Composting businesses are popping up across the Midwest, but not all cities are ready

Sept. 25, 2023, 5 a.m. ·

A woman stands on a dirt field where some plants grow, watering the ground with a hose.
Brooke Salvaggio, co-owner of Urbavore Urban Farms, waters a cover crop in late August. The farm's gardens get a heavy dose of compost collected at their operation. Yet the farm has been dealing with complaints from neighbors and a permitting issue with the city of Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by Carlos Moreno, KCUR 89.3)

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In the middle of an urban farm, tucked behind houses and tall greenery, sit seven piles of food waste each in different stages of composting.

Brooke Salvaggio and Daniel Heryer, take a scoop from one of the piles of what they call “black gold” and raise it up to their noses to breathe it in.

“It just smells like really rich soil, and when we put up our fields it becomes really rich soil,” said Heryer.

Not all their neighbors agree about the smell. While Salvaggio said the compost is improving the yields of their farm, Urbavore, neighbors complained to officials about it being a nuisance.

The city of Kansas City, Missouri, now says the operation requires a special-use permit, while Heryer says they checked before expanding back in 2021. He’s puzzled why the city isn’t embracing their efforts to manage food waste sustainably.

“I want to create more compost hubs like this around the city and the metro area,” he said. “The cities and other municipalities around this area, but certainly the city of Kansas City, should be helping us do that.”

Piles of dark brown dirt.
The compost piles at Urbavore are collected and stored in large concrete bins where they are rotated and then moved out to be used throughout the farm or given to partners. (Photo by Carlos Moreno, KCUR 89.3)

Food waste is the largest category of trash going to landfills, according to an estimate from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2018. Even more concerning, rotting food produces methane, a powerful greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change. Municipal solid waste landfills were the third largest source of human-related methane emissions in the United States in 2021.

Community composting — creating and using the compost in the same community that generated the waste — is popping up in cities across the country. It keeps that waste out of landfills and returns nutrients to the soil. It can also save municipalities money on landfill fees.

Yet not all cities are welcoming composting operations, especially when neighbors complain about bad smells and pests.

Gray area around regulation

Brenda Platt, director of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance’s Composting for Community Project, said composting can be a challenge for municipalities.

“Local governments can either say, ‘Oh, you've got a problem,’ or they can help these operations that support their communities to overcome the obstacles,” she said.

She said cities often don’t have updated zoning rules that address composting specifically.

Several people stand in a tent and sort through black bins of fresh produce.
Workers at Urbavore sort through fruits and vegetables grown on their land, in preparation for packaging the produce for customers. Brooke Salvaggio says that the compost has improved the quality and yields of their produce. (Photo by Carlos Moreno, KCUR 89.3)

John and Stacey Cline of New Earth Farm ran into this problem in St Louis when they tried to start community composting. There is only one regulation related to composting in the city’s code, but it refers to composting of leaves and grass clippings, not food waste.

Because a neighbor complained to the city while they were in the process of buying land for their farm, they agreed not to compost on that land in order to follow through with the purchase.

“There were no laws to say, ‘Well, hey, neighbor, it's actually totally legal’ because it wasn't legal or illegal,” said Stacey Cline. “That's the gray area that makes it hard because you need to build bridges.”

A bad reputation

The Midwest is especially behind when it comes to supporting composting, said Jennifer Trent, a program manager at the Iowa Waste Reduction Center at the University of Northern Iowa.

“A lot of times it's a preconceived idea or notion that compost sites are foul places, and that they won't be beneficial to the community,” she said.

Luis Chen runs Wormies, a compost service for Grand Rapids, Michigan. He is in the process of getting approval from the Cascade Charter Township, where the land he acquired is located, to start composting. He said the biggest obstacle is convincing the township that his operation won’t be a nuisance and will add value to the area.

A man bends down to dig in a patch of dirt.
Luis Chen is waiting for approval from Cascade Charter Township in Michigan to start composting for his business, Wormies. "We all generate waste, and we all should take responsibility for it. It shouldn't be like, 'Oh, not in my backyard.' It should be in my backyard," he said. (Photo courtesy of Jennifer Saltzman, Wormies)

“I knew what I was doing, and I knew that this was going to be an attraction, but that has to be explained,” said Chen.

He agreed to meet most of the township’s conditions on how to run the operation. That includes limits on how much compost his operation can take in, as well as no drop-offs. Now he’s waiting for approval.

Composting doesn’t have to be a nuisance when done right, according to Trent. For example, odors can be reduced even in outdoor operations by ensuring the combination of materials is right. She warned that one operation doing it wrong can ruin the practice for an entire region.

“If you have a compost site that's not complying with the regulations, enforce those laws. Don't allow them to continue until it's fixed,” she said.

The U.S. Composting Council says having good zoning laws, enforcing them and educating residents about composting helps make sure everything runs smoothly.

“You can tie in the zoning and say, ‘Show me a plan. Show me you know how you're going to operate,” said Frank Franciosi, executive director of the U.S. Composting Council, “but I think that the best thing to do is bring people out to these facilities and show them how they're being run.”

What cities can do

When Ben Stanger wanted to start his business, Green Box Compost, he reached out to several municipalities in Dane County, Wisconsin. Many of them said no. Eventually he landed on Sun Prairie, a suburb of Madison, which not only allowed the operation to find a home there, but also changed a zoning code for his business.

“It just happened to be that Sun Prairie really rolled out the welcome mat and helped us kind of work through this,” he said.

A man stands at the top of a set of metal stairs, nearby some composting equipment.
Ben Stanger's composting set-up is designed so that it won't be a nuisance. "We're indoors, we're in a vessel, and we start the process very quickly, and our process is very efficient," he said. (Photo courtesy of Esai Ponce, Green Box Compost)

Stanger is composting indoors with containers and using a slightly more technological approach to prevent problems, but the city is also doing its part by educating residents, said Jake King, the city’s communications and diversity strategist.

“We really try to look at that public outreach and engagement,” he said, “so people know what we're doing and, most importantly, know why we're doing it.”

In Kansas City, Urbavore is appealing its violations, and hoping that will result in larger changes to city rules. Assistant City Manager Melissa Kozakiewicz, said that city leadership is currently in discussions with Urbavore on how it can better support composting and urban farming.

“Kansas City, and every other city in America has an opportunity to think about how it manages its waste in a different way,” she said.

Eva Tesfaye covers agriculture, food systems and rural issues for KCUR and Harvest Public Media and is a Report For America corps member.

This story was produced in partnership with Harvest Public Media, a collaboration of public media newsrooms in the Midwest. It reports on food systems, agriculture and rural issues.