What is compost?

Find out how food scraps and other waste materials are handled in different cities around the U.S., along with the benefits composting has to offer


Compost is:

decayed organic material, which may include food scraps, yard waste, paper products, and manure.  Through various methods, heat is created to break down the material and kill harmful micro-organisms. What results is a soil amendment that is rich in nutrients.

What is the difference between compost and soil?

Soil is the top layer of the earth, consisting of sand, rock particles, clay, minerals, and organic material. Compost is comprised of only organic material.

How much do we waste that could otherwise be composted?

Find out below.


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Nearly 40 percent of food is wasted(1and as little as 1/3rd of landfill waste could be turned into compost(2)(3)

What happens when food is not composted?

Food that ends up in landfill contributes to about 8% of greenhouse gas emissions globally(4). Instead, it could amend soil for growing food and be turned into biogas, an alternative to fracked gas.

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1/5th of municipal solid waste is plastic, and only 8.4 percent of plastic is recycled in the U.S.(5)

Can plastics be composted?

Most plastics are not compostable. The bio-plastics that are compostable can only be composted only at industrial facilities, and even then, most industrial facilities are not able to process it.(6) Reusable containers and utensils are the simplest way to heavily decrease single-use plastics.

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The U.S. exports 830,000 tons of clothing to less economically developed countries per year(7while the equivalent of 81lbs of clothing per person are thrown away per year(8)

Can clothing be composted?

Most synthetic fibers (polyester, acrylic, nylon, elastane) are not compostable, while natural fibers (cotton, linen, silk, wool) are. Keeping in mind that any dye or surface finishing will be going into the soil too, the best fabrics to compost are organic and un-dyed or naturally dyed materials.  Most fabrics can now be recycled, and all clothing can be worn, re-worn, and repaired as long as possible.

How do different cities handle compost?

Cities hold the largest percentage of the U.S. population and the largest number of people with limited at-home composting capacity. We will get to know what composting looks like at multiple scales, and in the process, we can begin to understand the complex nature of handling large waste streams.

Volunteers hand-turning windrow piles in Red Hook, New York City



Using a truck to push, loosen, and turn a larger windrow composting pile.

And finally:


Large windrows turned by machine.


Windrows are only one of several methods for composting, yet most major cities use this method. Windrows are also a common method for turning animal waste into fertilizer. While windrows have the highest emissions of any composting method(1), they are the easiest and process the widest range of biodegradable materials due to the high amount of heat they produce. The shape of the windrow allows for passive aeration, which contributes to its processing ease.

Find out some other methods for composting below.

A city-wide compost offering may start out looking like this:


What are some other methods of composting?

Click below to learn more

Non-Composting Forms of Food Waste Processing

Sources: [1][2]


we'll see how a few different cities organize their compost collections:

San Francisco

has a city-wide municipal composting system, which was scaled by requiring that all residents and visitors use it. The city's municipal waste is handled in partnership with a worker-owned company, Recology.

Recology also handles municipal waste in other cities throughout California, Oregon, and Washington, and through its success, allows cities and worker-owners to thrive.


San Francisco | image from Recology


Los Angeles

has a municipal pilot program, as well as other composting options. The city saw reductions in its waste when it mandated a 50% reduction in 2000, soon after exceeding its goal:

1.  Municipal curbside pickup

The city's pilot program continues to run at this time. Find out which neighborhoods receive pickup.  See the city's research behind its expansion methodology.

2.  Non-profit drop-off sites

3.  Curbside pickup service

Los Angeles | image from LASAN


has a city-wide municipal composting system. Through city-wide program adoption, Portland, Oregon is able to reduce its landfill trash pickup to once every two weeks, while composting is picked up weekly.

Portland promotes public participation in waste advisory and planning meetings.


Portland | image from Oregon Metro


New York City | image from New York's Strongest

New York City

In addition to biogas generated from waste (a more sustainable alternative to fracked gas), NYC has a few mechanisms for composting.
Drop-off sites during COVID-19

1.  Municipal curbside pickup

The program is currently suspended 5/4/20 - 6/30/21

2.  Community Composting

3.  Independent Composting Services

Brooklyn:  Akhmostist the CompostistBK Rot . Groundcycle
Bronx:  GreenFeen OrganiX . The Mediator Composting Initiative
Manhattan:  Plant Group NYC . Reclaimed Organics
NYC:  Vokashi

4.  Community Gardens

Green Thumb . New York Restoration Project . Brooklyn Queens Land Trust

Help restore and expand NYC's compost programs!