Collection practices for organics

While numerous collection programs for yard trimmings have been in places for more than a decade, food scrap collection programs are relative newcomers. Some communities are expanding their yard waste programs into comprehensive green waste programs while others are keeping food scraps separate. Soiled paper products are often included in these programs. Read below for more on which communities are collecting organics and how they are doing so.

Yard waste collection from residents and businesses falls into three categories: curbside collection (in wheeled carts or bags), street collection through vacuum trucks or trailers, and drop-off locations. These programs may run year-round, seasonally, or over short periods depending on the growing season and program demand. For example, a municipality may sponsor a short collection period for Christmas trees in early January or for debris in response to a damaging storm.

Curbside collection

Curbside collection of yard waste can be done through wheeled carts, paper or designated bags, or through loose piles in the street. Wheeled carts work well with automated collection routes while loose collections can be handled by heavy equipment such as skid loaders or front end loaders. Loose collections require greater street access and limited parking obstacles, and may increase wind-blown debris and clogged waterways. The City of San Jose, CA offers curbside collection both loose in the street (at no additional charge) or in a curbside cart (for a small monthly fee). The City of Stockton, CA stopped offering the loose collection when the State Water Board declared that “green waste placed in the street can clog storm drains and pollute Delta waterways killing fish.” The city does permit residents to include up to five additional bags of leaves alongside their green carts during the fall season. In Grand Rapids, MI, residents can purchase large paper bags for yard waste or purchase a collection cart, which requires a separate yard waste tag every time it is placed at the curb. Residents can also purchase a bulk yard waste tag for bundled branches and twigs.

The City of Cedar Rapids, IA has created a hybrid yard waste program that collects some household organics but not the full range covered by most food scrap programs. Alongside the yard and garden debris typically covered under yard waste collections, the city also includes fruit debris such as apple peelings and cantaloupe rinds, and soiled paper products such as tea bags, paper towels and paper plates. Other food wastes are not accepted. The cart materials are collected weekly through automated trucks and placed in ventilated containers.

Drop-off sites

Drop-off sites may be seasonal, running from spring to fall during the peak growing season, limited to quarterly or periodic offerings such as a spring/fall cleanup, or ongoing programs. Ongoing programs offer the greatest diversion potential, and offering additional locations during peak demand, such as for a few weeks in the fall or after Christmas, can increase program participation. The City of Boulder, CO participates in the county’s full time yard waste program but also offers additional drop-off sites for residents to compost leaves and pumpkins in the fall and for Christmas trees in January. The city also offers a spring cleanup program that collects loose yard waste at the curb from residents, but hopes to eliminate the costly service with a green waste cart program. The City of Fargo, ND offers a combination approach to yard waste collection, offering curbside collection during the winter in separate bags or boxes, and drop-off sites from spring through summer. Kitsap County, WA offers all residents a series of drop-off sites for yard waste and also offers curbside collection for residents in areas where backyard burning is prohibited or restricted.

Debris management plans

Tornados, hurricanes, high winds, flooding-many natural disasters can create a torrent of yard debris and communities should be equipped with a debris management plan in such an event. Preparations may include locating additional drop-off zones for residents and businesses, offering special curbside collections in the weeks following the event, and identifying composting facilities in the local or regional vicinity equipped to handle a surge of materials. For examples of debris management plans, check out:

Around the country, communities are realizing their mistake in landfilling or incinerating the valuable nutrients found in food scraps. Collection programs are springing up everywhere, from small towns to major metropolises, to reroute organic materials back into our soils.


  • San Francisco, CA
  • Alameda County, CA
  • Berkeley, CA
  • Hennepin County, MN
  • Seattle, WA
  • King County, WA
  • Portland, OR***
  • San Jose, CA***
  • Orange County, NC***
  • Western Lake Superior Sanitary District, MN****


  • Morgan Hill, CA
  • Livermore, CA
  • Pleasanton, CA
  • San Leandro, CA
  • Union City, CA
  • Boulder, CO***
  • Cambridge, MA***


  • Dublin, CA
  • Mackinaw Island, MI
  • Hutchinson, MN
  • Wayzata, MN
  • Swift County, MN
  • Central Vermont Solid Waste Management District***
  • Bowdoinham, ME
  • Newark, CA
  • San Fernando, CA

* Large=100,000+ residents; medium= 50-100,000 residents; small=<50,000 residents
***Businesses only.
****Commercial collection with residential drop-off sites

There are three primary approaches to collecting residential food scraps: curbside collection with yard waste, curbside collection of solely food scraps, and drop-off center collections. Each approach is broadly discussed below, followed by examples of communities using this method. Commercial collection is done almost entirely by curbside collection of food scraps only, with some small quantities of yard waste permissible in some cases. Smaller commercial generators may be able to utilize drop-off centers as well, but these are the exception rather than the rule. Composting at special events is also discussed as a great way to introduce the concept to the community.

Curbside collection of food scraps, yard trimmings and soiled paper

The majority of communities offering organics collection do so by adding food scraps and soiled paper products to existing curbside yard waste programs. If a curbside yard waste program does not exist, it may be rolled out concurrently with food scraps as a complete “green waste” program. Piggybacking off an existing yard waste program allows communities to take advantage of already-distributed containers, established truck routes, automated cart collection, and in some cases, split body vehicles which enable co-collection of materials. Collecting both materials together can also decrease the moisture and odor emanating from food waste. Materials are collected either weekly with trash and recycling services alternating weeks, or biweekly with recycling and composting on alternate weeks and trash every week. In other cases, the frequency of trash service is determined by the customer. Before expanding into a complete green waste program, it is important to confirm that the composting facility is permitted for mixed organics. See Composting Regulations for more information on how state and local laws may determine which materials are accepted, and what you can do if your regional laws create an impediment to organics recycling.

San Francisco, CA
San Francisco has captured most of the national attention on organics collection and its Fantastic Three program is definitely a great source of information. Communities throughout California and increasingly around the country are successfully breaking into organic collections as well.

Hutchinson, MN
Green waste is collected weekly in a 90-gallon container and includes yard waste, soiled paper and food products including meat and dairy. Residents are supplied with biodegradable bags at an average of two per week. Residents can downsize trash containers or drop service to every other week. Businesses can also recycle organics, having started off the program in the late 1990s.

Morgan Hill, CA
The city of Morgan Hill provides green waste collection to residents like a growing number of California communities. Yard trimmings, food waste including meat and dairy, and soiled paper are accepted. The town provides residents with two “under the sink” containers to store food waste inside and 32 or 96 gallon yard waste carts collected once per week. For those residents with small yards or who compost at home, the city also offers a smaller 13-gallon food waste cart coined the “Jolly Green Junior.”

Without meat

Meat and dairy scraps attract animals to compost bins and are most often left out of home compost bins. They also tend to generate odors and attract flies. Keeping these materials out of an organics collection program may cut back on odor and pest problems, but it will be complicated for residents to keep food discards separate.

Seattle, WA
Seattle expanded its yard waste collection to include vegetable matter, food scraps and soiled paper, but does not accept any meat, bones, dairy, coated paper or tissues. The city issues 96 gallon collection containers and offers suggestions for residents for kitchen collection containers. The city originally did not permit compostable liner bags while the compost facility tested the biodegradability claims, but has now certified BioBags for the containers. Residents have been required to recycle yard waste since 1989. Weekly food and yard waste collection will be offered to all single family homes starting sometime in 2009, and meat and dairy products will be added at that time.

In the commercial sector, area businesses receive organics collection for 20% less than traditional trash rates and receive an exemption from utility taxes, lowering rates to nearly 30% below trash. Meat and dairy products are accepted from businesses, and businesses are required to recycle yard waste as of January 2005.

Curbside collection of food scraps only

In areas where yard waste collection is already provided by drop-off sites or if food scraps will be processed at a different facility than yard waste, it may be beneficial to collect the materials separately. Collecting only food waste requires smaller collection containers and presents a larger challenge for keeping containers clean and fresh.

Wayzata, MN
Food waste is collected from residents at the curb and sent to a city site for processing. The city began collecting food waste separately in 2003 pilot program thanks to a grant from the county. Other household organic materials such as food-soiled paper are permitted, as are meat and dairy. Residents who reduced trash service to every other week are saving money on the program. Residents cannot use the carts for yard waste and must bring yard waste to the public drop-off site. Thanks to 75%+ participation in the pilot, the city added the program on full time in 2005.

Durham, Ontario
The Durham Region of Ontario lies east of the City of Toronto within the greater Toronto metro area and is home to more than half a million residents. Residents separate food waste for weekly curbside collection, including meat, dairy and paper products. More than 175,000 households received bins through two phases. The green waste cart contains a metal handle for locking and is collected by a two compartment truck handling either trash and compostables, or compostables and recycling. In several towns of the region, trash collection was switched to every other week with recycling and composting collection weekly. The remaining towns offer trash and compostables collection weekly and recycling bi-weekly. Yard waste is not collected in the bin and is serviced curbside with rigid open-top containers or kraft yard waste bags.

Caledon, Brampton and Mississauga, Ontario
Towns across the Region of Peel rolled out organics collection to a collective 285,000 households with more than one million residents, following the Region of Durham program. Residents were provided with a roll of compostable liner bags for their kitchen containers. Thirteen gallon carts were provided to residents and a three bag limit was placed on trash, with additional bags costing $1 each. Residents can put food waste, including meat and dairy, and paper products in the bin, and are encouraged to use small quantities of yard trimmings to top off the containers if not full.

Drop-off center collection of food scraps, yard trimmings and soiled paper

Operating a curbside collection of green waste requires an investment in infrastructure-bins, trucks, drivers, etc.-just like recycling programs. And just like recycling programs, there may be areas better served by centralized drop-off points. Food waste collection at drop-off points may be a bit more complicated than recycling because the materials cannot sit around as long as stacks of newspapers, but a convenient network of locations could overcome the barriers to frequent drop-offs. Drop-off points may also require more motivation on the part of residents to utilize the program, as compared to a curbside service.

Cambridge, MA: The city of Cambridge ran a pilot program in 2008 to collect food scraps from residents at the recycling drop-off center. Curbside pickup is available for businesses. Residents are eligible for a free 2.5 gallon bucket to collect kitchen scraps and are encouraged to line the bucket with paper bags. Biodegradable bags are not permitted. Yard waste is not accepted as it is collected weekly from residents at the curb throughout the growing season. Meat, bone and dairy products are accepted, as are paper towels, soiled paper products (no tissues), and other paper products certified by the Biodegradable Products Institute.

Western Lake Superior Sanitary District, MN: Several drop-off sites are available to residents looking to compost their food waste, including at the yard waste drop-off site. All food scraps are accepted, including meat and dairy, but soiled paper is not permitted. Food must be dropped off in securely tied biodegradable bags. For Duluth residents, the drop-off center offered a great way to continue composting after local haulers decided against continuing a curbside pilot program.

Targeting large generators and events

Whether it’s about securing tonnage for a new facility, finding the low-hanging fruit, raising awareness or ramping up diversion numbers, targeting large generators of organic materials is a must for any program to get off the ground running. Large generators of food scraps include institutions like universities and hospitals, food processing companies, supermarkets, the restaurant sector, and large community events.

  • The State of Ohio has awarded several grants aimed at increasing food waste composting by targeting large generators such as universities, grocers, food processors, and even the state fair.
  • Supermarket Recycling Organics Initiative, developed by WasteCap of Massachusetts, provides supermarkets and other interested parties with the information needed to design and implement an organics recycling program.
  • Read “Economics of Supermarket Organics Diversion” from BioCycle, March 2006, and “Operational Considerations and Economics of Commercial Organics Diversion” from BioCycle, February 2006.
  • For composting at universities, check out Campus Zero Waste.

Soiled paper plates and cups, napkins, paper towels and greasy pizza boxes are not suitable for paper recycling programs, but that’s not the end of their usefulness-these products can be composted along with food and yard waste. More than 4.6 million tons of tissue paper, paper towels, paper plates and paper cups were discarded in 2006.

These materials are commonly accepted in curbside composting programs for food and yard waste. Commercial compost facilities, unlike home compost bins, can process the organic materials at a temperature high enough to kill the pathogens aboard your tissues and paper towels. Paper products add also carbon content to the resulting soil amendments.

The plastic lining in some disposal cups, as well as in coated paperboard products, can pose a contaminant problem for composters. Check with your local composting facility to see if plastic-lined paper products are accepted.

Soiled paper products can also be collected at community events set up to be Zero Waste. Community events represent a great opportunity to reach a large number of people with a hands-on demonstration of Zero Waste and source separating organics. Eco-Cycle has been working with local municipalities and event organizers for more than ten years to make their events Zero Waste. By working with food vendors and event organizers to purchase only recyclable or compostable products for distribution at the event, Eco-Cycle has helped events reach 98% resource recovery. In 2007, Eco-Cycle educated more than 220,000 people at 34 Zero Waste events and helped their community save 155 trees, 30,327 gallons of water and 32,904 kWh of energy. Eco-Cycle also developed the first regularly scheduled Zero Waste event in the country in the Boulder Farmers’ Market which, over the course of its seven-month season, taught nearly half a million market shoppers how to source separate organics and the connection between composting organic materials and returning nutrients to our local soils. Learn more about ZW event planning.