American University is trying hard to become the city’s least wasteful college. Two years ago, after eliminating trays in the cafeteria to cut down on overeating, AU started composting food scraps, collecting 500 tons annually. Then it added paper towels to the pile. Just recently, it hired a zero-waste coordinator to bring the total amount sent to landfills down to, well, zero.

In mid-December, the composting program came to a screeching halt: The plant where American had been sending its food waste—Recycled Green in Woodbine, Md.—was abruptly shut down by the state’s Department of the Environment for failing to contain the foul liquid that leached out from the organic matter it was processing into the ground.

This wouldn’t be a huge problem, except for the fact that there is no other large permitted composting facility in Maryland, which recently tightened up its environmental regulations on composters to protect the Chesapeake Bay from contaminated groundwater. So all of Recycled Green’s D.C. customers were left with an unappetizing alternative: Trucking their organics 100 miles away to the next closest facility in Wilmington, Del., at significantly higher cost.

That stinks for institutional customers like American University, which like to see green efforts like composting as cost-neutral. It’s downright scary for the fast-growing but still nascent small business community that’s cropped up to haul away leftovers from hotels and restaurants willing to divert them from a landfill.

Take Walker Lunn, who started Envirelation in 2006. His company has since grown to three trucks, ten employees, and a client list boasting what he estimates are 20 percent of the hotels in the region with food service operations. Recycled Green was the third composter he’s used that ceased operations on him: The first two, in Cambridge and Crownsville, also ran afoul of Maryland’s stormwater regulations—which makes for a very, very risky business model. “I could go out of business any day, because of something beyond my control,” Lunn says, exasperated.

“The thing that’s always inhibited our growth has been this situation,” he goes on. Customer demand, lack of appetite for fertile soil, or even competition from the growing number of trash haulers that are getting into composting haven’t been nearly as prohibitive. “We all still have the same problem, which is where are you going to put it?”

The District has a less-than-ideal waste situation: It sends most of its garbage to a plant in Lorton, Va., that burns it to create energy. By one rough estimate, about 25 percent of that is compostable, which means it could be turned into healthy new soil instead. Some of the scraps can be taken to local community gardens and organic farms, but regulations around human food waste being dumped in urban areas are vague and loosely enforced, which doesn’t work for institutional food generators—they need a steady, reliable place to send stuff that doesn’t get eaten.

So why is it so hard to set up a composting facility? It’s not—but so far, nobody’s tried hard enough.

* * *

The shuttering of Recycled Greenwasn’t the first time D.C. realized that it had a composting capacity problem. Policymakers and industry people have been talking about it for years—since at least 2009, when Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh brought in Nelson Widell to figure out what could be done.

Widell is the co-founder of Peninsula Compost, the place in Wilmington where virtually every business in D.C. that composts now sends their food waste. At a cost of $20 million, he started it on 30 acres within the city limits, signing a community benefits agreement that promises negligible impact on the surrounding neighborhoods, as well as hiring from the local community. Peninsula now processes 120,000 tons per year, making it the largest facility on the east coast. Meanwhile, Widell has been busy opening others of its kind around the country—and the world—to serve the burgeoning market for compost.

Widell says he’d be very interested in opening a facility in or around D.C.—as would other big industrial composters, like McGill and Harvest Power—but he needs two things: At least 12 acres of land, and the political will to help get it started. The District itself owns large tracts of land, with plans in various stages of execution, as does the federal government. But the will never materialized—Cheh’s letter to the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development in August 2009 went unanswered.

“Clearly if the city really got behind something, instead of having a few meetings and just discussing it, something could happen,” Widell says. “Developing one of these facilities is akin to running a political candidate. It’s a very emotional issue for some people. No matter how good or wonderful you are, there’s going to be someone who wants to kill it.”

Meanwhile, demand for composting has only increased. Starting in 2012, all new buildings in D.C. are required to be certified through the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Environmental and Energy Design rating system. Diverting food scraps from landfills earns points, so more office buildings are starting to compost. Federal agencies are also rapidly expanding composting at their cafeterias—the Federal Aviation Administration, Department of Education, and Census Bureau will all start to do so within the next two months.

The other big motivator is simply competition. For example, Safeway started composting last year, and is now doing it in all 160 stores between Virginia and Pennsylvania, which—it claims—makes it the largest single composter on the eastern seaboard. Giant just signed a contract with a compost hauler for its stores, Whole Foods started not too long ago, and Harris Teeter says it will have something to announce within a few months.

So far, the big food scrap generators have been able to find places to send their waste. For Safeway, there’s not even any extra effort involved: The same trucks that deliver food just return to the distribution facility in Upper Marlboro, Md., with cardboard boxes of compost, which are dumped into a big green machine called a “juicer.” But then, the 35,000 pounds of food waste are packed onto a climate-controlled trailer and trucked to New Jersey—150 miles away.

Which sort of cuts into the environmental benefits of composting in the first place.

* * *

Is there any way to recycle without a large facility?

Sure. The most direct way is to take food scraps to small farms and community gardens, which is what Jeremy Brosowsky started doing two years ago with a residential pickup service called Compost Cab. He now takes waste from about 300 clients to places like Common Good City Farm in LeDroit Park, which gets the dirt for free. That approach could scale to the extent that the District can start more community gardens, which is a lot easier than siting a large, enclosed composting plant. “If you hear that an urban farm is coming, and composting is going to be a part of that, there’s a much lower barrier to entry,” Brosowsky explains.

But if everybody composted, all the community gardens possible in D.C. couldn’t handle it. In that scenario, traditional landfills, which are rapidly reaching capacity, might also get into the composting business. At the very least, you could let small compost haulers bring their waste to space carved at one of D.C.’s waste processing facilities—on Bladensburg Road and in Fort Totten—so that it could be consolidated onto trucks that take it out of the city.

Still, quite a bit could be done with smaller-scale, enclosed composters that only need a couple acres, keeping the compost as local as possible, and redistributing to homes that could use the fertile dirt on their gardens. Brendan Shane, of the District Department of the Environment, says he’s heard lots of discussions about this happening. “I think the city will have some form of commercial scale facility in the near future,” he says. “The fact of the matter is that we actually need more than one.”

But so far, Shane admits, he hasn’t been able to make anything happen. And one of the guys who tried hardest to find space in the District, J.P. Masten of Organic Waste Haulers, says the closest option he could make work was a piece of land 30 miles away in Maryland. “That’s what you have to do to get stability as a hauler in this market,” Masten says.

Why hasn’t the District tried harder to push composting forward? Blame bureaucratic inertia. DDOE, which is usually the agency that takes charge of green programs, doesn’t run the waste stream. Garbage and recycling is the purview of the Department of Public Works, which is really good at collecting parking tickets and taking out the trash, but not at thinking proactively about how to change the way the system functions. The closest DPW director Bill Howland has come to that is proposing to build a waste-to-energy facility in D.C., which would require more land than a composting facility, cost hundreds of millions of dollars, and create an insatiable appetite for trash—not encourage people to waste less in the first place.

To truly go mainstream, composting needs to be part of an overall zero waste plan, like what’s been implemented in cities like Seattle, Portland, and San Francisco. There, consumers pay more to throw away more garbage, but composting and recycling are picked up for free. “I think that’s one of the things that’s lacking in D.C.,” says Brenda Platt of the Institute for Local Self Reliance, which has been working on the issue for years now. “It’s been bottles, cans, paper, and that’s as far as it’s gone, because it doesn’t have the sustainability frame.”

In the mean time, doesn’t anyone have a couple acres to spare?

Top photo by Darrow Montgomery, smaller ones by Lydia DePillis

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