« Return to this article

Know the West

Composting takes out the trash


California produces nearly 48 million tons of trash every year. A decade ago, the Golden State mandated that it cut landfill waste by 50 percent in an attempt to reduce these numbers. The state is close to its goal: It's reduced landfill waste by nearly 40 percent so far, and some say composting has been the key to dumping the trash.

Matt Cotton, who runs a compost consulting business in Nevada City, says cutting the number of landfill sites from the thousands to the hundreds is critical.

"Some people say, "We've got lots of land in the West, let's bury this stuff," but landfills leak methane gas. Even the best landfills only get rid of 50 percent of methane, which is a terrible greenhouse gas," says Cotton.

"We've got thin layers of topsoil in California and across the West," he adds. "Replacing organics lost with organics we're otherwise burying in landfills just makes a lot of sense."

Mark Van Horn, who has run the student farm at University of California-Davis for the past 13 years, agrees. He works with students to collect food waste from campus restaurants and festivals, and they now compost everything from crab shells to utensils made from cornstarch. He says composting is the reason for the university farm's prolific produce.

People around the country have started to follow California's example. So far, there are more than 3,500 commercial compost facilities nationwide, helping to turn old food into new crops.