Photo by via Flickr
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Imagine enough banana peels, chicken bones and moldy bread slices to equal the weight of an elephant. Now multiply that by 70 — enough for an entire herd of African elephants. That’s about how much food waste single-family homes in the District will produce this year: 419 tons, or over 900,000 pounds, according to a report commissioned by the Department of Public Works

The hundreds of tons of food waste don’t even count the amount from the majority of D.C. residents who live in apartments and other multi-family buildings. 

And when left to sit in landfills, all that food waste and other organic matter produces huge amounts of methane, a greenhouse gas that warms up our planet with alarming potency. 

To address that problem, DPW launched a pilot program on April 22 — Earth Day — that will offer free curbside food waste pickup to 1,500 single-family homes in each D.C. ward. The city will take it to be composted, turning it into useful soil fertilizer and preventing climate change-causing emissions. 

How It Works

Any single-family home that receives city trash and recycling services can sign up for the program. Interested households can go to and fill out some basic information: the form consists of just ten questions, and that includes “First” and “Last” separately. Participation is free, and the pilot program will run for one year. 

The first 1,500 eligible people to sign up from each ward will get a spot in the program. Along with a welcome packet of instructions, participating households will receive a small compost bin for inside the house, and a larger one for outside. 

DPW Zero Waste Program Analyst Rachel Manning said the agency aims to begin pickups this summer, though it has yet to choose a contractor for the compost collection or processing. Pickups will take place once a week. 

But What About…?

Many people in D.C. already compost, taking their food waste to drop off points that DPW operates at ten Farmer’s Market sites on weekends. Each ward has at least one drop off point. Manning said DPW collected over 900,000 pounds of food waste from the drop offs in 2022. 

Further, several other DMV jurisdictions—including Prince George’s County, Howard County and Arlington—have already adopted curbside food waste pickup as part of their regular trash collection services. 

Still, for people new to composting, the idea of separating food scraps can raise some concerns. 

“One thing we get a lot of questions about is if you’re going to put food waste out, if you’re going to attract rodents to the neighborhood,” said DPW Recycling Program Officer Bill Easley. “Well, we’re not asking anybody to do anything other than what they’re already doing. They’re already putting food waste out in the trash.”

The same is true for another common concern—smells. Food waste in a compost bin won’t smell any worse than it would in any kitchen trash can. Manning said some people keep the two-gallon indoor bin inside their fridge or freezer to further cut down on smells. 

Najwa Womack, founder of a compost education company based in Ward 7 called SiStained8, said she reduces odors by including materials like old leaves, paper or straw in her compost bin. Those organic “brown materials” speed up the breakdown process and mitigate scents from smellier organic materials like food scraps. 

Sign-ups filling up faster in some wards than others

Within 12 hours of the pilot program’s launch, all 1,500 spots for Ward 4 had filled up, Manning said. A week later, Wards 3 and 6 had maxed out as well. 

While DPW did not share specific numbers, Manning said that wards 5, 7 and 8 still had many spots left as of April 26. 

“There’s a lot of opportunity for folks to hop in there and get their name in for selection,” Manning said. She went on to mention that the agency plans to do more “targeted outreach” to encourage sign-ups across the city. 

Through SiStained8, Womack has been working on compost education in Ward 7 for more than five years. When asked, she said DPW hadn’t reached out to her just yet about outreach or the curbside pilot program in general. 

“I encourage people to sign up,” Womack said. “But if the education piece doesn’t come prior to the actual activity, the ability to sustain a person’s interest and their active role in it may dissipate…I feel like there’s work that needs to be done prior to just getting numbers up, and people into it.” 

In addition to leading workshops and classes, creating online educational content on the company’s Instagram (@sistained8) and selling specialty compost containers, SiStained8 hosts its own regular food waste drop offs at Ward 7’s Lederer Gardens (4801 Nannie Helen Burroughs Ave NE). Last year, Womack said the company kept over 1,600 pounds of food waste out of landfills. 

Still, while waste drop-offs offer a great alternative, curbside pickup makes composting “as easy as possible,” Womack said, which is important to grow the practice more widely. 

“Composting is the future,” Womack said. “Whether you get into it now or not, you’re going to hear more and more about it as time goes along. Your children will know about it in school. So get on board now.”

Kayla Benjamin photo

Kayla Benjamin

Kayla Benjamin covers climate change & environmental justice for the Informer as a full-time reporter through the Report for America program. Prior to her time here, she worked at Washingtonian Magazine...

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