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This city in North Carolina is designing America’s future composting systems

In the city of Durham, North Carolina, roughly 30% of the garbage residents throw away is compostable. Two-thirds of that is food scraps (the rest comes from paper products). The problem: like most municipalities, the city doesn’t offer a residential composting program. And not everyone has space or desire to build their own slightly stinky backyard bins. So earlier this summer, Durham started prototyping how to solve its problem on a citywide scale.

The idea is to start super small and learn quickly. Before launching the program, Durham figured out if it was economically feasible and even desirable. It discovered that yard waste collectors could probably cart away kitchen and other household waste just as easily. Combine that with some nitrogen-rich “biosolids” from the municipal water treatment plant, and you’d have a nitrogen-rich slurry that decomposed quickly. A survey of several thousand residents also showed they were interested in participating, although many still needed to be taught.

In June, Durham ran a two-week prototype with just eight households. Each was issued two types of one-and-a-half gallon buckets and biodegradable plastic liners. One was totally solid with a firmly clasping lid, the other more lightweight and perforated so residents could track their progress. The trash was picked up and sorted through weekly so that the i-team could understand what was working and talk to residents about any concerns. Overall, the effort was a success as more than 235 pounds of food was collected.

The city is getting set to host another two-week prototype at the end of October, and if that’s successful, the city will move on to a large-scale trial with about 200 residents. The goal is to steadily increase the number of people composting until a composting model is created that works for all residents and can be replicated in cities across America.

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