The politics of decay

From the Majewski compost site
From the Majewski compost site

I gave up on home composting a few years back after briefly trying a tall tumbler; there was no good place to keep it, and my neglect of it in its obscure location made for poor or minimal results. However, I couldn’t stand the thought of allowing organic waste go to the landfill, so now I have a bucket that is picked up regularly by the Farmer Pirates, who use it for their urban farming efforts. As a bonus, they return some finished compost once or twice a year.

Majewski's Urban Habitat Project
Majewski’s Urban Habitat Project

What I’d like is for my city to have a program that picks up organic waste. Buffalo does collect bagged leaves in the fall, sending them to a commercial facility somewhere, but that’s it—unlike ninety other cities that now regularly pick up compostable materials like grass clippings, other yard waste, and food waste. In San Francisco, a green organic waste bin sits next to the blue recycling bin and the black landfill bin. Note the significance of the colors; the idea is to place as little as possible in the somber landfill bin and look for alternatives for those items that don’t qualify for recycling or composting. San Francisco’s goal is to achieve zero waste by 2020; as of June of this year, the city was about eighty percent there.  San Diego, Los Angeles, and New York have since set zero waste goals. New York has the longest way to go, but does plan to reduce solid waste by ninety percent by 2030. Other cities that have set zero waste goals include Minneapolis, Oakland, Washington, DC, Seattle, Austin, and Dallas.

Another view of the UHP
Another view of the UHP

I do think it’s only a matter of time before Buffalo joins these municipalities. Until it does, we have people like our local compost guru Dave Majewski*. For over a decade now, Majewski has been spreading the gospel of green infrastructure—runoff solutions, rain gardens, meadows,  and more. He received an EPA award for an urban habitat he completed on Buffalo’s East Side and now maintains a (roughly) four-acre compost facility in the same area, where he has room for a couple dozen large piles of compost, each one with a label that is regularly updated. Initial high temperatures kill weed seeds and any pathogens that might be present; when the piles cool, they’re ready to use. Visitors can wander throughout the lot and never detect anything other than a faint and pleasant woodsy scent. Majewski sells his compost to large-scale operations that need it for sustainable landscapes.


Majewski stresses that all compost is not created equal, and is regularly studies soil science, recommending such books as Grass, Soil, Hope, and, of course, Teeming with Microbes. He notes that some commercial producers include materials that don’t belong in compost (rubber, plastics, artificial fertilizers, and useless filler) and that some small producers don’t properly turn or aerate their product. On his website, Majewski explains his simple guideline for all his projects: what would nature do? His goal is to emulate the natural decomposition process that creates rich, crumbly humus on the forest floor. Many gardeners reading this know the value of a lovingly maintained compost pile, but not everyone has the space or the time to do it themselves. This is where municipalities can step up, at the same time preventing tons of organic waste from becoming landfill fodder.

This fall, Buffalo citizens will once again be invited to put out their leaves for collection. These leaves are being composted somewhere, but not necessarily for citizen benefit, and leaves are but one ingredient in great compost. A municipal organic waste pick-up and compost program is a natural outgrowth of any city’s ongoing focus on sustainable action and healthy living. Do you have one in yours?

*Majewski’s website is in progress.

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Elizabeth Licata

Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regular radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world, and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at


  1. We have green waste bins picked up every other week. No branches over 1″ thick, so you either have to have an alternate disposal method for those, or just put them in your black bin. The black bin is more than just garbage. Everything in it goes to the Materials Recovery Facility where it is sorted for recyclables. Most days at least 60% of the incoming material is removed for recycling. The remains goes into the landfill. We also have many drop-off locations around the city for cardboard, paper, metal, plastic, and styrofoam (they put out extra bins at Christmas time). And several spots for electronics recycling. There are collection bins for disposing of batteries in almost every store you walk into (but I think that’s all over California). And again at Christmas time, there are assorted drop-off locations for old Christmas trees too. The city uses the compost for landscaping projects, but it is also available for homeowners’ use. My only gripe is that if you want some of the compost made from the materials you contributed, you have to go get it yourself from the landfill. No deliveries. Small price to pay, I suppose.

  2. The city of San Diego has a composting facility. Residents can pick up compost for free f they load it themselves or have it loaded in a pick up for a nominla fee. Watching the giant compost machine turn the long windrows is a kick. The machine looks like a semi–trailer turned sideways as it travels down the rows until it disappears behind the steam released by the freshly turned compost.

  3. Does Majewski have any criteria for what he’ll pick up, or what he’d rather not pick up?

    Because so few people in the SF Bay Area keep their lawns without artificial herbicides or pesticides, I wouldn’t dream of getting compost from the local municipalities. I don’t have a pickup truck, just a Volvo wagon, and I think the gate to our back yard is maybe 4′ wide…just not practical, even if it was the quality & content I’d want.

    In Campbell, next to San Jose, one gets a green bin for the asking, while the contractor for City of San Jose charges about $65 a year for one, so most folk, yep, dump the stuff in the street for pick up.

    As with recycling, waste pickup depends on the latest contract with your waste management “provider”.

    I heard today that Global Green, who provides waste management in some areas of the Bay Area, has a pilot project in a city in the East Bay:

    They’re going to see about transforming the scraps (details unknown to me at this time) into food for animals. Michael Pollan will probably be asking about some of the contents, and whether they really belong in that animal’s food–I sure will!

  4. Leaves do not need to be picked up. Just mow them to chop them finely and they will compost into the lawn. Less work and better soil is the result. Most leaf pickup by cities is a waste of money.

  5. Here Waste Management collects green waste separately, but it is not made into compost; rather it is used as the top cover layer for the day over the trash. The trash is collected first, placed in the landfill, then the green waste is put over the top and is there overnight, and then the process is repeated the next day. So it all goes into the landfill.

    Because of the drought here, I’ve removed all the plants from a previously planted area of the garden to save water, and now that area has become a 6’x15′ compost pile. I’m trying to compost almost everything except seriously diseased roots rather than sending it to the landfill. I’m also doing some “composting in place”, dropping trimmings and finished flowers around the plants that produced them, which is also acting as extra mulch, holding in soil moisture.

    A couple of the neighboring cities will fine-grind your Christmas tree and you can then take it home and use it as mulch, which I would love to do, but my area does not offer that.

    The local electrical utility’s tree trimming service will give you their grindings from trimming around the neighborhood, but their grind is so coarse, it doesn’t compost easily. The pieces can be 4-6′ in size, not easily compost-able here in an arid climate.

  6. We had our first curbside kitchen waste compost pick up in our small(ish) town north of Boston this week. We’re part of the pilot program and I couldn’t be happier. I, too, have a relatively small lot with no good place to compost. The locations with enough sun are all in the front yard. My neighbors are ok with my front yard vegetable bed but I think a front yard compost pile would be too much.

    Our town already picks up garden waste spring and fall and has a drop off site open during the summer. You can pick up composted waste there. Tree trimming waste (and Christmas trees) also get composted here. In a year or so the composted kitchen waste will be available, too.

    I’m thrilled our community is going green. Hopefully this is just the beginning of the trend.

    Now if only I could find something to do with used cat litter…

  7. In my town in South Jersey, the town regularly picks up garden refuse: grass clippings (placed so carefully in purchased Home Depot bags!), leaves, twigs and small branches. It then sells finished compost and wood chips to landscapers. I wish they’d sell to homeowners too. I have a mulching mower, so most of the time my clippings are left in the lawn. In the fall, I use the bag attachment to collect clippings mixed with chopped up leaves, and dump the free mulch in my gardens. (Prior to having mature trees, I was a leaf bag stealer.) I have a compost bin that gets the weeds and household compost items, that I just don’t turn enough. But at least that stuff isn’t going to the landfill. (Except the poison ivy. The poison ivy goes to the landfill.)

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