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Charlottesville looks to composting

Retraining consumer behavior has posed an enormous challenge over the years, particularly as regional officials have struggled to recover from the 2018 closure of the van der Linde recycling facility. The facility had marketed itself as being able to separate recyclable materials from commingled trash — and mislabeled it “single-stream recycling.” But the presence of heavily-soiled trash made most of that facility’s bales unmarketable, particularly once China stopped accepting contaminated material altogether.

“We’re still dealing with the ripple effects” of that all-in-one approach and the decision to close that facility, said Kristel Riddervold, who runs the Charlottesville’s environmental sustainability efforts and was part of the panel of city officials we interviewed.

The consumer education challenge has also informed the city’s more recent efforts to pilot another solution to our burgeoning waste crisis: citywide composting of food and yard waste, which may make up as much as ⅓ of all solid waste generated, said Susan Elliott, the city’s Climate Protection Program manager.

In an oxygen-deprived environment like a landfill, food waste generates methane, a greenhouse gas 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide, according to data from the U.S. Composting Council.

Compost improves soil quality and prevents the organic waste from becoming a carbon emission. Through the Rivanna Solid Waste Authority, the city and Albemarle County collect a wide variety of food waste at McIntire, sending it to Crimora and Waverly to be composted by Black Bear Composting and McGill Environmental Systems. In total, RSWA composted a little more than 456 tons of waste in 2018, according to Phil McKalips, director of solid waste.

Although Charlottesville and Albemarle also compost the solid waste that comes through the region’s wastewater treatment plants, that path puts pressure on the wastewater system — and the compost is likely to be contaminated with microplastics, heavy metals, fluorinated chemicals, pharmaceutical residue and more, according to information provided by the U.S. Composting Council.

The city is more than intrigued by composting’s allure. “The composting piece has tons of potential, and we have more control over growing a composting program than we have over the recycling market,” Riddervold said. “But we haven’t figured out the cost implications, and we don’t even have a community that’s ready for curbside composting.”

Among the many issues to be resolved: whether composting would be funded by user fees or taxes; whether free compost would be delivered back to subscribers (as Black Bear Composting does for its customers); and how to educate residents wondering whether their pizza boxes can be composted. (The answer is generally yes.)

“Composting is not even on training wheels here yet,” Riddervold said. “It’s taking baby steps in this community.”

In the meantime, what do we tell residents who keep asking whether they should still bother recycling?

“Yes, yes, absolutely yes,” Riddervold said, nodding her head vigorously. “They can ask you every week, and the answer will still be yes.”

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*Featured image by Stacey Evans

Charlottesville Tomorrow