Philly is building the first urban composting facility in Pa. — and it’s opening soon

Philadelphia’s first city-wide composting facility will open in the spring, marking a major milestone in a march towards zero waste.

fruit and vegetable scraps

(Photo via ShutterStock)

Philadelphia’s first city-wide composting facility will open in the spring. According to Mayor Jim Kenney’s Zero Waste and Litter Cabinet, this marks a major milestone toward Philly’s goal of eliminating landfills and incinerators by 2035.

A two-year update report, released on Monday by the Cabinet, describes the Lawncrest facility as the linchpin of the city’s plan to dramatically reduce the amount of waste buried and burned locally.

Philadelphia residents and businesses generated over two million tons of waste in 2017, according to the report. About half went to landfills and incinerators.

“There’s many different materials that are being used and discarded. And a lot of those materials can find new lives, either through reuse, repair or recycling,” said Nic Esposito, Zero Waste and Litter cabinet director.

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Food and organics are some of them. Which is why taking food waste out of the kitchen trash can has been one of the cabinet’s priorities since it was created by Mayor Kenney in 2016. But a major obstacle was blocking progress: The state doesn’t have a permit for composting in dense urban areas. So the city is creating the first, in partnership with the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection and the Pennsylvania Recycling Markets Center.

“[One of the cabinet’s highlights this year is] finally plugging the gap … around compost: having our community composting network up and running, our urban composting RFP finally out after four years of development, and other larger industrial-scale composters being attracted to a site here in the city,” said Esposito.

According to the request for proposals open until December 6, the facility will be privately operated on city-owned land on Rising Sun Ave, in Tacony Creek Park. The facility will compost food scraps from 30 – 35 city recreation centers, with the goal of eventually scaling up to enable composting at all 156 city centers. Smaller-scale composting operations will happen at about 11 other sites around the city — community gardens, schools and other rec centers — as part of the community composting network.

“Compost can be processed and used right here in the city,” Esposito said. “Philly will really be the city kind of opening the door, working with the DEP to make this happen. It will benefit many other cities throughout the Commonwealth as well.”

The city also celebrated another 2019 win in the report. In 2018, after China stopped accepting recyclables that were more than 0.5% contaminated for processing, Philadelphia started sending about half of its recyclables to incinerators. But now the city is back to recycling everything that residents put in their blue bins through a new contract with Waste Management. The city hopes that will reduce the amount of waste sent to landfills and incinerators this year.

The city also decided to no longer include incineration, with or without conversion to fuel energy, as a waste diversion strategy. It’s goal is to eliminate the use of all incinerators by 2035.

“We want that to be a very small piece of our solution. The bigger pieces are that we’re either recycling, composting or most importantly reusing and reducing our waste,” Esposito said.

Illegal dumping and litter on Berks Street, in Kensington. (Catalina Jaramillo/WHYY)

Is the city cleaner? Not yet

Even as the city makes strides towards changing Philly’s relationship with waste, the scene on the ground hasn’t changed much. Philadelphia’s streets were only 0.06 cleaner in 2018 compared to 2017, according to the city’s Litter Index.

Esposito says that while litter remains a big problem, the city has laid the foundation needed to reduce litter and waste over the long term. Tools such as the city’s municipal building waste audit, the commercial waste report and the litter index will make future progress possible, he said.

Two years ago, the city set 31 recommendations set to reduce litter and waste. They include stronger enforcement for illegal dumping, bringing street sweeping back, and banning plastic bags. Since August 2017, the city has either accomplished or started about 90% of those recommendations.

According to the report, the amount of heavy illegal dumping cleaned up by the city went from 11,525 tons in fiscal year 2016 to 6,808 tons in 2019, as a direct result of increased enforcement.

Esposito says they’re also seeing results in neighborhoods where the city is putting resources based on the results of last year’s Litter Index, such as Kensington.

“We’re not going to solve the whole litter problem …  in two years with the cabinet,” Esposito said. “But the trends are going in the right direction.”

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