composting: Scraps Help County Compost Program

Most homeowners would protest a trash dump behind their houses, but thousands of Alameda County, Calif., residents are adding more scraps to their backyard heaps - thanks to a thriving home composting program.

Since the San Leandro, Calif.-based Alameda County Waste Management Authority and Recycling Board launched its home composting program in 1991, the program has reached thousands of its citizens and won awards statewide from the California Resource Recovery Association, Sacramento, and the Alameda County and Western Regional Fairs Associations, Pleasanton, Calif.

The county estimates that approximately 30 percent of its households compost at home. More than 35,000, or 12 percent, of the single-family households have bought compost bins from the county at $17 to $38 per unit. In addition, county-sponsored composting classes have attracted 12,000 people, while 5,000 more have received free educational videos.

The authority also offers comprehensive educational support for home composting, including free classes, videos, brochures, demonstration gardens, a master composter training program and a Rotline, (510) 444-SOIL.

The program has proven to be cost-effective. Over the life of the compost bin, the average household will recycle almost three tons of material at an average cost of $18 per ton. This compares to the national average of $66 per ton for curbside collection and composting of residential debris, and disposal costs of approximately $80 per ton in Alameda County.

Initially, program participants were gardeners or recyclers, who composted enthusiastically with little prompting. But the authority soon realized that the next tier of residents needed a different approach.

The 1996 telephone survey found that 11 percent of residents who did not compost would be highly likely to participate in the program if they learned more about composting. However, the program already had maximized all available free or low-cost promotion, including garbage bill inserts, flyers and news coverage.

As this type of outreach became more difficult to secure and less effective, the county turned to more effective, and expensive, options - direct mail, paid newspaper advertising and broadly advertised one-day sale events. The authority discovered that new households needed to be exposed repeatedly to the campaign before they composted.

To maximize its second-tier promotions, county composting program officials emphasize their live telephone support Rotline and accept credit card orders for bins over the phone.

The authority also recently produced a free 22-minute how-to video, distributed in a reusable, postage-paid package, so that it can be returned and viewed by others. This video has received free cable coverage to a wide audience and is available at public libraries.

Future plans include a residential and an institutional grasscycling campaign. Designed to promote leaving cut grass on the lawn, the campaign hopes to give financial rewards and other incentives, such as rebates on mulching mowers to residents and institutions that grasscycle. An aggressive public education campaign will follow.

The institutional campaign will target landscapers and lawn maintenance professionals, including "mow, blow and go"-type operations. Combined with the residential campaign, this type of outreach is expected to reduce the significant amount of green waste that continues to be disposed of, despite existing curbside and self-haul recycling options.

Given the ambitious state and local diversion mandates, combined with the fact that 31 percent of material currently landfilled is organic waste, the county knows that its compost program still has more work to do.