Pitch in Some Food Scraps in Arlington

Pitch in Some Food Scraps in Arlington

Four reasons to embrace Arlington’s Compostables

No, Virginia, salt in Arlington’s compost won’t kill your plants. And yes, the compost from food scraps is made available to Arlington residents, but it is also sold elsewhere in the DMV area. And no, dog poop and diapers cannot be included in the compostables bin. And yes, putting food scraps in the green bin helps a lot more than you realize.

These were real concerns raised by Arlington residents, some of whom believed the compost was either unavailable or unusable; neither is true. What is true: Arlington has a forward-thinking effort to address soil depletion and climate change and not enough people are participating. It is so easy. And it does make a difference. 

We are losing topsoil at such a high rate that in 60 years,

according to scientists, we won’t have enough to grow crops on. Compost equals healthy soil. So how do we get residents to compost the food they otherwise throw in the garbage? 

Arlington’s Department of Environmental Services statistics show a consistent percentage of residents put food scraps in their green bin, but that 23 percent

participation has plateaued, and it is not enough. Walk down most Arlington streets and the only two carts out for collection are blue and black. Time to get the real dirt on this program so people understand its value.

Rich Riedel, marketing director at Freestate Farms, is part of the private side of a public/private partnership with Prince William County that processes the compostables — food and garden waste — collected by DES every week. 

“Arlington has done such a cool thing,” Riedel said. “At the time they launched it, I think this was the largest curbside collection program on the east coast.” (It has now been overtaken by Brooklyn, Queens and on the west coast, San Francisco, which mandates both residential and commercial composting of food scraps.) 

“I use the county compostables program. I was surprised how easy it was. I just keep the compostables in the container until collection day.”

— Jody Goulden, Arlington County resident 

Riedel continued: “Our composting facility was a $20 million private investment that lets us recycle 80,000 tons of food and yard waste per year into a really good and consistent compost. But we have operating costs. So the finished compost is sold around the region to large scale retailers, resellers, construction companies, garden centers, landscape contractors, and homeowners.” 

“We purchase approximately one-to-two tractor trailers of compost in the spring and fall as these are the two times of year in which most residents use compost,” said Adam Riedel (no relation), Environmental Management Specialist for DES in Arlington. “We supplement this throughout the year with compost we make in our in-vessel composter in the Earth Products Recycling Yard (EPRY) at the Trades Center in Shirlington. The compost made at EPRY is from the food scraps collected in our county drop-off locations.”

Rich Riedel, can talk compost with a passion usually reserved for music or good wine. He listened to the concerns some residents have expressed about recycling food scraps, but explained there are too many benefits from composting food scraps to opt out of the program. “We all have to move in a greener direction. I think composting is an incredible way to help make our local community more sustainable,” said Riedel. “Composting and using finished compost helps us improve air quality, increase soil health and plant growth, and minimize water use and pollution into the Chesapeake Bay.” 

Everything in the black garbage bin is incinerated at Arlington’s recently upgraded facility. But this is not as sustainable as composting. Riedel cited the Environmental Protection Agency’s Food Recovery Hierarchy, stating composting food scraps is preferred to landfill/incineration, which is considered the “last resort.”

“Food scraps have a lot of nutrients in them. Instead of losing those nutrients in a landfill or incinerator, composting recycles those nutrients back into our local soils,” said Riedel. “Additionally, carbon capture is one important way to fight against climate change, and compost can help. Industrial agriculture and fossil

fuels have dramatically increased the amount of CO2 in our atmosphere. When you have organic material (compost) in your soil, you capture and store carbon from the air (carbon sequestration). There have been interesting studies looking at large-scale use of this, but we can do it with our own gardens and lawns by using compost.”

“As a more immediate benefit to us gardeners, I think finished compost is one of the best things we can do for our plants because it adds microbes. There are more life forms in a handful of healthy soil than there are people in the world. Microbes (tiny living things) turn materials in the soil into the nutrients that plants need to grow. You can give your garden a fish (fertilizer), or you can teach your garden how to fish (compost).” 

“Lastly,” Riedel said, “compost helps with water use and pollution. Because compost can hold 20 times its weight in

water, you don’t have to water plants and grass as much or as frequently. Additionally, compost helps improve water quality by retaining and/or breaking down pollutants, like heavy metals from rain or oil from driveways and parking lots,” said Riedel. “We’ve added state-of-the-art

technology to make composting more efficient and consistent but, at its core, composting is just

nature’s circular process, and we can all help return natural things to nature.”

The County also recognizes the important role soil health plays in our environment. Arlington has a new regulation as of September 2021 regarding soil decompaction. Put forth by Virginia Tech as a recommendation to stem the tide of soil depletion and help manage stormwater runoff from development, regulation LDA 2.0 requires for any “land disturbance” in excess of 2500 square feet, builders must dump compost and topsoil back onto the land so that the top 12 inches contain organic material. Put simply, undisturbed land with all its organic soil intact does a lot more to protect communities than most of us realize. (See box.)

But is the compost safe to use? Isn’t there too much salt in it from all the processed food that goes into the bin? 

“This is safe to use!” Riedel said. “I use our compost two times a year in my garden. All of our compost goes through a Process for Further Reduction of Pathogens (PFRP.) We want to kill any bacteria associated with dairy or meat. We want to kill watermelon seeds so no random watermelon shows up.” 

“We are a regulated industry and must meet certain EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) and DEQ (Department of Environmental Quality) specifications. As part of this process, we test our compost monthly at an approved, independent laboratory, and we pass. We also voluntarily

participate in the US Composting Council’s Seal of Testing Assurance (STA) program, and our compost is approved for all uses—trees and shrubs, flower and vegetable gardens, and lawns—as part of their Consumer Use


“I’m not worried about salts,” he added, “In fact, it’s the first time I’ve been asked that. Salty food is a tiny fraction of the material we accept. More scientifically, we test our compost monthly and our salt levels come back low. I know some plants are sensitive to salts and, if people are having trouble with soil salinization, it may be because of improper irrigation or using too much fertilizer. 

FAQs: Does it help the garden grow? An informal poll of several gardeners in Arlington indicates no negative effect from compost from the Arlington County site; some who use it believe it has a positive effect. And it’s

free. Riedel said he personally sometimes grows in 100 percent compost. “Our independent lab testing also includes seed emergence and vigor rates — this is just looking at ‘does a seed start growing and does it grow

quickly’ and we’re consistently at high percentages. At the end of the day, we’re trying to grow things in gardens — not only does our compost grow stuff, it does it really well.” 

Does using the compostable bin and composting in general attract rats or racoons? Although Freestate Farms could not comment officially, others who use compost either don’t see an issue, don’t put the compost out until day of curbside collection, or bungee cord the green bin shut to avoid scavengers. Adam Reidel believes green bins are not the cause. “Either the black bin is attracting scavengers or sometimes use of bird seed can attract mice and other critters. If this is a concern, some people keep the compostables in the freezer until trash day, or layer them between yard debris to cut down on

possible odors.” 

Why can’t we put dog poop in the green bins? 

Although dog poop — and even human manure — can be made into compost, Freestate Farms is not permitted to take human waste and does not accept manure or animal waste. “Our current composting process is really focused on giving food and yard waste a good home,” said Rich Riedel.

Is the compost organic? 

“We aren’t currently OMRI (Organic Materials Review Institute) certified. We worked with George Mason University on their zero-waste initiative, and they are only purchasing certified, compostable foodware that we know can break down in our composting process. These compostable items are not organic in the OMRI program. Unfortunately, there are a lot of look-alike ‘compostable’ items as well as certified compostable items that don’t break down in our system. It’s really hard to tell the difference and I even get confused sometimes. As a result, we don’t currently accept these from anyone other than GMU.”

Does Arlington County use the compost on its own landscaping work? 

“We do not currently use it in any County projects,” said (Adam) Reidel. “The compost we purchase is most appropriate for planting, such as gardens. Arlington County Public Schools does not have a large need for planting compost, however they do use a large amount of the mulch we produce at EPRY.”

(SMALL BOX? Or delete) In 2012, Denton Baldwin operated a Virginia business that supplied healthy, local crop products to area farm-to-table restaurants. Baldwin struggled to procure consistent sources of high-quality, nutrient-rich soil that could be used on his farm. He founded Freestate Farms. Denton also began working with current Freestate Farms CEO, Doug Ross, who brought significant expertise in leveraging organic waste to produce clean energy, and helped with financing structures available to develop commercial-scale facilities. Soon after, they won a public solicitation for an opportunity to work with Prince William County to expand the area’s existing compost facility. 

For information on Free State Farms see:


For more on Arlington’s compostables program, see: