Fort Worth leads the way with innovative city food-composting program
Fort Worth has trash in its sights, and would like you get with the program — the composting program, that is.
Recognizing that the city’s landfill was filling up with materials that could go elsewhere, Fort Worth has been seeking ways to divert materials that could be re-used, recycled, mulched, or composted.
Food scraps might seem like a messy annoyance when you take out the garbage, but it’s a bigger problem for the environment than it is for your nose. The methane gas from decomposing food in landfills contributes to greenhouse gas emissions. It also contributes to air, water, and traffic and transport pollution because the food scraps have to be hauled away by garbage trucks.
Composting takes those scraps and transforms them into organic matter that can be put back into the ground as a rich soil nutrient.
Back in 2014, an audit of the Fort Worth landfill revealed that 35 percent of contents could have been composted instead. This knowledge led city staffers to come up with an innovative solution, with a design based on a similar program in Minneapolis, to encourage and support residential composting.
In addition to local funding from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the program is supported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Fort Worth currently has a total of 2,466 subscribers, who've donated a total of 144,201 pounds of food waste, keeping nutrient-rich food scraps and organic waste out of landfills.
Avery Pesek, a senior environmental planner with the city, and coordinator for Keep Fort Worth Beautiful, hopes to get that number close to 3,000 in 2024.
“We’ve found that the biggest barrier to entry in the program is people knowing about it," Pesek says. "We are trying to get the word out about how easy and effective composting is to help Fort Worth.”
Fort Worth’s program was the first of its kind in North Texas; Plano launched a similar residential composting in 2023. (Houston began a composting program in 2021. San Antonio was a pioneer when it began a composting program in 2011, and Austin has been composting since 2013.)
Fort Worth subscribers pay a one-time $20 fee and are given a Composting Starter Kit, which includes a 5-gallon bucket with a lid, a smaller kitchen countertop pail that closes securely, and education materials.
“Two things I run into is a concern about odor and a concern about difficulty, but because it is a locking, closing bucket, there really isn’t a smell," Pesek says.
Once the bucket is full, residents can drop off the scraps at one of 21 collection sites, such as Fort Worth community centers, churches, and parks. Most offer 24-hour access points to make dropping off as convenient as possible.
After dumping their compost, participants rinse their bucket at home and start again.
“If your reference is backyard composting, you might think this is going to be more difficult than it is,” Pesek says. “You can put things into our buckets that you can’t put in a backyard compost.”
For example, animal products. Most backyard composters add plant materials only, but the Fort Worth program takes any food scraps or leftovers, including cooked meats, bones, eggshells, baked goods, tea bags, coffee filters, nuts, fruits, and vegetables, including peels and pits.
"The composting program was designed with the residential subscriber in mind, and we wanted to make sure we could accept products like cooked meat, dairy, egg shells, that traditional backyard composting is not able to handle," Pesek says.
They're working with Cowboy Compost, the Fort Worth waste management company founded by former FWSO maestro Miguel Harth-Bedoya that specializes in “zero-waste” through composting in restaurants, workplaces, sporting events, and private homes. (They also sell their own bagged compost.) Cowboy Compost transforms the scraps into material that can be used in gardens, landscaping, and construction projects.
Unacceptable items include raw meats, grease or oil, chewing gum, Styrofoam, plastic bags, diapers, microwave popcorn bags, frozen food packaging, and pet waste or cat litter. Additionally, any products that are recyclable or labeled biodegradable are also unacceptable for compost.
Pesek says the program has consistently had a low level of contamination – less than 1 percent.
"The people who are opting into the program are a really passionate group," she says. "We’ve been shocked at how good they are at following the requirements."
According to the latest census, there are approximately 326,648 households in Fort Worth, making the current subscriber tally of 2,466 households less than 1 percent.
But for now, Pesek has her eye on the 3,000 subscriber benchmark. One composter at a time.