In the very near future, you're not just going to recycle soda cans and glass jars. You're going to recycle last night's leftovers.
The recycling of plastic, glass and paper has taken firm hold in the United States after years of steady growth. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. recovered about 10 percent of such material in 1960; it recovered 37 percent in 2012. On the other hand, composting — the recycling of food and yard waste — is an old idea that's just beginning to gain traction in U.S. cities. The amount of food waste that was recycled was still below 5 percent in 2012, although that was up from essentially nothing as late as 1980, the EPA said.
"Composting is one of the great keys to the future," said Robert Reed, spokesperson for Recology, San Francisco's recycling and compost collection service.
Composting advocates focus on the future, of course, but they also spend a lot of time studying the past: specifically, the Dust Bowl catastrophe of the 1930s.
As American topsoil blew away during the Dust Bowl, the U.S. secretary of agriculture deplored the "overplowing, overgrazing and overcutting of timber" as a "terribly destructive process" that is "not excusable in the United States." That was in 1938.
"Today, little has changed … except for 200 cities, with San Francisco leading the way to recycle food waste," said Bob Schaffer, a soil scientist at composting advocacy group Soil Culture Consulting. He added that about 35 percent of food in the United States is thrown into a landfill rather than physically consumed.
"The problem now is we don't have enough compost at all," he said. "The farmer now realizes he needs organic matter."
Composting is a natural process by which organic matter is turned back into nutrient-rich soil through bacterial decomposition. For municipal composting services, food scraps such as carrot peels and string bean ends are collected and taken to a composting facility, usually a third-party, contracted business. The processed dirt is then resold to farmers and gardening nurseries.
While that consumer-to-farm cycle is the ideal, Schaffer said the high demand for compost has actually pushed some farmers to growing and processing large amounts of easily biodegradable plants.
San Francisco has an urban curbside compost collection program and provides bins for every property in the city to collect yard trimmings and food scraps from restaurants and homes. As is the case in many other areas, the material is brought to a facility and turned into organic matter that is redistributed as fertilizer to local farms.
Compost "is one of California's keys to tackle drought because it acts as a natural sponge," he said. With its current recycling programs, he said some neighborhoods have a recovery rate of 90 percent, while the city as a whole hopes to achieve zero waste by 2020.
Further north, Seattle aims to increase its recycling rate from 56.2 percent to 70 percent by 2022, said Timothy Croll, solid waste director for the city of Seattle. He added that a new regulation that starts on Jan. 1 will require all food waste to be composted, and he hopes to see it help the city reach a goal of 60 percent recycling next year.
On the East Coast, New York City Department of Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia agreed that "the frontier right now is around organic waste."
The Big Apple lags behind its West Coast counterparts. The nation's biggest city rolled out a pilot composting program this past June for 100,000 households. Garcia said the amount of garbage has decreased in those areas.
New York City has an overall recycling rate — that includes organic and non-organic materials — of 15.5 percent, said Garcia, who added that those figures are not directly comparable to West Coast cities because New York does not include construction material and textiles in its calculations.
Portland, Oregon, has capitalized on economic forces to give residents more incentive to recycle and compost their food.
In 2011, the city decided to pick up refuse every other week and collect recyclables and compostable material once a week. Many locals were worried about leaving garbage around for two weeks, and the department received many concerned phone calls, said Michael Armstrong, sustainability manager at the city of Portland.
Soon after the program started, the phone calls died down, and Portland saw the percentage of waste recycled increase from 50 percent to 70 percent. The volume of garbage collected decreased by 35 percent.
"To me, it's a great example of the kind of change we need to see more of," Armstrong said. "We pick up less garbage because (there) should be less and less of it."
Beyond basic disintegration of plant matter through composting, some recycling leaders have turned to a traditional agricultural practice that burns organic matter in order to create a carbon-rich substance called biochar. Once mixed into soil, biochar can boost plant growth in degraded urban soil by 40 percent, according to a study by NYU professor Natalie Jeremijenko at New York's Socrates Sculpture Park.
Jeremijenko, who is also an artist, engineer and inventor, said she tries to show composting and other environmentally beneficial practices to people first-hand.
She turned composting into a community event called a "Biochar Cha." Locals brought junk mail to be burned at a "biochar barbeque" while unwinding to the mixes of a salsa DJ. She said such "public experiments" can grow into a widespread practice that will help create a cleaner environment at a faster rate than cities' curbside programs will.
"The fundamental challenge that we face in the next 25 years is to redesign our relationship to natural systems," she said. "The 'reduce, reuse, recycle' chant has to be radically transformed to understand our relationship to natural systems."