Composting: A Growing Effort in Our Community and Across the United States

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Tompkins Weekly    1-22-18

By Adam Michaelides

It is widely reported that 40 percent of food produced in the United States is never eaten. Most is sent to the landfill where it takes up space and produces methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Hauling and processing food waste involves the burning of fossil fuels. All of this contributes to climate change.

Tompkins County diverts 60 percent of waste from the landfill through recycling, composting and other innovative programs. To reach their goal of 75 percent diversion, the County has set up over a dozen sites for residents to drop off their food waste. The material collected is taken to Cayuga Compost where it is composted on a large scale. For more information and a list of locations, visit or call the Tompkins County Department of Recycling and Materials Management at 607-273-6632.

Food Scrap recycling is growing nationally. BioCycle, a leading journal of organics recycling, reports in “Residential Food Waste Collection Access in the U.S.” that over 5 million households now have access to government-supported, curbside food scrap collection, while 6.7 million have access to drop sites like the ones we have in Tompkins County. California leads the nation with the most households that have access to curbside collection, while New York leads with the most households that have access to food scrap drop off programs.

There is evidence to show that when people compost (or “recycle”) their food scraps, they are more likely to adopt other earth-friendly practices. A 2017 study was published in the Journal of Environment and Behavior by Nicole Sintov, an assistant professor of behavior, decision making and sustainability at Ohio State University.

Sintov and her colleagues were interested in a concept called “spillover,” where one behavior prompts another. They surveyed 284 residents of Costa Mesa, California about their energy and wastewater prevention practices, such as unplugging electronics and taking shorter showers. When researchers compared responses before and after the onset of the city’s composting program, they found that people who began composting adopted more water and energy conservation behaviors than those who did not.

The study demonstrates that composting is tied to other pro-environment behaviors. If successfully replicated, the phenomenon could be relevant to policymakers. Government programs like curbside food scrap collection could influence the public to adopt other earth-friendly behaviors as well.

The Compost Education Program at Cornell Cooperative Extension of Tompkins County (CCETC) supports County goals to maximize waste diversion. In 2017, in collaboration with the Ithaca Community Gardens and the Freeville Community Garden, the Program established two community compost sites, trained 21 members, and diverted 750 pounds of food waste from the landfill.

Composting at home, or at a more local site like a community garden, helps to divert waste from the trash while minimizing greenhouse gas emissions. Finished compost, a valuable soil amendment, is generated for use at home or in the garden.

To increase the number of options for composting food waste, Compost Program staff built sturdy, rodent-proof, multi-bin compost units in Freeville and in the City of Ithaca. We trained 21 residents to become members of the community compost sites. Upon each visit, members logged the weight of their food scraps.

Over one year, community composters visited the two sites 115 times and deposited a total of 750 pounds of food scraps. They properly layered their wet, nitrogen-rich food scraps with two-to-three times the volume of leaves, sticks and straw. Over time the size of the piles reduced, showing that active decomposition took place. Next year, members will help turn the piles and go home with finished compost.

Beyond the work at the community sites, the Compost Program educated almost 6,000 people in Tompkins County during the 2016-2017 fiscal year (Oct-Sept). Master Composters – the Program’s energetic volunteer workforce – played a big part by staffing education booths, teaching compost techniques at public classes, and organizing our spring Compost Fair.

Each year our Program trains a new crop of local compost superheroes. Tompkins County Master Composters are an enthusiastic group of community volunteers who receive 40-hours of training to learn the ins-and-outs of composting, and how to teach the public. Classes begin in February and end in May. Training involves ten Thursday evening classes and volunteer work outside of class. After volunteers are trained, they sign up to teach classes, staff education booths and build compost bins for community sites. Their efforts further the sustainability goals of our County.

To learn more about the upcoming Master Composter training, please visit or contact Adam Michaelides at or 607-272-2292. The application deadline for the 2018 training is Monday, Jan. 29. Online applications are available.

Thank you for your interest in composting and waste reduction. I hope to see you at an event or compost class this year!

Adam Michaelides is the Program Manager for the Compost Education Program at Tompkins County Cooperative Extension; a program funded by the Tompkins County Department of Recycling and Materials Management.

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