In the next few months, Athens City Council will decide whether to expand the curbside compost program to all residents, pooling and sharing the cost of curbside pickup. Supporting this program is an important step in creating a sustainable future for the next generation.

In the fight to curb the effects of climate change, so much is out of our hands. A small number of private companies and governments are responsible for the vast majority of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. Millions of people are suffering from the effects of climate change that have already begun to manifest, and international data published in the past few years reports back to us on larger disasters yet to come. Of those impacted by this damage, indigenous communities and marginalized groups are on the front lines. Poor communities worldwide, including here in Ohio, will be first to suffer and last to get help. In the face of this coming storm, it is very easy to feel powerless, because in many ways, we are.

One way in which we are not powerless is in how we choose to respond as a community to climate change. In the coming decades, communities will be pushed to create new systems that reduce waste, reuse with greater efficiency, and recycle used materials at much greater rates. When multinational corporations and governments are responsible for the vast majority of carbon emissions globally, designing new, sustainable ways of living can be up to us. The subject of, and ability to create, sustainable social structures is a broad field with many facets, but I am writing today in support of one that is central to how any community like ours must operate in the 21st century: composting.

The cornerstone of any community’s waste reduction strategy must be the introduction and support for composting. Composting is a natural process, where organic materials that would break down in nature are allowed to do so. Currently, when food waste is thrown into a landfill, the materials are packed together so densely that organic matter cannot break down – or if it does, it takes orders of magnitude longer to do so.

While these organic materials do break down eventually, sealed away in plastic and among piles of trash, they have no way of returning to nature and being reincorporated into soils. In addition, the oxygen-deprived surroundings of a landfill forces organic matter to decompose in a way that produces enormous amounts of methane, a greenhouse gas 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide. As a result, when we throw our food waste – from eggshells to coffee grounds to dinner leftovers in the garbage – we are continuing a practice that is wasteful and ecologically damaging.

It is not our fault that the system we live in encourages this sort of waste. In a city environment, composting can be very difficult.

Some residents of Athens have the yard space and stability to compost at home, which is a rewarding process that we should encourage. But 70 percent of the Athens housing market is composed of renters, the majority of whom move from year to year. Since a strong compost pile may take years to establish itself, all of those residents of the city are effectively prevented from composting where they live.

People who live in apartments or even those who have small yards in the city will find it difficult to make space to compost as well. And even for those who do have the space and time, table scraps that include meat and bones cannot be adequately broken down in most home compost piles. Neither can compostable dishware, cups and containers break down in a standard pile. For all of these reasons, home composting is a great solution for some, but out of the realm of possibility for many, many more.

Equitable community-supported composting is a great solution to this problem. Just like trash pick-up and single-stream recycling, all over the country curbside pick-up programs exist specifically to help people compost. Already in the city of Athens, curbside pick-up is available through the non-profit Athens Hocking Recycling Center, setting us ahead of most municipalities around the United States. As residents who are already signed up will know, this service provides households with an emptied bucket every week to be filled with all kinds of organic waste. This material is then collected and composted into a high quality, marketable product.

In the next few months, City Council will decide whether to expand this program to all residents, pooling and sharing the cost of curbside pickup. The only way to affordably provide this service, and to reshape our carbon footprint in the process, is to do just that – for all of us to come together and ensure composting is available for everybody. Composting should not be priced so high as to lock low-income residents out of the service. As a city, we owe it to ourselves and to future generations to evaluate every aspect of how we live that contributes to climate change. Supporting community composting is a change that we can make that moves us closer towards sustainability goals.

Zach Reizes of Athens sits on the board of the Athens Hocking Recycling Center.

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