Seven Tips for a Successful Food Waste Collection & Composting Program

Seven Tips for a Successful Food Waste Collection & Composting Program

By Carolyn E. Zezima, Esq.

By Carolyn E. Zezima, Esq.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), organic waste, such as food scraps and yard trimmings, comprises 28 percent of municipal waste that ends up in landfills. In some cities, like Seattle, that amount is over one-third of residential garbage, about 45,000 tons each year. This extra waste is transported hundreds of miles to a landfill, adding to heaps of existing garbage, producing methane, a potent greenhouse gas, with 21 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide. Landfills are a major source of human-related methane in the United States, accounting for more than 20 percent of all methane emissions.

Cities around the country, like San Francisco and Seattle, have begun to pass laws requiring residents and businesses to collect their food, yard, and other organic waste for composting. Other cities, such as New York, are piloting curbside and other residential municipal composting programs that may expand into citywide voluntary or even mandatory programs later. And many cities, like Denver, Colo., and Austin, Texas, encourage residents, businesses, and multifamily sites to collect food waste for composting and offer support and incentives to do so.

Even if your city or town doesn’t require composting, state housing agencies encourage sites to reduce waste and to adopt practices like composting that are good for the environment. We’ll tell you how municipal composting programs affect site owners and managers, spell out the benefits of collecting and composting food waste, and give you tips for doing it successfully at your site.

How Municipal Composting Programs Affect Tax Credit Sites

Composting involves collecting organic waste, such as food scraps and yard trimmings, and storing it under conditions designed to help it break down naturally. Instead of throwing food and other organic waste in the garbage, residents and businesses collect this waste as part of a municipal composting program that turns the waste into compost at a local compost facility or encourages onsite composting for gardening and landscaping use in the garden.

San Francisco was the first city to pass a mandatory composting law in 2009, requiring residents and businesses to separate food and other compostable materials from other garbage to keep them out of landfills. Several other cities and the state of Massachusetts have followed with similar laws. For example, as of Jan. 1, 2015, the City of Seattle no longer allows food and compostable paper, including food-soiled pizza boxes, paper napkins, and paper towels, in garbage.

As with many local recycling laws, multifamily sites in these cities often bear responsibility to help residents compost their food waste by providing appropriate containers and information about proper composting use. In San Francisco, multifamily rental and condominium sites with five or more units must provide a food waste collection bin for residents to use and residents can report sites that don’t comply with their requests for appropriate collection bins. And in Seattle, beginning July 1, 2015, sites with garbage containers that contain more than 10 percent contamination from food waste or recyclables face written warnings and fines.

Benefits of Composting

Even if your city or town doesn’t require you to compost food waste, your site can reap numerous benefits by doing this voluntarily.

Environmental benefits. Since starting its municipal composting initiative, the city of Portland has reduced curbside garbage collection by almost 40 percent, says Kyenne Williams, program specialist in Portland’s Multifamily Waste Reduction office. The food and other organic waste that used to go into landfills now becomes compost, a fertilizer that adds nutrients to soil, and energy that provides electricity, notes Williams. Compost-rich soil also absorbs water run-off and breaks down urban pollutants, such as oil, grease, metals, and chemical fertilizers. Healthy soil increases drought resistance by reducing the need for supplemental water, fertilizers, and pesticides.

Site maintenance, health, and safety benefits. Food waste dumped in standard trash cans and Dumpsters at sites can generate bad odors and attract rodents or insects, leading to health and safety violations and lower scores during state housing agency, REAC, and other local inspections. Collecting food waste separately from trash and managing it properly can significantly reduce, and even eliminate these problems for staff. The site’s garbage is cleaner and lighter, and takes up less space. There are fewer spills from loose, uncontained garbage bags, and fewer rodents and insects when the bins are maintained properly. Also, diverting food waste from sink disposal units to composting helps prevent costly repairs due to clogged drains and sewer lines.

Lower site waste disposal costs. Sites often pay less for their garbage service by decreasing the weight and amount of regular garbage and reducing overflow costs. Some cities, particularly those that require or encourage composting, will take food waste for free. And some private haulers charge less if the food waste is separated from the trash and sent for composting rather than landfilling. So this means if residents pay for trash as part of the utilities at the site, you might be able to lower the utility allowance for each unit in the future to reflect the lower cost of trash hauling—resulting in higher per-unit net rent for owners, says A.J. Johnson, president of A.J. Johnson Consulting Services.  

Green site design and practices. There is a growing consciousness among low-income housing developers, site owners, and managers of the health, environmental, and cost advantages associated with green building practices. Many state housing agencies that oversee tax credit sites incentivize a range of environmentally friendly practices, including recycling and other waste reduction practices, and encourage sites to involve residents to help the environment and create a clean, healthy, and “green” site. Reducing waste by collecting and composting food waste works when sites engage staff and residents and can improve overall site morale and image. Also, many new construction and major rehabilitation site developers are adding organic waste composting collection service or even onsite composting as part of their site’s initial design and planning, because they can get extra points on their QAPs, and other incentives through local financing, zoning, and green design programs, says Johnson.



Here are seven tips for success, based on mandatory and voluntary municipal multifamily composting programs in numerous cities and towns, for launching and managing food waste collection at your site.

Tip #1: Check for Local Incentives, Rebates, and Free Materials

Some cities with mandatory food waste composting laws offer support to sites to help collect and manage resident and site-related food waste for compost. For example, San Francisco’s Department of Environment offers free green composting carts with sites’ trash service, educational materials and signage, and free starter kits that residents can order, or you can order for them, including educational materials in multiple languages, kitchen-size compost collection bins and free starter set of compostable bags that residents can use in their unit to collect kitchen food scraps. It also offers free on-site consultations with owners and managers to help them improve participation and compliance by residents to compost more waste to lower a site’s trash bills.

In some cities where composting is voluntary, sites can get incentives to compost. Fort Collins, Colo., offers a waste reduction assistance program (WRAP) that gives sites and other business a 50 percent rebate (up to $500) to sites during their first six months of compost service if they sign up for a full year and a 75 percent rebate (up to $250) for start costs for items like composting bins, compostable liners, and other eligible costs. And if a site refers another site or business that wants to compost to sign up with WRAP, the site gets a $50 gift card.

Austin, Texas, has a similar “Zero Waste Business Rebate” program: $900 for composting and other waste reduction start-up costs and 50 percent off monthly carting service invoices up to $150 per month for new programs or a one-time rebate of $1,800 to sites that expand their existing composting, recycling, and other waste reduction programs.

Tip #2: Check Local Requirements for What to Compost

Different areas have different requirements for what organic waste to collect for composting, depending on the type and capacity of the composting facility in the area. Generally, organic waste includes:

Foods and food scraps, such as:

•     Fruit/vegetable scraps, peels, trimmings

•     Spoiled/outdated foods

•     Coffee grounds with paper coffee filters

•     Eggshells

•     Leftovers/table scraps

•     Dough scraps

•     All fish, shellfish scraps, including bones and shells (but usually not meat or poultry)

Yard debris, such as:

•     Grass clippings

•     Garden trimmings/weeds

•     Leaves

•     Small brush/branches

•     Floral trimmings, houseplants

•     Expired floral arrangements, waxed floral paper

•     Seasonal greens (pumpkins, cornstalks, hay, gourds, garlands, wreaths, swags, etc.)

Compostable food-soiled products (some cities accept), such as:

•     Pizza boxes

•     Paper milk/juice cartons

•     Ice cream/frozen food cartons

•     Paper deli/take-out cartons

•     Napkins/paper towels/tablecloths

•     Paper plates, bowls, cups

•     Parchment/waxed paper, paper bags

•     Bakery boxes, paper liners, waxed cardboard boxes

•     Compostable dishware (ex. corn, potato, bamboo-based items) including plates, bowls, cups, lids, utensils, straws, to-go containers

Other compostable items (some cities accept), such as:

•     Tissue paper

•     Small wood scraps

•     Corks (real, not plastic)

Noncompostable items, for recycling or trash, include:

•     Meat and poultry, including bones

•     Dairy scraps, such as yogurt, cheese, sour cream, ice cream, milk (though some cities do accept)

•     Aluminum foil or trains

•     Cat litter or animal feces

•     Ceramic dishes or glasses

•     Clothing and rags

•     Cooking oil

•     Corks (plastic)

•     Diapers

•     Dirt, rocks, or stone

•     Foil or plastic-covered paper

•     Juice or soy-milk boxes

•     Liquids

•     Plastic bags and wrap

•     Styrofoam

•     Wood like plywood or large wood pieces

Check your local requirements before you start collecting food waste and make sure you post signs for residents that comply with these requirements.

Tip #3: Contact Your Private Garbage Company

Some sites are in places where they must use private garbage companies to take away garbage instead of municipal sanitation services, or where there are no mandatory or voluntary municipal composting programs or services available. The lack of municipal composting programs hasn’t stopped some sites from starting composting programs, either by composting onsite themselves (see Food Waste Collection & Composting Resources, below) or by using a private hauler. Some private garbage haulers do offer food waste collection along with regular garbage service and have arrangements with composting facilities in nearby cities or towns.

If you use a private garbage service, contact your service company to discuss:

•     Availability and frequency of food waste collection service;

•     Cost of food waste collection versus standard rate for garbage collection;

•     Site space and location for collection;

•     Type, size, and number of containers and other materials, signage, and equipment required or available; and

•     Availability of starter kits or other collection containers for resident use.

Tip #4: Designate a Staff Member to Coordinate

The buy-in needs to be top down, involving site management, maintenance staff, and residents. Cities with composting laws, such as San Francisco, recommend creating a green committee, with the site manager, maintenance staff, and motivated residents. Assign a point person from site staff to lead the planning process and oversee the overall composting program. Many tax credit sites have specific positions, such as “sustainability coordinator,” which include overseeing food waste collection and composting as part of the positions’ sustainability and energy conservation duties.

Editor’s Note: Some cities reward sites for having a designated composting staffer. Seattle has a designation called “Friend of Recycling and Composting” (FORC) Steward. Sites that sign up a staffer to be a FORC—to check containers for contamination, provide educational materials, and answer residents’ questions about proper disposal of food waste and recycling—get a one-time $100 credit on the sites’ utility bill.

Tip #5: Publicize Composting Program

Getting residents to participate is key to seeing a measurable decrease in site garbage. According to the City of Portland’s multifamily composting program, composting programs are most successful when at least half of your residents are doing it. So getting residents on board means doing a lot of outreach ahead of time, involving environmentally minded residents in the planning and feedback, and getting the word out in writing, in meetings, and door-to-door. Ways to publicize the program and get residents to participate include:

Letters or emails to residents explaining the program. Include information on:

•     What composting is and why the site is starting the program (local requirements and initiatives, general benefits to residents and the site overall);

•     What can and can’t be composted;

•     How to collect food waste properly and tips for keeping bin clean and odor-free;

•     Where to take their food waste on site;

•     Where to get additional kitchen bins, liners, or other materials; and

•     Contact information and municipal website for questions and information about composting food waste.

Include a version of this letter in all move-in packets to educate new residents from the day they move in that the site has separate food waste. See our Model Letter: Inform Residents of Food Waste Collection & Composting Program, below, which you can adapt and use at your site.

Flyers and signs at existing garbage area, mailbox, elevator, or laundry areas. Many cities have free or low-cost composting signage in English and Spanish for the trash area with instructions for proper disposal of food waste, as well as other flyers and signs in multiple languages that you can use to advertise the program and signs. If you make your own, use colorful images, with proper bin colors for residents’ food waste, recycling, and garbage, with staff or city composting officials' phone numbers and emails for more information.

Kickoff events with residents and staff. Hold meetings and other events to explain the program, what can and can’t be composted, and where to take food waste. You can use the events to hand out kitchen bins, play games for prizes to test composting knowledge, and recruit volunteers for helping spread the word and hand out pails.

Door-to-door contact. Volunteers or staff can help spread the word by:

  • Handing out kitchen bins and composting instructions door to door for each unit;
  • Placing door-hanger bags on front doors with compost guides, refrigerator magnets, and composting starter kits; and
  • Taking surveys on ways to improve the composting program and how to encourage participation.

Tip #6: Train Staff for Proper Management of Compost

Food waste collection won’t work if maintenance and other key site staff aren’t on board and aware of their responsibility to manage food waste collection properly. Send a memo to staff that spells out:

•     Location(s) on site to place food waste collection bins (with maps of locations in trash rooms, near chutes, outdoor alleys, etc.);

•     Proper posting of composting instruction signs for residents;

•     Collection area maintenance and service, including: (1) frequent monitoring for contamination, such as noncompostable trash, plastic bags, or recyclables in the food waste bins; (2) keeping bins and collection areas clean; (3) types of proper approved compostable liners; and (4) where to get them on site or purchase them (if your city or town doesn’t offer these through a composting program, they are available online and retail home stores and maintenance supply companies);

•     Days and times and site location (such as curbside, alley) for setting out collection for pickup by hauler; and

•     Management contact information for problems with bins or with contamination.

Editor’s Note: Don’t forget to train and encourage site staff to collect and place their own food waste in collection bins. Get extra kitchen counter and/or large food collection bins, and signs with instructions about which food items can and can’t go in the bins. Place them in or near site locations where: (1) staff eat their meals or throw away their trash; (2) in staff kitchens; and (3) in food service or community kitchens where site staff prepare food for residents. Instruct maintenance staff to check and manage these bins in the same way they check and manage bins for residents.

Tip #7: Monitor Progress and Follow Up Frequently

Many residents and staff start out enthusiastic when sites first launch composting programs, but lose interest after a while. Other residents may not have initial interest at all in participating or even complying with local laws. So it’s important to be persistent and follow up to improve programs over time. Ways to monitor progress and manage follow-up with residents and staff include:

•     Frequent program reminders through emails, flyers, and tenant meetings;

•     Post-launch meetings with residents and staff;

•     Follow-up surveys with residents;

•     Keeping residents informed of their progress in food waste collection at the site; and

•     Immediately troubleshooting operational issues.

Food Waste Collection & Composting Resources

A growing number of cities have adopted mandatory composting requirements, offer voluntary composting service as part municipal waste management services, or are piloting municipal composting programs. Check your city’s department of waste management or sanitation website for any mandatory requirements, and for resources and services for complying or for voluntarily collecting food waste for composting.

Here’s a list of government websites that offer advice, tools, and resources to multifamily sites about managing food waste collection and even composting food and other organic waste on site. You can find examples of signs and flyers to adapt and post at your site, and ideas for increasing resident participation. Note that the information on each website is specific to the city’s requirements and programs, but all the sites offer general resources and common-sense tips for starting a compost program, managing it, and getting residents and staff to comply.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Resource Conservation:

Austin, Texas, Zero Waste Business Rebate:

Bellingham, Washington, FoodPlus! Program FAQs:

Fort Collins, Colorado: Waste Reduction and Recycling Assistance Program (WRAP):

New York City: NYC Organics Collection In Large Buildings (10+ Units):

Portland, Oregon: For Property Managers—Your Guide to Multifamily Food Composting:

City of San Francisco, Department of Environment, Tools for Property Managers:

Recology (San Francisco) Property Managers Lounge:

Seattle, Washington: Food & Yard Waste—Apartment/Condo Owners:

Seattle Guide for Using Food Waste to Create Compost At Home/On Site:

Insider Sources

A.J. Johnson: President, A. J. Johnson Consulting Services, Inc., 3521 Frances Berkeley, Williamsburg, VA 23188;

Kyenne Williams: Program Specialist, Multifamily Waste Reduction, City of Portland, 1900 SW 4th Ave, Ste. 7100, Portland, OR 97201;

About the Author

Carolyn E. Zezima, Esq. is the president of NYC Foodscape (, and a consultant with a track record of grass-rooting and managing organizations in the nonprofit sector. She has worked with food and farming enterprises and food policy organizations in Chicago and New York to promote urban agriculture and regional farming, including founding The Talking Farm, “The Farm with Something to Say,” an urban farming and educational enterprise in Evanston, Ill.

While in Illinois, Zezima also served as director of Chicago’s Green City Market and on food policy councils that helped to create new community farmers markets and draft and pass legislation, such as the Illinois Food, Farm and Jobs Act.

Zezima serves on numerous farming- and food-related committees and boards, including American Farmland Trust’s Farmland Advisors program, Harvest Home Farmers Markets, Partnership for a Healthier Manhattan, and NYC Food Forum. She has chaired policy committees for local food organizations and has co-drafted several food policy and sustainability proposals, including food policy recommendations to include in the revised PlaNYC2030, and the Recipe for the Future of Food in New York City.

Zezima also practiced law after graduating from Duke University School of Law, and is a licensed member of the New York, California, and Illinois bars. She can be reached at or (847) 507-1785.