Feature image: Plantation Park Heights compost workday 2021In recent years, the momentum for urban composting has been building in Baltimore, and yet more local food scrap recycling capacity is needed in order to meaningfully reduce the city’s waste, create affordable compost, and address environmental justice issues. The Institute for Local Self-Reliance’s (ILSR) Composting for Community Initiative has collaborated with partners in Baltimore to advance scalable, community-driven composting sites, aiming to shift leadership, power, and resources to the community level. With generous support from funders, including NRDC, the Baltimore Office of Sustainability, and U.S. EPA, ILSR has been able to trial a variety of composting systems throughout Baltimore City.
Over the last three years, ILSR has outfitted community composters with 3-bin systems, tumblers, in-vessel systems, and backyard composting systems to appeal to a variety of different composting needs and abilities. In addition, ILSR provided each site with composting tools, signage, data collection sheets, training and technical support. Most community composting sites are located at urban farms, gardens, churches, and food rescue organizations, making compost processing and application feasible in a variety of settings while also linking it to food production and preparation.
Across the different locations, there is a significant need for soil remediation and nutrient replenishment, making compost a valuable asset to produce on site. At this time, only a few sites are consistently producing compost, while the majority are still building institutional knowledge and developing reliable systems for labor and compost processing. Across the board, for community composting to thrive in Baltimore, communities need more financial support, education, and technical training.
BALTIMORE’S COMMUNITY COMPOSTING NETWORK
From 2019 to 2020, in partnership with the Baltimore Office of Sustainability, ILSR outfitted 10 community organizations with a variety of composting equipment to suit the wide scope and scale of composting needs. Generally, the systems employed can be categorized as:
|Bin System Composting: Composting material is contained in a wire bin, a bay with sides, or any number of configurations that provide walls to support the compost pile in order to fit more materials vertically into a smaller space. The material is turned for aeration and can be accessed from an open side or a door/hatch for loading and unloading.
Aerated Static Pile Composting: Aerated static piles (ASP) are compost piles with perforated pipes or ductwork underneath that are actively aerated with blowers to pull (negative aeration) or push (positive aeration) fresh air through the material.
Vermicomposting: Vermicomposting – or worm composting – involves special species of worms decomposing organic materials into a rich humus. Eisenia fetida species, commonly called red wigglers, is the most popular species of worm for vermicomposting.
Source: Brenda Platt, Growing Local Fertility, Institute for Local Self-Reliance, 2014 (https://ilsr.org/size-matters-report-shows-small-scale-community-based-composting/).
Each site in Baltimore has a unique makeup of composting equipment, stewards, and processes. The table below summarizes the active sites’ equipment and capacity. While the chart details the active community composting sites, there are a number of sites which are currently inactive due to various circumstances explained in the descriptions below.
Table 1: Active Community Composting Sites in Baltimore
|Site Name||System Used||Number of units||Labor Management style||Diversion capacity per year, lbs|
|The Plantation||3-bin system||1||Volunteer||20,800|
|Hidden Harvest||3-bin system||1||Cooperative||20,800|
|Strength to Love II Farm||3-bin system||1||Paid labor||20,800|
|Malcolm House||Ridan, Jora Tumblers||1, 2||Volunteer||45,000|
|Baltimore Free Farm||3-bin system||1||Cooperative||20,800|
Source: Institute for Local Self-Reliance, 2022.
BALTIMORE’S COMMUNITY COMPOSTING SITES
Baltimore Compost Collective
Source: Baltimore Compost Collective; Marvin and Kenny pose in front of their new electric vehicles, 2022
The Baltimore Compost Collective is a youth-focused food scrap collection service led by the inspirational Marvin Hayes. Initially launched with the support of ILSR and other local nonprofits, Mr. Hayes picked up his first load of community food scraps in 2017 and since then, has grown his business to pick up food scraps from over 200 customers. Prior to COVID-19, they were processing their scraps in a series of 3-bin Compost Knox systems at Filbert Street Community Garden in Curtis Bay but his business has outgrown their infrastructure. Now, Mr. Hayes is exploring different ways to meet the growing demand of local composting in the South Baltimore region. Recently, the Baltimore Compost Collective acquired an electric van and two electric bikes to service their customers in South Baltimore.
With additional investment, Marvin is looking to retrofit his composting system with an aerated static blower system to make the process more efficient and less labor-intensive.
Plantation Park Heights Urban Farm
Source: ILSR; Compost workday at the Plantation, Spring 2021
Plantation Park Heights is a volunteer-run community farm led by Farmer Chippy and operated by a talented group of local youth and young adults. ILSR began working with Plantation Park Heights in 2019 when they began exploring how composting could complement farm activities. The farm generates crop residues through the farming process and recycles them in a 3-bin system. The farm needs additional investment to carry the composting process through. Over the years, ILSR, in partnership with the Baltimore Compost Collective, have led multiple trainings, educating youth, volunteers, and community members on how to compost using their system. In addition, ILSR hired Plantation Farm to build gravel pads for other Baltimore sites.
With additional investment, Plantation Park Heights would love to fund youth laborers to steward their composting system.
Hidden Harvest Community Farm
Source: ILSR, Cooperative members turn piles at HHF Winter 2020, Spring 2022
Hidden Harvest is a garden-cooperative in Greenmount West, growing flowers and vegetables for their community. They are in their 10th growing season and have a series of cooperative programs to manage their vegetable garden, chickens, and dye garden. In 2019, they expanded their garden activities to include a cooperatively managed program for composting. They regularly host work days and invite volunteers to get involved on the farm.
Strength to Love II Farm
Source ILSR, Clayton Williams puts the final touches on the Compost Knox at Strength to Love II, winter 2019; Volunteers process food scraps, Summer 2020
Strength to Love II is a community based farm in west Baltimore’s Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood that uses their 1.5 acres to offer workforce development and employment to community residents and citizens returning from incarceration. The farm also helps to address the food apartheid issue in and surrounding their neighborhood. In 2019, Strength to Love II built and installed a 3-bin Compost Knox system for composting. They rely on compost to amend their soils and are looking forward to growing their capacity to produce enough compost on-site so that they don’t have to order supplemental compost from a third party.
With additional investment, Strength to Love II Farm envisions an entire hoop house dedicated to hot composting and vermicomposting.
Northside Baptist Church
Source: ILSR, Volunteers at the Northside Baptist Church participate in a compost training led by ILSR, Summer 2020; Youth volunteers process food scraps, Summer 2020
Northside Baptist Church community garden is a member of the Black Church Food Security network, working to organize health, wealth and power across the Black church constituency. They gather on the weekends and invite their parish to participate in their community garden and composting activities. Church members are invited to drop off their food scraps to be composted in a series of backyard composters set up near the garden. Currently their operations are paused as they re-envision garden operations for the coming year.
Source: ILSR, Ausar Mesh-Amen poses with the Ridan at Malcolm House, Spring 2021
Malcolm House is an intentional community in West Baltimore that values community, resistance, non-violence, and mutual aid. They have a large garden and robust food rescue operation, distributing thousands of pounds of rescued food to their community twice every week. The team at Malcolm House uses a Ridan in-vessel composter to compost rescued food that is no longer edible and applies the compost created in their garden and shares it with their community.
With additional investment, Malcolm House would set up additional infrastructure to store food before it is composted using tumblers and also additional ASP systems.
Source: ILSR; Jordan poses with Jora Tumblers at BLISS
BLISS Meadows is a 10-acre land reclamation project, led by Atiya Wells, focused on (Re)connecting Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) to land and nature in Baltimore City. They host regular summer camps, community gatherings, nature walks, and urban environmental education workshops. They use Jora tumblers to compost their farm-generated organic materials. Like many urban farms, they rely on compost to amend their soils to produce food for their communities. BLISS Meadows is in the midst of a major house renovation project and all farm operations are paused.
Cherry Hill Urban Garden
Source: Jaisal Noor; Jora Tumblers at Cherry Hill Urban Garden
Cherry Hill Urban Garden was a program of the Black Yield Institute. Due to an issue with their land agreement, they were forced to move locations at the end of 2020. They are currently in the process of envisioning what the next chapter looks like and are hoping to focus on the cultivation of herbal remedies and honey. In their new community, they will collaboratively envision what food scrap collection and composting looks like.
Baltimore Free Farm
Source: ILSR, Rodrigo does the hand-squeeze moisture test; members of the compost coop chop food scraps at the Free Farm
Baltimore Free Farm is a collective of gardeners and activists who strive to be egalitarian and aim to provide access to healthy food for all. They work collaboratively to collect food scraps from their neighborhood in Hampden. They use a three bin system and have a dedicated team who manages the day to day responsibilities of the garden and compost operation.
With additional investment, Free Farm would upgrade its composting system by building proper storage for brown materials (leaves, wood chips, mulch, and coffee chaff), adding a portable bathroom to welcome volunteers and visitors, and a dedicated washing area to sanitize buckets and farming tools.
Coppin State University
Source: ILSR; Manny poses in front of a Jora Tumbler and in his greenhouse at Coppin State, Spring 2022
The community garden at Coppin State is a place for students to practice their growing skills and put their STEM knowledge to practice. During the pandemic, there were no students on campus. The Coppin community is currently envisioning how to bring compost learning into their syllabi and practice at the university.
SETTING UP THE SITES
Taking a holistic approach to site set up, ILSR provided each community site with a composting system, tools, personalized training, signage, a load of local wood chips, and data collection forms. Each site received one of the following composting units:
Table 2: Composting Equipment in Baltimore
|Hot Composting Equipment||Type of System||System Cost||Siting needs|
|Compost Knox||batch||$1,500*||Level surface, prepared pad with asphalt, concrete or gravel|
|Ridan||Continuous flow||$4,500||Level surface that will not sink under the weight of a full machine|
*Cost of building materials only, subject to price of lumber
Source: Institute for Local Self-Reliance, 2022
In addition to a composting system, ILSR outfitted each site with tools to facilitate the community composting process. Below is a sample tool list that is not intended to be comprehensive:
Helpful Tools for Community Composting:
|Manure forks||Flip compost piles|
|Shovels||Flip compost piles, move finished compost and other materials|
|Ice scraper||Chop up large food waste or plant materials|
|Hand cultivator||Empty tumblers and other small composting systems|
|Steel tub*||Hold materials for chopping and watering|
|Garden cart||Move materials and tools around site|
|Wire bins||Store carbon materials or cure finished compost|
|Geo bins||Store carbon materials or cure finished compost|
|Garden stakes||For signage or to hold up the geobins|
|5 gallon bucket||Weigh food scraps, chop food waste, collect food waste at home, multipurpose|
|Weed cloth||Place under compost bins, storage bins, or other areas where it would be better to not have vegetation|
|Tarp||Protect ground when processing food scraps, protect finished compost from rain, multipurpose|
|¼-inch mesh galvanized steel hardware cloth, 23-gauge (or lower)||Line bins or put under backyard composters, recommended to deter rodents from accessing compostable materials|
|Tin snips||Cut hardware fabric|
|Wood chipper||Chip woody materials on site|
|Weighing Scale (hanging or produce)||Weigh food scraps and plant materials for record keeping|
|Garden gloves||Keep hands clean and safe|
|Biodegradable soap||Wash tools and composting supplies|
|Lockable storage bin||Keep logs, scales, and thermometers safe and out of the weather|
|Combo lock||Secure tools or bins|
*The original steel tub purchased did not hold up well. Recommend a more heavy duty product such as a feed tank designed for farm animals.
To support communication and connection at composting sites, ILSR designed a variety of signage templates to share important information such as acceptable materials, the process for food scrap drop-off, and pertinent site contact information. Each site received a set of personalized signage, featuring their name, logo, and contact information, to display at their site.
Each composting site is asked to log all compost activity at the site. Consistent record keeping helps groups coordinate on managing the compost process itself. Some important data points to track are:
- Pounds of food scraps diverted
- Composting activities: pile temperatures, turning frequency, curing time, etc.
- Number of individuals or households served
By tracking this data, composters can troubleshoot the composting process based on the data they are collecting while also communicating transparently with the rest of their team, creating more fluidity in handing off tasks from teammate to teammate. The information collected via data tracking can also be used to solicit more funding to support the expansion or replication of a composting operation. ILSR partnered with Loop Closing to create a semi-automated data collection system that can be accessed via smartphones and computers alike.
SPOTLIGHT: Malcolm House
Source: ILSR, Ausar and Jeffrey process food scraps at Malcom House, Spring 2021
Malcolm House is an intentional community in West Baltimore focusing on food rescue and distribution. Because so much of their operation is powered solely by volunteers, they needed a compost solution that was relatively simple and would not take up too much of their valuable time. Currently they rescue and distribute 1,000 lbs of food per week to communities in West Baltimore. Between 50-250 lbs of that is ultimately composted. ILSR partnered with Loop Closing to provide them with a Ridan, an in-vessel, continuous flow composting system.
The Ridan is a long cylindrical channel, fitted with an auger running its length, and an insulated sleeve to keep it warm in the winter. It does not require any power, which affords users flexibility in placement. A specific mix of nitrogen and carbon materials are inserted in one end of the cylinder. At Malcolm House, Ausar Mesh-Amen, grounds project manager, found that a mix of finely chipped wood and food scraps in a ratio of 3:1 by volume respectively worked best. Once the mixture is added to the top of the Ridan, the auger is turned by a handle, which moves the carbon and nitrogen mix through the cylinder. The mixture then exits the other end as a homogenous semi-processed, but still incomplete compost.
After the compost mixture completes a cycle through the Ridan, it still needs time to process and mature, but no longer contains any recognizable food materials. At Malcolm House, after the mixture leaves the Ridan, it’s transferred into an aerated static pile (ASP), outfitted with a blower for positive aeration for two months. At this point, the compost is finished and ready for application!
For Malcolm House, this system has worked well to manage their food waste but is only processing about 25% of their total food waste from their food-rescue operation. Their biggest challenge has been dialing in a recipe that works, managing the moisture content of their mixture depending on the inputs, and maintaining temperatures throughout the winter.
The main advantages of the system are:
- It’s extremely pest resistant, even with small pests like soldier flies
- It has a very small footprint
- Depositing and collecting food waste and compost are easy and manageable using 5-gallon buckets
This system is ideal for sites that have limited space and labor capacity. They require a level surface and can be placed on paver stones, paved surfaces, or other surfaces that will not sink under heavy weight.
SPOTLIGHT: Hidden Harvest
Source: ILSR, Hidden Harvest completes their bin build, Summer 2020; Coop members turn piles, Spring 2022
Hidden Harvest is a community farm cooperatively run by farm share members. Their compost crew utilizes the help of volunteers to manage composting in their 3-bin Compost Knox system. They have found great success accepting food scraps from the surrounding community by hosting food scrap drop-off hours and a workday every Saturday morning. Depending on which team members are available, they will cycle through a variety of tasks such as flipping the compost piles, sifting finished compost, or doing site and system repairs. In addition to the farm share cooperative teams, they have a robust network of volunteers who participate in various tasks on the farm.
Hidden Harvest uses a variety of carbon- and nitrogen-rich materials from their community to create the perfect compost recipe. Included in their compost recipe are:
1. wood shavings from a local cabinet maker
2. old chicken bedding and litter from their chicken coop
3. coffee chaff from a local roaster
In order to report on the amount of food scraps collected and processed, Hidden Harvest has appointed one member of their compost cooperative to be the data-wrangler. They weigh food scraps each Saturday by having participants deposit their food scraps into a large collection bin which is weighed at the end of the shift. In addition to collecting the weight of food scraps collected, they report on the temperatures of their piles, when piles are flipped and any issues they encounter. Our data tracking system aggregates the data into a temperature graph, also tracking total pounds of food scraps diverted and predicting the compost volume of compost created.
Over the years working in different cities, ILSR has recognized the power that community-led movements have in galvanizing interest and action when it comes to composting. To work in synergy with on-the-ground leaders, ILSR has adapted its programs to support self-seeding movements, empowering communities with the knowledge, authority, and equipment to bring composting to their neighborhoods.
In order for composting to be truly and authentically community-led, it’s important that members of the community are able to make decisions and design a program that truly reflects their needs. To create more autonomy and self-direction for community composters, ILSR has created a series of learning activities, as well as a Composting 101 guide, and self-paced online Community Composting 101 certificate course so that groups can lead their own training and education.
Building infrastructure in a group setting is a great way to transfer long-lasting knowledge, skills, and future employment opportunities to the community on the ground. Some Baltimore communities opted to build their own infrastructure, including their 3-bin systems and the concrete foundation pad. While DIY is always an option, depending on what resources a group has at their disposal, a better option might be to provide labor assistance to build and set up their site.
During Covid-19, when in person activities didn’t feel safe, ILSR hosted a series of online workshops with a robust set of supplemental resources in order to support the sites in building infrastructure themselves.
Once pandemic restrictions began to lift, and as community members felt more comfortable gathering together outside, ILSR partnered with Benny Erez from ECOCity Farms to build a DIY trommel screener using up-cycled materials and community power.
Source: ILSR, ILSR leads trommel screener build days with Benny Erez at Hidden Harvest and Malcom House, Winter 2021
In Baltimore, community composting has been challenging to adopt. While all of the sites in the community composting network have plenty of food scraps and plant matter to compost, they don’t always have dedicated resources and on-going support to manage the composting process effectively.
In identifying community composting candidates, ILSR made assessments based on the quantity of food waste produced, the physical space available for composting, labor capacity and a few other criteria. Community composting relies on collaboration and consistency and so ILSR sought out groups with a strong sense of connection and communication. The sites that were chosen to participate in the pilot program met these initial criteria, but it quickly became apparent that things change frequently, especially in community-driven programs. ILSR found that some of the original communities selected did not put their composting equipment to use. To remain flexible and responsive to changing community needs and to make the most of the systems, ILSR re-located several of the composting systems to different locations where there was an immediate need to compost and more capacity to facilitate the process.
While varying based on the systems used, managing a compost site takes a lot of time, labor and organizational dedication. Finding consistency in labor has been a challenge for many of the sites. Some systems require more intensive physical labor than others. For example, the Compost Knox requires several people to manually flip the compost piles using pitchforks. In contrast, the Ridan is still human-powered but only requires one person to turn a handle attached to an auger which churns the compost. While one is physically less taxing than the other, there is a tradeoff in the quality of compost produced. The Compost Knox can put out relatively consistent batches of quality compost, whereas the Ridan requires more careful monitoring of recipe and moisture content in order to meet PFRP temperatures. Having a dedicated team of passionate, knowledgeable and consistent composters will ultimately determine the success and sustainability of a site, regardless of the equipment used.
Sites in the Baltimore network have struggled to find funding to pay their compost laborers, resulting in inconsistent workforces. Historically, volunteers have been the worker bees at community composting sites, but relying solely on volunteers has proven unpredictable. In addition, composting is hard work and the labor that goes into managing the process responsibly shouldn’t be undervalued.
Urban farmers, in particular, are put in a tough spot, trying to manage large quantities of compostable materials while simultaneously managing the rest of the farm, farmers’ markets, CSAs, and more. Many urban farmers also don’t have access to equipment that could aid the composting process, like tractors or front-end loaders, that are commonly found on large farms. While the roles of farmer and composter are closely related, it would seem that having a dedicated compost steward, separate from the lead farmer, could make composting on-farm more feasible.
3 tips for managing labor on-site
While the sites in Baltimore have had mixed success supporting community-led composting, one thing has become abundantly clear: all sites need further financial and technical assistance. With additional support, community composters could have:
- Stipends to support the labor needs for ongoing composting projects
- A consistent data tracking system and method
- Continued training, workshops, and community engagement activities
- Expanded sites with smoother processing and storage capacity
- Easy access to local sources of carbon for composting (such as a “leaf bank”)
- Widely available locally-produced compost for urban farms and gardens
Over the last five years, Baltimore composters have positioned themselves passionately and strategically to implement community-scale decentralized solutions for food waste. As composting takes priority on the national stage to combat the climate crisis, ILSR will continue to advocate for doing it at the community level. Scalable, decentralized solutions offer potent, accessible and equitable solutions for food insecurity and resilient food systems. Large-scale, industrial sites should not be privileged over investing in distributed infrastructure. For scalable, community-rooted composting solutions to thrive, they will need reliable, on-going funding, development, training, and support from organizations such as ourselves, but also city governments and legislators. .
This post was authored by Sophia Hosain, Composting for Community’s Baltimore Lead, and Brenda Platt, Director of the Composting for Community Initiative.