps if we help spread the word that community level composting is better at #minimisingmethane then we can move the conversation forward on responsible recycling of food waste from commercial sources?

So, where does Capital Scraps fit into all this?

Similar to above, Capital Scraps actually needs a certain threshold of subscribers in order to be properly financially viable. Currently, I am able to pay my staff from our active subscriptions but I am not able to pay myself a wage or have any excess funds available for expanding operations ahead of demand. We would only need to get subscriptions from around 2000 “Compost champion” households (a small proportion of the 80,000+ households in Canberra) in order to reach that point of financial sustainability. 

Therefore, even though the ACT Government do not want to hand over what would be a tiny proportion of household food scraps to us we will be campaigning for a rebate/exemption/subsidy and asking for a level playing field so that people don’t have to pay for a Capital Scraps subscription on top of paying for the roll-out of the FOGO scheme. A request for a rebate/exemption/subsidy was submitted as part of the ACT Gov budget consultation recently (submission no. 106).

We know that we take care of the scraps in the best way possible, minimising methane and producing healthy compost for better soils.

Will you back us?

THINGS YOU CAN DO TO HELP:

  • If you are currently subscribed we would love to get a testimonial from you, or any feedback
  • Sign our upcoming petition for a rebate/exemption (from FOGO)/subsidy
  • Tell everyone you know about Capital Scraps and how it is the easiest and most direct climate action going
  • Consider subscribing to our service even if you are not using it right now (from $2.80 per week)
  • Like, comment and share our social media posts so that more people learn about our awesome work
  • Write to Minister Chris Steel (City Services) and ask him to consider a rebate/exemption/subsidy for Capital Scraps and other local businesses (Global Worming, Goterra)
  • Ask your local cafe what they are doing about food waste, tell them you would support an 20c optional surcharge on meals to cover waste management
  • Pledge for our service in your suburb if you haven’t already
  • Keen composter? Get in touch about becoming part of our decentralised network of urban composting (and end up with more compost for your garden).
Thank you for reading! We will continue advocating for positive change (like using electric vehicles for heavy tasks!) as long as we have ongoing community support.

*These machines are dehydrators and not composters. They produce fertilizer not compost. If you hear someone refer to compost as fertilizer you can call them out for not understanding the microbiological activity that converts nutrients in the process of composting. If this statement is confusing to you please do write in and ask for further explanation, it will urge me on to write the next blog post!

**If you are not spending this time to monitor and manage your compost heap then you are likely producing a significant amount of methane. Do you spend time sourcing extra carbon materials? Aerating the heap? Checking moisture levels or addressing other problems?

***Other local councils have solved this problem by forming consortia that combine their waste streams to feed a large facility. There are two of these set up in Victoria for example. The ACT Govt has the problem of not being able to collaborate within a larger State Government.

Note: we are currently working up methods to capture meat scraps so that we can be equivalent to the Government scheme in that sense.

#minimisemethane, community composting, economics, scaling

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