On a hot July day on Michigan’s vehicle-free Mackinac Island, people swarm the downtown streets on foot and bikes and in horse-drawn carriages. Sitting high atop a cart emblazoned with the mission of “Keeping Mackinac Beautiful,” a city sanitation worker maneuvers a two-horse team through the fray, stopping periodically to collect trash and compost.
This iconic Great Lakes vacation spot has been running a composting program since the 1990s. Tourists often stop to gawk at the novelty of a horse-drawn garbage cart—and many look no further than that. But a closer look reveals far more than a gimmick: Mackinac’s system of small-town composting has been in place for decades and now thrives despite its limitations.
More and more communities across the U.S. are adopting composting each year. New York City recently made national headlines with its curbside composting program, and California has pushed forward mandatory composting regulations that target emissions. As these kinds of initiatives spread, this small town provides an example of what a successful, decades-old composting program can look like.
The island is uniquely situated off Michigan’s Upper Peninsula in the northernmost tip of Lake Huron. In the winter, the surrounding waters can freeze, leaving roughly 400 year-round residents almost entirely cut off from the mainland.
The island’s community is defined by its quiet character and dedication to historical legacy—non-essential motor vehicles have been banned since 1898. In the summer, the population swells with thousands of seasonal employees, summer residents, and tourists. And with the increase in population comes a swell of waste.
Because of the island’s isolation and lack of motor vehicles, moving waste to the mainland is logistically and financially taxing, explained Allen Burt, director of the Mackinac Department of Public Works (DPW). As such, any effort to reduce that waste is critical.
Long-time summer resident Tom Lewand has become quite accustomed to the composting system. “It becomes second nature up here,” he said. “Even our youngest grandkids learn the system at a very young age, and know what goes in the green bag and what goes in the black bag.”
At the island’s solid waste facility—hidden away in the hills and surrounded by forestland—piles of food scraps, manure, and green waste slowly turn to soil.
The Composting Landscape
Composting programs are becoming more common, but they are still primarily concentrated in urban areas that have the infrastructure to support the process, according to Linda Norris-Waldt, deputy director of the U.S. Composting Council.
In rural areas, “It is not always cost feasible to go from house to house to collect compost because they are miles away,” she explained. Backyard and farm composting by individuals can be more common in these areas, she added.
Almost 50 percent of all full-scale food waste composting facilities are located in just seven states—California, New York, Colorado, Pennsylvania, Washington, Texas, and North Carolina, according to a study from BioCycle. In contrast, the central, Mountain, and Southwest states are considered “composting deserts,” Norris-Waldt said. The Midwest lies somewhere in the middle between these barren regions and the coasts.
Nationally, yard waste composting is more common than food waste composting, which is costlier and more labor intensive, Norris-Waldt said. The same study from BioCycle surveyed 105 facilities and found that more than two-thirds of food waste operations were built in the last two decades.
Most programs begin using a subscription model instead of mandatory sorting, Norris-Waldt added. Mandatory sorting is difficult because a lack of widespread public knowledge on proper sorting can lead to higher levels of contamination, she explained.
The Mackinac System
Mackinac began composting in the 1990s, predating the recent spike in food-waste programs, just as the island’s onsite dumps were set to close. Burt doesn’t know exactly why the dumps were capped, but he suspects it was due to capacity and groundwater contamination concerns. Now, islanders ship landfill material to the mainland.
In the years since the dumps closed, composting has become a part of life for island residents and businesses. While sustainability and climate-consciousness drives composting efforts nationwide, for islanders, the benefits of the waste management system extend further.
Mackinac residents and visitors collect paper products, kitchen scraps, and manure in green compost bags that are sold by Mackinac DPW. The green bags cost only $2, while the trash bags cost $4.50, to encourage residents to sort as much as possible.
A horse-drawn wagon called a “dray” then picks up compost on the same schedule as trash, and a separate “slop wagon” comes around to the island’s two large hotels during the summer to collect kitchen waste, said Gabe Cowell, the island’s solid waste facility manager.