- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 13, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

COMMENTARY:

Every Thursday night in my cul-de-sac we do the dance of the bins, setting out an imposing array of containers for the trash haulers to pick up the next morning.

There’s a big can with the large green sticker “Yard Waste” that the county firmly insists must face the street. There’s a small blue recycling bin for cans and bottles, a larger one of newspapers and magazines, and a big one on wheels for cardboard boxes and the like. Then there’s a green wheeled bin for regular garbage - neatly bagged. Two bins if both boys are home. It’s an impressive array.

And now, thanks to the forward-looking folks in San Francisco, it may get even more impressive. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, the city council has voted 9-2 to require city residents to set out, along with the trash bin and the recycling bin, a compost bin.

Compost is decayed organic matter, typically lawn clippings and kitchen waste. Gardeners swear by it, although the one time we tried it, after a year we ended up with a bin full of pretty much intact lawn clippings and kitchen waste.

Composting seems like a pretty straightforward idea, but San Francisco has complications that other jurisdictions perhaps do not.

According to the Chronicle, one council member said, “We’ve got a huge problem in my district and a lot of other parts of the city with people who go in an out of garbage cans at night scavenging. Who’s going to be responsible for that?”

Maybe if the city can hook the scavengers up with a good composting Web site they may be moved to stay out of the bins because compost can include lots of disgusting organic matter, including, now that more cities are tolerating urban chickens, chicken manure, said to be an “excellent activator.”

The composting mandate is backed up by fines of up to $100 for homes and small businesses and $500 for larger businesses. Any fines will be preceded by warnings and phone calls, and the city says it will bend over backward to not fine people, but that’s what all municipalities say until they get in a budget crunch.

The laudable goal of this project, according to the Chronicle, is to send nothing to landfills or incinerators by 2020.

This would seem to an outsider to pose a couple of problems.

Compost materials can’t just sit there. A process has to take place to make them rot or decay into usable compost. I can’t imagine the city wants great piles of the stuff stashed around the city waiting for nature to take its course. The city may want its residents to help jump-start the decomposition.

One solution might be red wiggler worms, legendary for their composting ability. Every week, the trash haulers could drop off a bag of red wigglers at each stop and the householders could keep them in a bag by the sink and drop a few into the bin every time there’s a fresh load of table scraps.

Those night-time scavengers, now at loose ends, could be hired to dig the red wigglers out of the compost at Compost Central and bag them up for redelivery to the households.

Another problem is that, without recourse to landfills and incinerators, the city’s stockpiles of compost will mount up. After the soil in every public park and private garden is enriched, there will still be compost left over. Perhaps San Francisco operatives could sneak into Oakland under cover of darkness and compost its flower beds, but that, too, may soon be exhausted. A city the size of San Francisco could conceivably enrich the Central Valley and still be stuck with huge inventories of compost.

It would be no surprise here to stop in our cul-de-sac on the way to work to haul the bins back into the carport and find that the Yard Waste bin is strangely heavy. That’s because predawn it had been packed solid with compost with a little card reading, “Courtesy of the people of San Francisco.”

Thank you, I think.

Dale McFeatters is a columnist for Scripps Howard News Service.

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