What U.S. city composts the most waste?

compost windrows
Image Gallery: Green Living Large composting facilities care for maturing compost in long fabric tubes called windrows. See more green living pictures.
Photo by Larry Strong, courtesy Norcal Waste

Is there a color on the planet more popular than green right now? It seems the color is popping up in new ways every day, like green-collar jobs and green design. As more people clamber onto the emerald bandwagon, they're increasingly exploring innovative ways to perform everyday tasks with environmentally sound strategies.

It doesn't stop there though. Many people are also looking to the tried and true methods of Earth-friendly living, examining ways to bring well-known eco-staples to a greater number of people. Composting is one such staple. Composting involves decomposing food scraps and other organic waste, like cardboard rolls and cotton rags, into a useful, rich substance called mature compost (also known as humus) which can be used as fertilizer. For a more detailed explanation of composting, read How Composting Works.


Composting may have its roots in backyard piles of mowed grass and musty leaves or leftovers from dinner, but nowadays the game has changed. Entire cities are engaging in massive composting efforts, but one city in particular is leading the rest -- and by a fairly impressive margin. Before we invite that proud city into the winner's circle, let's examine how large-scale, commercial composting operations work.

The U.S. composting industry, which almost quadrupled in size between 1988 and 2000, continues to expand [source: EPA]. Hardly resembling your father's backyard operation, these facilities receive tons of waste each day. Through a process that involves keeping air, moisture and composition at optimum levels for efficient decomposition, facilities can achieve the end result in as fast as a couple of weeks or, at most, a few months.

Modern composting facilities grind up biodegradable waste into the desired texture and stuff it into long plastic or fabric tubes, like the ones pictured above. While in the tubes, the compost is aerated, its moisture levels are monitored and the temperature is kept nice and toasty. These actions help the microorganisms that carry out the decomposition process flourish.

Why go to all that trouble? Composting benefits the environment in a number of ways, beyond relieving some of the pressure on our ever-increasing landfills. Composting can remediate contaminated soil by binding or degrading some harmful pollutants. Also, the compost is valuable as a product in and of itself. Compost can enrich nutrient-deprived soil and is useful as fertilizer.

As the lights go dim and the finalists step forward, only one city will take the crown. Continue to the next page for the grand announcement of which U.S. city composts the most waste.


Top Composting U.S. City

Golden Gate Bridge
The Golden Gate Bridge is destined to become the landmark of a trash-free haven by 2020.
Jason Todd/The Image Bank/Getty Images

This city has the ambitious goal of keeping 75 percent of its trash out of landfills by the year 2010 -- and reaching the point of zero waste by 2020. So which city takes top honor home? Drumroll please … the top composting U.S. city is San Francisco! The city promotes composting by featuring the largest compost collection program in the United States [source: Mullane].

Just one of several environmentally-friendly initiatives, composting is an attractive way to reduce a city's waste because the byproduct can be valuable and useful. Hundreds of thousands of San Franciscans, as well as local restaurants and food-related establishments, contribute more than 300 tons of organic garbage each day -- that's more than 100,000 tons per year. This waste travels to nearby modern composting facilities for treatment [source: SFEnvironment]. Once that waste is turned into compost, agricultural operations such as local vineyards will pay big bucks for the nutrient-dense material.


But San Franciscans aren't stopping to revel in their victory yet. There are several objectives the city is trying to meet in order to stay on track for the 2010 goal and beyond. Issues such as increasing recycling during large, public events are part of the city's goals, along with promoting more reuse and less consumption. Community outreach is another big part of the city's efforts, with information campaigns to bring new Bay Area residents into the loop, as well as other unreached markets. The city's overall environmental plan, spearheaded by Mayor Gavin Newsom, includes many other facets. Grants, subsidies and other incentive programs are offered for green activities such as installing solar panels, planting trees, reducing greenhouse gas emissions and car sharing.

Now that we've learned about one city's efforts to change the way their citizens look at a garbage can, follow the links on the next page to read about related information.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links


  • "Building a Bright Future: San Francisco's Environmental Plan 2008." SForward. http://www.sfenvironment.org/downloads/library/lisforward.pdf
  • "Composting." Environmental Protection Agency. 9/7/2007. (5/27/2008) http://www.epa.gov/epaoswer/non-hw/composting/basic.htm
  • "Compost Process." Jepson Prairie Organics. (5/27/2008) http://www.jepsonprairieorganics.com/compostprocess.htm
  • "Fact Sheet Food Waste Composting Program." Metro's Cedar Grove Composting Fact Sheet. 10/2007. (5/27/2008) http://www.portlandonline.com/shared/cfm/image.cfm?id=110948
  • Glascock, Bryan. "Request for Expression of Interest (RFI)." Organic Materials Composting and Management: City of Boston. (5/27/2008) http://www.cityofboston.gov/environmentalandenergy/pdfs/Reque_Express_of_Interest.pdf
  • Kilduff, Paul. "Want to compost but have no yard? Get a worm bin." San Francisco Chronicle. 7/20/2007. (5/27/2008) http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2007/07/20/BAGGNQVNN61.DTL&type=green
  • Mullane, Nancy. "San Francisco Compost a Hit with Local Vineyards." National Public Radio. 12/13/2006. (5/27/2008) http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=6619306
  • Nickisch, Curt. "Boston Wants to Harness Composting Energy." National Public Radio. 3/25/2008. (5/27/2008) http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=88163285
  • "Our city's programs: Composting." SFEnvironment. (5/27/2008) http://sfgov.org/site/frame.asp?u=http://www.sfenvironment.org
  • Reed, Robert. "New annex becomes green central in S.F." Norcal Waste Systems 3/22/2007. (5/27/2008) http://www.thegarbagepit.com/media_kit.php?kit=annex
  • Ryan, Andrew. "Urban decay, redefined." Boston Globe. 2/26/2008. (5/27/2008) http://www.boston.com/news/local/articles/2008/02/26/urban_decay_redefined/
  • "Strategic Plan 2007-2009." Department of Environment City and County of San Francisco. 12/4/2006. (5/27/2008)
  • Svoboda, Elizabeth et al. "America's 50 Greenest Cities." Popular Science. 2/28/2008. (5/27/2008) http://www.popsci.com/environment/article/2008-02/americas-50-greenest-cities?page=1#