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Richmond’s compost program is taking root

Davis and Will sifts through compost
Shaban Athuman
VPM News
Mark Davis works with Will Wickham on preparing compost on Wednesday, October 18, 2023 in Henrico, Virginia.

On average, the city said it diverts more than 3,000 pounds of organic material each week from its waste stream.

About a year ago, the city of Richmond placed compost bins at locations all over the city.

Two of the green and purple receptacles were taken to the Richmond Public Library’s West End Branch along Patterson Avenue. Before long, Kate Rivara said they “were getting filled to the brim.”

“We added two more carts there,” she said.

Rivara, community program coordinator at the city’s Parks, Recreation and Community Facilities Department, said the program has been successful. On average, she said, it diverts more than 3,000 pounds of organic material each week from Richmond’s waste stream, while also starting conversations about alternative ways the city can use resident’s trash.

In total, Rivara said the program has collected about 156 cubic yards of compostable waste. Using the city’s conversion rate, that's 97.5 tons in a little over a year — and collections have increased over time.

Richmond still has about $10,000 left of the original $90,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture that got the program going in 2022. But Rivara said the green and purple bins won’t disappear when that cash runs out.

The right audience for composting

The bins were first placed in 20 locations around the city — at libraries, parks, community gardens and businesses.

Rivara said some locations, like the West End library branch, have high collection rates. Bins located in places where people were already used to separating compostable material from other waste filled up every week from the start. Before the pilot program began, the Chimborazo Playground Community Garden had more food-scrap donations than it could manage, requiring a contractor to haul some of it away, according to Rivara.

Some other bins haven’t seen as much use, which could be due to a range of factors. The bins in Bryan Park in Richmond’s Northside see tons of traffic on Saturdays during the RVA Big Market — but they’re out of the way for most visitors using the park’s other amenities throughout the week.

Mark Davis, who runs Real Roots Food Systems in Hanover County and operates the city’s compost facility as a contractor, said even the less successful bins have created learning opportunities for the city.

“If something was right around the corner, more visible, would that have an effect?” Davis asked. “[We have] little subtle questions that I think will reveal themselves with time.”

Davis said Richmonders have done a good job separating their waste in the correct way. And even though some trash does have to be sifted out, he’s not too concerned.

“Even if there is a little bit of trash in there … let's just relax. Right?” he said. “I mean, they could have put [the garbage] on the side of the street, they could throw that in the river."

Once the grant money runs out, Rivara said the public works department will continue picking up and delivering the bins to the central composting site in the Whitcomb neighborhood. The city will “continue composting, utilizing parks’ maintenance and operations budget,” she said.

Rivara hopes the program can grow to serve more neighborhoods and wants to do targeted outreach in areas with low adoption. But for now, she’s happy to keep the program going.

A headshot of Davis
Shaban Athuman
VPM News
Mark Davis works through compost on Wednesday, October 18, 2023 in Richmond, Virginia.

Layers of good soil

Rivara and Davis see numerous reasons to compost.

Rivara began composting in her backyard as a way to make use of what otherwise would have ended up in a landfill. It was clear that people all over the city were composting, too, whether on their own or with a group. So, she wanted to create a centralized, city-run system for it.

Sintana Vergara, a Cal Poly Humboldt associate professor who studies the climate impacts of waste management, said one of the best reasons to compost is to keep organic matter out of landfills.

According to nonprofit ReFED, Virginia produced 1.96 million tons of food waste in 2021. Just over half of that went to the landfill, while only 22% was composted. The remainder was either burned or wound up in the sewer system.

“If you take that organic waste and you send it to a landfill, it's going to go to an anaerobic environment, meaning that there's no oxygen there,” Vergara said.

That allows methane-producing microbes — which die in the presence of oxygen — to thrive.

Landfills are significant emitters of methane, a greenhouse gas that is considered by the Environmental Protection Agency to be 27-30 times more potent than carbon dioxide in a 100-year period. Only natural gas systems and livestock, like cows and sheep, emit more methane in the United States, according to the EPA. The atmospheric impact of methane emitted from landfills in 2021 was on par with greenhouse gas emissions from 23.1 million gas-powered cars.

Some places, including Virginia, burn methane created by landfills to generate electricity; impacts from greenhouse gasses remain through CO2 emissions and methane leakage. Other municipal waste heading to landfills — about 13% in the U.S., Vergara said — is incinerated directly.

“You have a lot of inputs that are super varied and might not be very well sorted. So, you could end up with some things that you really shouldn't be burning,” Vergara said. “Because of that, we can end up with some pretty nasty air pollutants.”

However, incineration competes more directly with recycling than composting as a landfill alternative, because moist organic waste is difficult to burn.

Under Virginia law, landfill methane and municipal solid waste are considered renewable energy sources. Vergara disputes that classification.

“[Trash] is not a naturally replenishable material,” Vergara said. “In fact, I think that we would want to incentivize the production of less waste rather than more. So, when we invest in incinerators, we're investing in producing waste for a long time.”

Vergara said the benefits of composting don’t end with prevented methane emissions. There is research suggesting that compost-amended soil is better at retaining water and removing atmospheric CO2 long term than soil with minimal organic matter.

“That basically means we get more plant growth,” Vergara said. “More photosynthesis means plants are pulling more carbon out of the atmosphere and into their plant matter. And from their plant matter, some of that carbon is ending up in the soil.”

How composting works in Richmond

The Whitcomb site is basically a field on the eastside that city departments have used for storage and other purposes.

The space seemed suited for the type of composting the city was looking to implement. The operation is not flashy, it’s not industrial: It's basically a series of long, tall piles of organic matter.

It also probably doesn’t smell as bad as you think.

Davis said the composting process requires a good source of nitrogen — food scraps — and a good source of carbon. The carbon comes from leaf matter the city collects from parks, trees and yards, which have already started to decompose by the time they arrive at Whitcomb. Those materials are mixed and assembled into long piles called windrows that are roughly 5 feet tall by 35 feet long.

After a few weeks of collections, the windrows are covered in tarps to “cook” — or partially break down. Then, they’re left a little longer to “cure,” which is when Davis said a lot of microbes that would continue breaking the organic matter down are killed and replaced by other, less destructive organisms.

It’s also the point when that foul, rotting smell subsides, turning into something far more pleasant, which both Rivara and Davis seem to be captivated by.

“[It’s] kind of like that forest floor smell,” Davis said. “You know what I mean, that seven in the morning, come-out-[of] the tent smell? It's a nice thing.”

Once the curing is done, the compost is sifted through a dumpster-sized machine to remove any straggling non-compostable trash and create a fine, high-quality product that can be used around the city. As of the middle of October, Rivara said that almost 27,000 gallons of compost had been produced.

For now, the compost is being used by the city for various planting projects. Program partners, such as community gardens that have on-site bins, get priority for delivery. More goes out to other Richmond Grows Gardens-affiliated sites and some is used for tree plantings as the city looks to expand its canopy.

But Rivara and Davis hope that one day, the program will be robust enough to offer pickup or deliveries to individuals who want to use compost in their yards. That would spread composting's carbon-sequestering, water-retaining benefits around town.

“That’s the endgame,” Davis said.

How and what can I compost?

The city’s compost bins are scattered all around town and can be found using the map above.

Richmond wants your food waste and paper products — but they don’t want all of them. Acceptable items include:

  • fruits and veggies 
  • kitchen scraps 
  • compostable bags 
  • eggshells 
  • bread, rice and pasta 
  • coffee filters and tea bags 
  • paper towels and napkins 
  • paper plates 
  • paper bags 

Not all food waste is acceptable for composting, and some products that are labeled as compostable won’t break down in the city’s setup. Here are some items the city wants you to avoid putting into compost bins:

  • meat and dairy 
  • plastics 
  • trash 
  • cooking oil 
  • pet waste 
  • diapers 
  • Styrofoam 
  • glass and metal 
  • compostable cutlery and containers

The city’s compost program is not the only way Richmonders or other Central Virginians can turn their food into high-quality soil. There are a range of companies that offer weekly bucket pickups at homes or larger-scale composting for institutions.

Litterless maintains a list of composting and low-waste shopping options for localities around Virginia, too.

And given enough space, starting small-scale home composting is also an option.

Patrick Larsen is VPM News' environment and energy reporter, and fill-in host.