How Tempes Compost Program Plans to Pay Dividends

Tony Miano, a deputy Public Works director in Tempe, Ariz., worried about the future of the agency he helps to oversee. At the mercy of private haulers, the municipality’s landfill rates rise every year while its trash keeps piling up. Thinking ahead, Miano’s found a way to cut costs and waste that he thinks will turn into a moneymaker in time.

Through the now three-year-old program, Tempe collects yard waste, turns it into compost and gives it away to residents, 10 surrounding cities and industry and government organizations. While the trash-turned-to-commodity will remain free to residents, others will eventually be asked for a modest fee, leveraged to keep the growing program going.

If you go to Tempe’s field operations headquarters you will see the 25- to 40-foot hedgerows, stacked 10 feet high. Residents come pick it up as do public parks, schools, the Phoenix Zoo and others.

“In three years we’ve given away about 9,000 yards on average a year to the public alone. And we keep growing every year,” says Miano.

There has been a learning curve involved with mastering the technique and selling the public on this new way to deal with yard scraps. But the program has had monetary and environmental benefits. It’s educating Tempe's residents and will soon be used to help guide municipalities interested in launching similar programs.

The project materialized following a waste composition study.

“We found that 70 percent of what was put to the curb was yard waste, 40 percent of which could be converted to compost,” says Miano.

The Phoenix Zoo is among takers

The zoo had existing composting programs for food scraps, but no space to compost their tonnage of animal waste, says Hassena Kassim, Phoenix Zoo’s collections manager of horticulture.

Now zoo workers separate out manure and bedding from other waste streams and the city picks it up a few times a month. They compost it and give it back, along with truckloads of branches they’ve collected that the animals chew on and play with.

“It’s almost like a continual loop. We are helping to divert their waste, and they are helping us divert ours. It’s been a great partnership,” says Kassim.

The whole city benefits, notes councilwoman Lauren Kuby, pointing out reduced pesticide use and less trips to the dump, translating to fewer emissions and less gasoline dependency—the city saved 800 gallons in gas just since January.


Tempe pays to grind, screen and cook the compost. The material’s temperature is carefully monitored.

“If [the pile’s] temperature is too high you have risk for fire and kill the microbes that turn it to compost. If the temperature is too low you don’t nourish the microbes and slow down the process,” explains Miano.

Operations costs fluctuate depending on cooking time, So says Miano, “We are bouncing up against breaking even and losing money.” The city does save $26.25 per ton in disposal fees and $5 a mile for each garbage truck and driver.

The city council bought in right away; they have historically pushed for sustainability programs. But the residents started out skeptical about having to separate their trash and the notion of fewer bulk trash pickups. Information on the city’s website and videos have helped them realize the benefits. And the city is producing a “how to” handbook to educate other municipalities.

The parks story

The city's parks division spreads the compost to maintain its grounds and sometimes gets more creative, such as at one community center. The center had a pool in disrepair but no funds to refurbish it. So they filled the hole with dirt and compost and turned it into a community garden.

“Instead of this hole lined in cement that would have been a blighted space, they have a place to grow vegetables and fruit trees,” says Miano.

Learning as they go

His advice to municipalities considering composting is to educate their staff.

“The biggest mistake I made was not making sure my staff was trained before we started,” says Miano.

He eventually hired an experienced supervisor and put staff through a green organics certification program offered by the Solid Waste Association of North America.

The goal is to generate 10,000 tons of compost a year by 2020. Miano believes it’s doable.

“You give people a good program to get rid of their green organics. You turn it into compost and give it back. Next thing you know, just like the blue bin, it becomes natural to them, and they expect it.” 

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