Countertop Composting

Compost bins are not traditionally thought of as convenient, sleek countertop ornaments, but one California team of visionaries fashioned a new look in an effort to increase widespread adoption amongst municipalities and consumers.

The first record of curbside food waste recycling dates back to 1990 – driven out of waste recycled in the United States (U.S.). According to the EPA, approximately 33 percent of municipal solid waste in landfills is food waste.

Municipalities typically monitor their own waste stream and audit their own residential garbage stream; and they’ve discovered that more than 50 percent of the average waste going to the landfill derives from food waste. Cities are racing to meet waste diversion targets from 50 percent to 100 percent and are actively seeking new ways to encourage widespread adoption.

During the 2011 Thanksgiving holiday alone, approximately 236 million pounds of turkey was disposed of in landfills, according to the American Turkey Federation – contributing to the number one U.S. export, trash. Consumers continue to toss food into the disposal and trash can, despite compost awareness campaigns.

In the past three years curbside food waste recycling has to grown in more than 100 cities and towns in 15 states. By 2020, more than 40 million U.S. households will have a food waste recycling bin at the curb. Composting costs less than land filling, saves millions of tons in greenhouse gasses and produces a valuable agricultural product.

Two San Francisco entrepreneurs, Anne Morrissey and Carolyn Heller, experienced the Bay Area conversion in 2009 as they sat in the backyard of Morrissey’s home and thought there had to be a better compost option when the scent of Morrissey’s compost lingered under her nose. The two researched the marketplace and determined there was room for a new design that could help drive the city compliance of compost and would be an interesting opportunity. Outside of being home composters with concern for the environment, Morrissey’s background was in medical devices and Heller a former executive in the consumer products industry. The two didn’t know what drove the compost market when they founded Ucan and recruited two industrial designers, Branko Lukic and Steve Takayama, formerly of IDEO, to recreate kitchen compost bins supplied by cities and waste agencies.

“More than 180 U.S. cities and towns have adopted curbside composting in the past three years,” said Morrissey. “But consumers still throw food in the trash. Ucan gives cities new tools for compliance; these are kitchen cans and bags with high design values that spur adoption through performance, ease of use and aesthetics.”

The team delved into biopolymer research, in search of the best-performing, all natural compostable bag materials to create the Utrash can, kitchen compost bin, complete with liners properly named Untrash bags.

“We support innovations that increase participation in diverting organic materials from the landfill," said Hilary Gans, facility operations contract manager, South Bayside Waste Management Authority. "Ucan's new food scraps collection container is attractive, fits in the modern kitchen and will help spur consumer participation.”

Made out of PHA (polyhydroxy fatty acid) – corn sugar-based starch certified by the Biodegradable Products Institute –Untrash bags provide elasticity and durability as opposed to corn-based PHL (polylactic acid); the most prevalent compostable plastic, or thermoplastic starch which is either bio-based or oil-based. The bag, available in 3-gallon or 13-gallon sizes, isn’t susceptible to moisture or water and breaks down with bacteria.

“We designed the can to remove the ‘ick’ factor of food waste recycling,” said Morrissey.“Compliance correlates with ease of use, proximity to the sink and performance. The Untrash Can reduces smells, keeps hands clean and, unlike municipal eyesores, is something that consumers are proud to have in their kitchens.”

While the products don’t eliminate the lingering stench of compost that originally drew Morrissey to the invention, she insists no compost bin is odorless, and the Untrash can design does circulate oxygen throughout, minimizing odor secretion.

The two recognized that design spurs adoption, particularly if the design adds to the kitchen aesthetic; along with manageable maintenance.

“Consumers really care about bin design,” said Signe Gilson, vice president of Waste Diversion, CleanScapes, a major West Coast waste hauler. “We know from experience.”

As of 2010, approximately 3.3 million homes have food waste recycling programs, according to the EPA. Homes and municipalities that already compost will benefit from the convenience of countertop composting in a new design, said Morrissey whose overall goal is to encourage green behavior.

“When you put something in people’s kitchen, you are addressing them at a different level,” Morrissey said. “You’re asking them to make a dramatic change in behavior.”

About the Author

Christina Miralla is the associate content editor for 1105 Media, Inc. She can be reached at