The City of Grand Rapids is in the early phases of an initiative that could make kitchen scrap and/or backyard composting available to its citizens. Composting of kitchen scraps and garden produce or backyard greenwaste is currently illegal within city limits due to sanitary concerns such as increased rodent populations and the diseases they can spread, foul odors and unsightly compost piles. (Current Grand Rapids composting ordinances can be found here.)
“[Composting] is a great way to garden organically,” says Virginia Million, Grand Rapids Code Compliance Manager, who agrees with city residents that the regulations are out-dated and need to be updated. “[The rules] have been this way as far back as I can remember. Grand Rapids would be worried about [incorrect] kitchen waste being included in the composted materials. Anything cooked with butter or grease would be attractive to pests and we’d want to avoid that. We need a simple policy with good guidelines.”
A makeover of the existing composting laws is now under discussion. A group of researchers from Grand Valley State University has completed a study at the city’s request evaluating composting best practices for comparable urban settings in the U.S. The group found many areas have had effective programs for several years, including East Grand Rapids, San Francisco and Chicago. Some even require residents to participate in backyard greenwaste composting programs. In East Grand Rapids, composting is allowed as long as it doesn’t become an uncontained mess or incite problems with neighbors. There is no pick-up of composted items.
“There is a whole different citizen group in East Grand Rapids than we have in Grand Rapids,” says Million. “Not saying Grand Rapids wouldn’t be able to handle a less strict composting regulation, but I’m afraid it might become a garbage dump free-for-all situation.”
There have been some problems in the past with Grand Rapids residents wanting to incorporate vermiculture (composting with worms) into their backyards. The use of chain-link fencing to join two garages with the compost created in-between was also attempted, but proved messy and destructive to building structures.
Tom Almonte, Assistant to the City Manager, concedes that there will inevitably be some people that will not be compliant with the regulations, calling a pile of garbage in their backyard their compost heap. But he hopes residents will realize composting correctly will save them money.
“At the end of the day, free recycling means less items for the trash. Composting means even less refuse per household. Compliance with both programs will mean two large portions of trash can be taken care of for free. We hope this will encourage more and more people to take advantage of this program, once it is in effect.”
Although the research has yet to be formally presented to the City Commission, there are some general ideas Almonte would like to include. “First and foremost, the program needs to have consistency. The containers need to be approved, and there needs to be community education on the correct methods of composting.”
As cited in the report, the accomplishments of other cities’ composting programs are heightened by the implementation of a Master Composter education course. These classes teach community members to instruct others about proper (and improper) materials to include in a compost pile, how to get started and how to maintain a compost pile.
Denver has had a Master Composter Program for more than 20 years that includes extensive training combined with field trips to a commercial composting facility, a landfill and a source-separating recycling plant. Emphasis is placed on the relationship between composting, the health of the water and sewer system and how the larger picture of overall waste management ties in with composting. Large numbers of dedicated volunteers make the education classes low cost for the city.
The implementation of an incentive program is being considered to increase compliance with new composting regulations. This could possibly be aligned with the “My GR City Points” system associated with the curbside single-stream recycling program already in place.
While Grand Rapids has no concrete plans for the new regulations, approved bins provided by the city would likely be an option for backyard composting. There has not been any mention of curbside pick-up at this point.
“Other cities have [composting programs with] a long history, and it has worked for them,” Almonte points out. “Since [Grand Rapids] already has an emphasis on recycling, allowing composting is a positive step. Whatever solution we find must have clear guidelines to provide consistency to eliminate issues [with smells, pests and unsightliness].”
Composting is defined as “the decomposition of organic waste into a soil-like substance.” Benefits include:
- the creation of lush organic material beneficial to soil health and productivity,
- reducing the need for environmentally-damaging pesticides and fertilizers,
- prevention of storm water runoff pollutants ending up in our water supply, and
- allowing a smaller amount of food waste to be added to landfills (fast-decomposing food waste causes 20% of US methane production, according to the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency), which is has 21 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide.