Home composting – the economic, social and legislative drivers

With a total about-turn of topic, I’d like to share with you some thoughts about home composting. Now hang with me, because really, it’s more interesting and complicated than you might initially think.

There are three main legislative drivers for home composting in the UK. The first is, indirectly, the Kyoto protocol. Targets for reducing green house gases have meant that methane (a green house gas 23 times stronger than carbon dioxide) from anaerobic decomposition of food waste and other organic substances in landfill sites is a significant area of potential improvement (Defra, 2007b, p.22.). By comparison the carbon dioxide that is given off in aerobic decomposition in home composting is favourable (Recycle Now, 2009b). This gain in terms of green house gases is the main reason in favour of home composting stated by Recycle Now (2009c).

The second legislative driver is landfill reduction targets. Defra aims to reduce waste going to landfill by 25% of 1995 levels by 2010 and has more ambitious targets for subsequent years (Defra, 2007a, p.7.). Home composting contributes to targets on landfill if the material would have otherwise gone into general waste. This is an implied argument in favour of home composting used by Recycle Now (2009c). However if the waste would have been centrally composted, an economic conflict arises which will be discussed later.

The third legislative driver is a target for total centralised composting and recycling. There are currently no specific targets for home composting. Conceivably, this could be because of the difficulties in establishing the level of waste being home composted. As home composting does not enter the main waste streams, it is a more difficult process to obtain accurate estimates of the amount of waste being diverted from landfill. However there have previously been home composting targets. In 1995, “Making Waste Work” aimed to have 40% of households with gardens home composting by 2000 (Williams, 1998, p. 382.). This aim has not been met, as in 2005 35% of households with gardens composted (Defra, 2007a). This change of targets and the underachievement of 1995’s targets reflect the changing priorities of waste management schemes. Targets for home composting have been replaced by targets for total centralised re-use, recycling and composting. The annual progress reports currently do not include home composting data (Defra, 2007c). Therefore, contrary to the first two regulatory drivers, targets for centralised recycling and home composting could actually act as a disincentive to home composting as unlike centralised composting, it does not count towards targets.

As with the legislative drivers, the economic contribution of home composting to waste management initially seems simple: if food and garden waste is composted at home, less waste is being disposed of by local councils and therefore the economic burden is reduced. However there are many factors that complicate this. Councils are currently given a credit of £24 towards landfill tax for every tonne of municipal waste that is recycled (Environmental Protection Act, 1990). Since composting is considered recycling (as it changes a waste product (food or garden waste) into a different, usable product, usually compost, but also methane gas amongst others)) it contributes to this. Home composting is not counted towards this grant (Lets Recycle, 2006) and so loses Councils potential revenue from funding. This is exacerbated by the way that waste is quantified – by the tonne rather than by volume. Food waste has a relatively high weight to volume ratio due to a high moisture content seven times that of mixed paper (Williams, 1998, p. 84.). Therefore centralised food waste recycling is more financially worthwhile in terms of credits than the same volume of a lighter, bulkier waste product such as paper or plastic. Home composting reduces the amount of food and garden waste available to centralised composting schemes and therefore makes them less financially feasible because of smaller quantities and less economies of scale. Economically therefore, home composting is disadvantageous if there is a centralised composting scheme in place. Home composting has further disincentives for Councils: if centralised composting is used, the end product (compost) can be sold back to householders, creating another source of revenue. Home composting on the other hand provides the householder with the compost directly (after a time lag), with no addition cost to the householder and no additional revenue to the council. Therefore a Council wishing to maximise its revenue would want to discourage home composting, in favour of centralised composting.

At a National level WRAP (Waste & Resources Action Programme) have been subsidising compost bins for householders through its Recycle Now campaign (2009b). The compost bin subsidy has decreased from 75% to just 30% between 2004 – 2009 and now may be removed altogether because of budget constraints and decreasing demand (Lets Recycle, 2009). This is another example of how economic factors dictate the role of home composting in the UK’s waste management. Though removing its subsidy for home composting bins, WRAP has been working on a model of how much waste is diverted from the main waste streams. This is in order that home composting can contribute to LATS (Landfill Allowance Trading Scheme) targets (ibid). It is unclear whether this will be implemented but it could potentially remove some of the financial contradictions between home and central composting that Councils currently face (ibid).

So although the UK Government, through the Recycle Now campaign, is encouraging home composting, the economic drivers on Councils do not favour it. But in 2005/06 more household waste was home composted than centrally composted (Defra, 2007a, p.7.). This could reflect the limited extent of centralised composting schemes, but also suggests that home composting is relatively socially acceptable, as it must be extensively practiced. However home composting figures are generally quoted for households with gardens and this omission emphasises the limited nature of home composting as a strategy for waste management because of its social exclusiveness. Obstacles to home composting are primarily space and appropriate location, though there are concerns about health and attracting vermin (Recycle Now, 2009d). For composting to be feasible in most cases the households must have a garden, have space within the garden for a substantial sized compost bin and have a use for the compost it produces. People living in flats, with very small gardens or non- gardeners are therefore unlikely to see home composting as a feasible waste disposal system.

Though the social inclusiveness of home composting as a waste disposal method is limited, the educational aspect of WRAP’s Recycle Now campaign has focused on getting children involved and interested in home composting (2009e). This is supported by other youth based awareness campaigns such as the Eco-Schools initiative, where an aspect of the scheme can be school based composting (Eco-Schools, 2009a). These project has the dual advantage of developing positive habits in the next generation and reaching the “wider community” as the children are encouraged to carry out local consultations. (Eco-Schools, 2009b).

It’s a strange situation: Councils are actually being discouraged from encouraging householders to participate in the most efficient form of recycling. The reason? Government targets. The need for accountability and profit means that the best situation is being overlooked. There are plenty of solutions to the problem of small/no gardens and to objections over smell (Bokashi and wormeries are the obvious ones). There just isn’t the political will for it because it doesn’t make profit. It’s a crazy situation when an easy thing like composting gets centralised and then sold back to householders. But this is what happens when things revolve around profit rather than principles.

Environmental Protection Act, 1990
Williams, P, T. (1998) Waste Treatment and Disposal. Chichester, John Wiley and Sons Ltd.
Defra, (2007a) Waste Strategy for England. Annex C1: Municipal Waste.
Defra, (2007b) Waste Strategy for England.
Defra, (2007c) Waste Strategy Annual Progress Report 2007/08
Lets Recycle (2006) Home composting moves closer to full LATS acceptance (10.11.06) Available from: http://www.letsrecycle.com/materials/composting/news.jsp?story=6242
Lets Recycle (2009) WRAP to stop home compost bin subsidies Available from: http://www.letsrecycle.com/do/ecco.py/view_item?listid=37&listcatid=217&listitemid=11023
Recycle Now, (2009a) http://www.recyclenow.com/home_composting/get_advice/buy_a_bin_faqs/does_composting.html
Recycle Now, (2009b) http://www.recyclenow.com/home_composting/buy_a_bin/index.html
Recycle Now, (2009c) http://www.recyclenow.com/home_composting/buy_a_bin/why_buy_a_bin.html
Recycle Now, (2009d) http://www.recyclenow.com/applications/dynamic/get_advice_index.rm?preview_mode=none&id=22524&tags=&destination=/admin/index.rm&submitid=&compare_live=false&&page=2
Recycle Now, (2009e) http://www.recyclenow.com/home_composting/making_compost/compost_buddies.html
Eco-Schools, (2009a) http://www.eco-schools.org.uk/nine-topics/waste.aspx
Eco-Schools, (2009b) http://www.eco-schools.org.uk/about/