San Francisco’s New Composting Law

October 21st, 2009

I just heard about this on the news. Apparently today a new law in San Francisco took affect, enacting the strictest trash ordinance in the country. Everyone either has to compost at home, or get a separate bin to put their compostables in for curbside pickup, or be fined with fines starting at $100 for individuals and $500 for businesses.

Well, I’m sure some citizens may hate this, but this is an opportunity for gardens, you’ll probably be able to finagle lots of compost from neighbors, or just do midnight raids on those green compost bins on the curb.

But if you’re going to be composting in a city, or trying to compost in San Francisco for this new law, there are issues you need to consider, especially if you don’t have a lot of land, yard, or plants.

Now, I wouldn’t really worry about making too much compost over the course of a year, unless you have no garden whatsoever. You may think you produce a lot of kitchen scraps, but you don’t, not really. Because they’re mostly water they shrink vastly in size while they rot, a cubic yard of uncomposted material may, in the end, produce a cubic foot of compost.

But there are things you need to worry about, such as rodents. Any open pile or bin with an open bottom or unsecured lid can and will attract wildlife, and not the kind you want. In the country it is mostly bears and raccoons and opossums. In cities you might still get raccoons and an opossum, depending on the size of the city, but mostly you’re looking at rats, dangerous and disease carrying rats. You don’t want to build a rat habitat in your yard, so you don’t want a pile or bin.

A compost tumbler is superior in that it is raised off the ground and fully enclosed, so that is what I would recommend for anyone in an urban or even suburban environment, or people in bear country (honestly, the tumbler will excel pretty much everywhere).

Don’t think you can squeak by leaving it exposed, I once let a bag of compost on my porch for a couple hours, and that is all it took to attract an ugly opossum.

Another big issue for the urban composter, is ingredient balance. Compost works best with aerobic decomposition which uses oxygen loving bacteria that need a balance of moisture, nitrogen, and carbon. Kitchen scraps tend to be high on the first two ingredients, but lax on the third. I solve this partway by loading all my kitchen scraps into brown paper bags, which are a carbon source, but that isn’t even, even I’ve had problems.

My main solution is to take newspaper, which is 100% biodegradable, run it through my paper shredder, and do that. It balances out the moisture because it is dry, and adds the necessary carbon. As a general rule of thumb, if your compost tumbler smells like garbage or sewage, you have anaerobic bacteria working instead of aerobic and you need to add more carbon (newspaper, shredded fine), less water, and mix it up (tumble) to produce more oxygen.

This balance issue is more an issue for city dwellers than country dwellers because urbanites have less trees, and so less leaves that’ll drop in the fall, which are a great and primary source of carbon for many composters. You can also use straw from a farmer, which is against more accessible to those in the country.

Another option for brown material is sawdust from untreated unpainted and unstained wood. You can get such sawdust from carpenters, building sites, saw mills, etc. Just make sure it is all untreated, and it is a miracle ingredient.

Finally, small amounts of wood ash or charcoal, again from unpainted, unstained, and untreated wood, also is an excellent source of carbon, but it can affect the Ph of your compost so you can’t use it in large quantities. So if you have a fire pit or fireplace and burn natural wood without lighter fluid or anything like that, you can save and use the ashes and any left over charred bits in your compost. In fact there is a whole gardening method called biochar that utilizes burnt wood to a large degree.

Following these tips should help you produce usable fertilizer for your garden from all the kitchen scraps your neighbors are going to be sending your way.

8 Responses to “San Francisco’s New Composting Law”

  1. Composting Enthusiast  Says:

    This law is pretty cool. Everyone can benefit from composting themselves. Great post!

  2. Portland Arborist  Says:

    Hopefully all goes well for them and it remains sanitary so they don’t end up with a rat plague on their hands as a consequence.

    We’re planning to start composting our own food scraps and stuff like that next spring and afterward here in Portland. Then add to the garden or landscaping as compost.

    MDV / Oregon

  3. James  Says:

    Cool post and cool law. I couldn’t agree more with it. I love to garden so, therefore, I love this site. It’s got some of the best info on the web. I also came across this pretty cool article though. Thought I’d share in case anyone else found it interesting.

  4. Vegetable Garden Blog  Says:

    It is great to hear that the country is starting to realize that we should stop filling up the landfills and put this stuff to good use!

    I wish Central Florida would do this as well!

  5. Hosepipe  Says:

    I’m glad to see that landfills aren’t being filled and another use can be found. We need to take a leaf (no pun intended) out of your book and do the same. I hope England introduces a law like this soon.

  6. common sense  Says:

    Really stupid law. It’s great for you gardeners, but a hassle for the rest of us. Another reason why I will never move to SF and hope everyday it falls into the ocean.

  7. Kim  Says:

    As a member of a community garden this past year, I walked all my fruit and veggie waste over to their compost bins instead of throwing it in the garbage. If I couldn’t make it every day, I froze the stuff in old zip top bags. It was amazing how much less garbage I was making every week with this simple exercise. My garbage wasn’t getting as stinky near the end of the week either. Best of all, everyone in the garden benefited from lots of great black gold in the end!

    SF is making a great decision here. I can’t wait until more cities address the issue of “garbage” in such a progressive way.

    Love your blog! I’ll be checking frequently now that I found you!

  8. denise  Says:

    As a San Francisco resident and gardener, I can attest to the fact that this law is great. What you may not know is that the local garbage collection agency distributed new trash / recycling / AND COMPOST bins to all of their clients years ago, and SF had already reduced it’s waste generation significantly before this law took effect. No one need have a backyard bin in SF… free compost is available!

    To common sense and any others who think this law is a hassle for “rest of us” and that it’s just for gardeners, think about what your garbage can smells like. All the smelly stuff goes out with the compost and the garbage can stays cleaner and doesn’t need to be emptied as often! This means that the dump also won’t get as much of the smelly stuff and won’t fill as quickly. Being green means that sometimes there’s a little “hassle” involved.

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