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Are We Ready To Change Our Trash Habits And Go Compostable?

by Jessica Deseo on 04/22/2020 | 6 Minute Read

If we’re hurtling towards a future where packaging becomes more compostable, well, how do you even compost to begin with?

December is a time I look forward to the mail—snail mail, specifically. Usually, my mailbox is full of holiday cards from friends and family near and far. I open each envelope joyfully. One letter I’m customarily not excited about opening is anything resembling what could potentially be bad news. Circulars aren’t much fun either.

At the end of December, I received a letter from CR&R, my local trash company. Usually, my bills are all online, so this was different. The letter stated that at the beginning of 2020, CR&R was moving to a more specific trash sorting service. Fruit, bread, fish, meat, vegetables, dairy, and FOGS (fats, oil, and grease) could now go in what used to be the yard waste container. We now refer to this container as the “organics waste container.”

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In reality, our local infrastructure was not set up for this, because this was mandated by the state, with new regulations that limit organic waste going into landfills and reducing methane emissions that contribute to climate change, residents like myself had to pay an additional 30% increase for this organic waste program. The State of California has set an ambitious goal of 75% recycling, composting, or source reduction of solid waste in 2020. 

I'm enthralled by all things sustainable; I try to be less wasteful in my daily life, and I was excited at the prospect of having compost taken out to my trash bin every week. I tried composting in my backyard before, but it was a challenge. My dog would get into it and, well, I'm human-I would sometimes completely forget about the bin outside.

But, the letter was vague, and it didn't explain much about the process of getting started. I felt like they were saying, "you gotta sort some trash, make sure you use plastic compost bags, put it in the green bin, and good luck." There were no real city-specific resources at my disposal.

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Most plastic bags are not compostable, and it is challenging to find something that will work with industrial waste programs. These differ from county to county and even state to state. Still, I gave it a go.

I live in Orange County, specifically, the City of Orange. It’s suburbia at its finest, and there are a lot of chain stores and restaurants. You won’t find a local bodega here. So, my first stop was Target. I went to the trash aisle, which was a large aisle shelf that is the standard 96W x 72H x 19D times three in size. There was only one brand—Hefty Compost Bags that state on the packaging, “compostable in industrial facilities,” and, in an even smaller font (I would guess 4.5pt), “check locally, as these do not exist in many communities.” 

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Well, what does that even mean? That was my only option? What if this wasn’t the bag the city can use? How would I know this? Also, where do I go to purchase another brand? An Amazon search resulted in three different brands, along with the same confusing information that wasn't specific to what I need for my state and county. 

I purchased the sole brand at Target and hoped for the best.

I bought a small bin with a lid, placed that sucker underneath my sink, and was ready to rock. But, when I discussed the new mandates with my neighbors, I received puzzled looks. One even asked me, “what is composting?” 

Remember when I said I lived in Orange County? The education on green waste sorting is limited, and the letter from the city provided ZERO resources. Would residents be prepared to understand that food scraps would now go into a separate container? Did they even know why? 

Most cities in Orange County are choosing between composting and anaerobic digestion, which offers the benefit of creating biogas for power. Both processes involve microorganisms breaking down the trash into fertilizers, but with anaerobic digestion, the microorganisms are in an oxygen-free chamber, and they create methane and carbon dioxide that can get used for electricity and fuel. 

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In my city, the waste company CR&R chose anaerobic digestion. “Anaerobic digestion is a more environmentally sound thing to do,” Dean Ruffridge, Senior Vice President of CR&R, told the OC Register. “It captures all of the gas and nutrients.”

After reading everything on the Hefty packaging, I decided to do a bit more digging to ensure my bag would be appropriate to use at the facility where my organic waste trash was going. A Google search led me to call CR&R, and a courteous customer service representative suggested layering yard waste with organic waste directly into the bin. After a brief hold, she also assured me that I could use the compostable bag I purchased as it would biodegrade at the facility. 

Now, when it comes down to sorting out the trash and changing your habits, you have to educate the whole family. It’s a great program, but it's one that is simultaneously mandated and charges you to do so. By conducting the research, I assured myself that I was taking the appropriate steps.

The feedback from the community? Well, this is the sheer beauty of the Nextdoor app. Sure, it's a great resource for neighbors to connect and inform, but it's also a platform to share your grievances, and, let's be honest, snitch. 

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“So while I'm sure people would be on board with this...unfortunately, they make it more work for the customer, and we are the ones paying for it.” 

“I already have a hard time figuring out what goes where. I say dump it all into one trash bin and let them figure it out.”

“Yes. I called the city and complained. No answer as usual when talking to a government organization. Who cares they want their money. As long as the city and the contractor is happy, hell with the customer, let them suffer. How can a 80 YEAR OLD JUST LIVING ON LOUSY SOCIAL SECURITY PAY THIS KIND OF MONEY? I AM GOING TO CANCEL MY ACCOUNT.” 

These were actual comments on a thread regarding the new, mandated rules.

Sustainability really comes down to consumer behavior. If the consumer cannot figure out how to start, or what bags to purchase, or why we are doing this in the first place, then sustainability doesn't stand a chance. I bet if a Kardashian made a national commercial about composting and sorting trash, we would get more folks to understand why this is critical. Frankly, that's is the society we live in and how consumers receive information. Do you think President Trump would have offered Alice Marie Johnson a commuted sentence for a nonviolent drug offense if it weren’t for Kim? Likely not.

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We live in a world that's well aware of single-use plastics and its adverse effects on the planet, and composting is something that can beneficial for the environment and cut down on packaging waste. But if we don’t make resources readily available to consumers, it will be slow to take off. 

As a designer and branding professional, I can’t help but wonder why there is only one brand available at Target? Where is the Up & Up compostable trash bag option? Where is my designer-chic compost kit? Brands have been slow to commit to sustainability or provide options in the market. As States start to mandate for this and it trickles down to the consumer, we will need a more speedy, well-executed approach. 

Brands need to step up. Sustainability shouldn't be a luxury or something you can purchase at a package-free boutique, and I think that's something my local neighbors on Nextdoor would agree with. The future of sustainability must be attainable, and it has the potential to open up an entirely new competitive market. 

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