How Small-Scale Composting Is Empowering Baltimore Youth (Episode 89)

Date: 9 Jan 2020 | posted in: Building Local Power | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

Host Linda Bilsens Brolis sat down with Marvin Hayes of the Baltimore Compost Collective for an inspiring conversation about the future of small-scale composting in Baltimore. Marvin and Linda talk about how the Baltimore Compost Collective is empowering and employing local youth while also revitalizing South Baltimore, creating quality compost and fighting food deserts. They also discuss:

  • How 80% of Baltimore’s trash can be recycled or composted, instead of being landfilling or incinerated.
  • The startling impacts of burning trash including $55 million per year in health costs due to one of Baltimore’s incinerators.
  • The opportunities that local composting creates for engaging and empowering youth, including those with learning disabilities or those that are otherwise disadvantaged.
  • How the Baltimore Compost Collective and their partner, Filbert Street Community Garden, have created the “Wakanda of South Baltimore.”


At Curtis Bay, we’re providing opportunity for youth in that neighborhood to learn small scale composting, entrepreneurial skills, and life skills for them to be supported to become the new leaders to lead Baltimore towards zero waste.


Hibba Meraay: Hey everyone. Welcome back to another episode of Building Local Power. I’m Hibba Meraay, communications manager at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. This episode we’re sharing a conversation from our Composting for Community podcast. Our very own Linda Bilsens Brolis sat down with Marvin Hayes of the Baltimore Compose Collective. Marvin and Linda talk about how the Baltimore Compost Collective is empowering and employing local youth while also creating a model that can be replicated throughout the city of Baltimore to build a distributed composting infrastructure. Marvin’s passion for the project is really contagious and his enthusiasm comes through as he talks about how composting helped make Filbert Street Community Garden the Wakanda of South Baltimore. So without further ado, here’s their conversation.
Linda Bilsens Brolis: For this episode, we’re joined by someone I have a great amount of respect for, Mr. Marvin Hayes, who’s the program manager for the Baltimore Compost Collective. Marvin is born and raised in Baltimore and has been mentoring youth for more than 20 years. With the Compost Collective, he mentors and trains youth from the Curtis Bay neighborhood in composting and work skills. I’m so excited for you to meet him, so say hello Marvin.
Marvin Hayes: Hello. My name is Marvin Hayes, and I’m the program manager for the Baltimore Compost Collective, a youth-led food scrap collection service.
Linda Bilsens Brolis: Awesome. So Marvin, tell our listeners a little bit more about the Compost Collective and how composting fits into the work.
Marvin Hayes: Okay. All right, excellent. So once again, we are a youth-led food scrap collection service. We serve an amazing place called the Filbert Street Garden. I like to call the Filbert Street Garden the Wakanda of South Baltimore. A reason why I call it, one of my favorite quotes from the Black Panther movie was, “In times of crisis, while the foolish make barriers, the wise make bridges.”
We are in a crisis in Baltimore City because we are burning trash, and we know that compost is the alternative to trash incineration or landfill, so we serve one of the most toxic communities in Baltimore City. We provide soil enhancers for residents who rent raised beds at the Filbert Street Garden. The amazing thing about the Filbert Street Garden is that it’s located in a food insecure neighborhood, so those residents would have to travel about 25 minutes to get access to some fresh produce.
So we provide the soil enhancer for residents who live in a concrete jungle to be able to grow their own food. Also, we serve as anti-trash incineration. We are also surrounded in Curtis Bay by three incinerators: one that burns medical waste, one that burns waste from out of town, and one, the notorious BRESCO Wheelabrator who claims that burning trash is clean energy, and we know that it’s false, that it creates carbon dioxide in our incinerators and creates methane gas in our landfills, and causing about $55 million in health issues in Baltimore City.
So right now we have 70 customers. I want to give a big shout out to my pioneers for composting in Federal Hill, Curtis Bay, Locust Point, Riverside and Brooklyn. We are currently diverting from the landfills and incinerators 400 pounds of food scraps, so we’re doing some amazing work.
Linda Bilsens Brolis: Perfect. So for those of you that don’t know Baltimore very well, the neighborhoods that the Compost Collective serves are basically in South Baltimore. And then they bring the food scraps back to Curtis Bay, which is where the Filbert Street Community Garden is, and that’s where the composting system is.
Marvin Hayes: Yes.
Linda Bilsens Brolis: So tell our listeners, Marvin ,a little bit more about your community in Baltimore. If somebody has never been to Baltimore, what would you want them to know?
Marvin Hayes: If someone has not been to Baltimore, I want them to know that we are going to be this small scale composting program that’s going to lead Baltimore to large scale composting. We are working for mandatory recycling for Baltimore City, and we’re asking for curbside composting. A couple of facts, Baltimore City Municipal Trash, 80% of it can be recycled. About 30% is food scraps and the other 50% can be recycled, so if we did that, we would only need a five gallon bucket for our waste.
Baltimore is loaded with a lot of people who have tenacity, able to deal with issues that probably would break some other communities but at Curtis Bay we’re working together with the community to have a community-run and operated garden that provides fresh produce for residents, and also we provide an opportunity for youth in that neighborhood to learn small scale composting, entrepreneurialship, skills and also an opportunity to get life skills and development and just for them to be supported to become the new leaders to lead Baltimore towards zero waste.
Linda Bilsens Brolis: Awesome. It sounds very exciting, a very positive spin on the current way we manage our waste, a positive alternative. So for folks that maybe have heard these sort of rumors about Baltimore, or all these like negative things about Baltimore, what would you want them to know? What are maybe some of the real challenges that some of the youth that are growing up in Baltimore are, but also some of the opportunities that exist?
Marvin Hayes: Yes. I think you just hit the nail on the head, Linda, when you talked about, I think that youth are lacking opportunities. I think at the garden we provide them an opportunity to learn a skill and a lot of our young people are lacking support. I find that young people can do anything that they want to, or accomplish any of their goals that they’re supported by adult that can help lead the way, so I think we’re doing a great job at the Baltimore Compost Collective. Not only are we diverting or rescuing food from going into the incinerators and landfills, but we’re rescuing young people by giving them an opportunity to earn a living wage, to learn small scale composting and get an opportunity to give back to their neighborhood in an environmental way.
My youth composter, currently Mr. Kenneth Moss, big shout outs to Mr. Kenneth Moss from Ben Franklin High School and all of my youth composters from Ben Franklin High School. I get so excited when I talk about my youth. Kenny is a track star at Ben Franklin High School. He’s a youth composter for the Baltimore Compost Collective. He’s a BMORE Beautiful Block Captain, so not only, he’s managing two jobs while he goes to school, but he helps take care of his blocks. So anytime they have any litter or any dumping, Kenny cleans that up and reports it to 311 so that they can be maintained.
Along with that, he got an opportunity to be a youth fellow at the mayor’s office through Zeke Cohen’s office where he just completed his math fellow internship this summer. He started his own business, Kenny Captions, got to give plug, just a kid with a camera, so please support him. Look for him on Facebook, and like I say, we had a young man, not only one of my first youth composters, I had a son of a dreamer and I had a level five student. This young man never left Baltimore City and the Baltimore Compost Collection gave him an opportunity to leave Baltimore and go to Atlanta to a conference to speak about environmental justice work that he’s been doing it.
He’s one of the pioneers for this youth composting, youth-led food scrap collection service. He had never got on a plane. His mom worked in the airport for four years. As he went down the runway to enter the plane, he started to cry and he said, “Mr. Hayes, I never left my mother and I’ve never left Baltimore before,” and I said, “You know, Ramon, your mom is so proud of you. You be brave for her and do this,” and just to give him an opportunity to leave not only Baltimore, but he never left South Baltimore.
So to give him an opportunity to expand his horizons and see that it’s possible, he looked at the board and he said, “Mr. Hayes, I can go to Denver. I can go to Los Angeles,” and I said, “Yes, all of these are opportunities for you,” and who know that we could do these based on some food scraps, rescuing food scraps could also rescue young people, can give the squeegee kids of Baltimore an opportunity for workforce development, so let’s open up a large scale compost and I can provide opportunities for youth.
Linda Bilsens Brolis: Great. And just so that folks who aren’t familiar with the term level five, what does that refer to?
Marvin Hayes: A special education student, one who now can do small scale composting, and is a composter, trained me on composting. So I learned what I learned from Ramon. Ramon was one of my first teachers when it came to compost, so never put any type of… I would never say that him being a special education student stopped him. The hands-on learning help enhanced his learning, so having the opportunity to work with his hands, he could actually explain how to go about, how to compost. So he has those skills. He’s now working as an assistant manager with a food franchis, has his own apartment.
When he started with me, he didn’t have a Maryland state ID, a social security card, birth certificate. We worked with him, got his birth certificate, social security. The program shut down for about four months and we had to restart, so we lost our first composters. Doing that organization that had held the compost for two years closed down after 41 years, and I was able to stick it out for four months, but the young people were… The great thing, the the bad thing was that they lost their job. The great thing through the program, they were job ready. So immediately after the opportunity closed with the Baltimore Compost Collective, they were ready, they were employable. So I think we’re doing a great job of making sure that young people are job ready.
Linda Bilsens Brolis: Definitely. And just to clarify, how long has the Baltimore Compose Collective been around?
Marvin Hayes: Three years. When I started, we had five customers. We walked around door to door through Federal Hill, Riverside and Locust Point educating people on the benefits of composting, and I just want to thank those three communities for just supporting the Baltimore Compost Collective and being the pioneers to lead Baltimore towards zero waste.
Linda Bilsens Brolis: Awesome. Super exciting. So some research that ILSR did last year or so, we found that there are 50 or so community gardens in Baltimore and that there are some, over 5,000 vacant lots in Baltimore that have not yet been served by an existing adopt-a-lot program. Keeping those couple of facts in mind, what do you think the potential for community composting in Baltimore is?
Marvin Hayes: I think it’s a great potential to have composting sites at all of those, at the majority. They can be turned into urban gardens, urban farms, and have composting sites there. We’re able to divert 400 pounds if every community garden or open space that can be used for our composting and we can set up three bin systems there, then we have a potential of diverting tons from going into the landfills and incinerator, so we have an opportunity with all the space that we have to turn a negative into a positive and create community gardens where our residents can learn from the table healthy living, healthy eating, and actually learn the benefits of composting because those neighborhoods are affected.
55 million people suffer from health issues due to us burning trash. The asthma, we had the third largest asthma rate in the country, so if we stop burning trash, we can help eliminate some of those problems, and with all the space that we had, we had the space, we just have to use it, so I’m all for development without displacement and using those areas that were once maybe full of crime, now they can be turned into community gardens. Just like the Filbert Street Garden was once a dumping site on an abandoned lot and now it’s one of the most thriving parts of that neighborhood, the most positive part of that neighborhood.
Like I say in all of my interviews, it’s like stepping into the Garden of Eden. Coming from West Baltimore, Sandtown, I am so blessed to work there, to be greeted by ducks and chickens when I walk into the gate and just is sustainable and give young people opportunity.
Linda Bilsens Brolis: It is a beautiful spot, and I think when we’re talking about the Baltimore Compost Collective, it is acting as a model of what could be happening on other vacant lots, the Baltimore Compost Collective and Filbert Street Community Garden paired together. I’d be remiss if we didn’t mention that one of the inspirations for the Baltimore Compost Collective was BK ROT up in Brooklyn, New York.
Marvin Hayes: Sandy!
Linda Bilsens Brolis: And Renee.
Marvin Hayes: Renee.
Linda Bilsens Brolis: Yeah. All those guys, super inspiring, so they have employed a number of youth. I think they’ve been around since 2013 or so, and we very much draw inspiration from them because they are leading the way in teaching the full cycle of the food system. Where does food go when we don’t eat it? If it doesn’t get wasted, we can compost it, and then that compost goes into feeding the garden and so shout out to BK ROT. You should definitely check them out if you haven’t before.
Marvin Hayes: Yes, thank you.
Linda Bilsens Brolis: Marvin, what advice would you give a composter that’s just getting started. What do you wish that you would have known when you were getting started?
Marvin Hayes: Wow. I would just say just stick to it. Compost you cannot learn in one training session. It’s going to come from flipping those piles, troubleshooting those piles. Remember that you’re doing something great for the community, that you’re diverting that waste and turning it into beautiful soil enhancer. As Linda said, our campaign at the Baltimore Compost Collective, “Compost, learn so you don’t have to burn. Starve the incinerators. Feed the soil, feed the community,” so if you can make healthy soil enhancer, you’ll have healthy food, healthy vegetables, and just stay with it.
It’s very labor intensive, but it’s so rewarding when you get that black gold at the end of four months and you’re able to give it, and so many people are excited about it. I’ve never been so excited about black gold in my life, or didn’t know that it exist. Now really, it’s an art to me to make it, and my recipes and trying different things. It’s amazing to be able to give back. I can make one of the earths elements, so that’s amazing to me and I’m able to teach that to other people.
Linda Bilsens Brolis: And you don’t need a gym membership?
Marvin Hayes: No, you do not. You do not need a gym membership. You just need a spade shovel.
Linda Bilsens Brolis: A chopper?
Marvin Hayes: A chopper and a compost shovel. Yeah.
Linda Bilsens Brolis: And a composting system helps, too.
Marvin Hayes: Yes. Yes, six bins or more. Yes.
Linda Bilsens Brolis: All right. What are some of your goals for the coming year that you might want to share with folks?
Marvin Hayes: Okay, so goals, we want to do a community drop off for our gardeners at the Filbert Street Garden,. So we’re working on that. We have been blessed by NRDC and the Office of Sustainability, so we’re going to be expanding our composting unit. They’re going to provide a concrete pad for us, so we’re going to be researching what system to deal with the amount of waste that I’m receiving on a weekly basis. So I’m looking forward to building that new system and learning more about composting, and be able to share what community scale composting can look like, and severl, and we’ll have several systems to be a model for other gardens and other composting units.
Also, my goal for this year would be more educating. I want to be able to educate Baltimore City youth on the benefits of composting. I think that we have to reach the age group through K through 12. They are our leaders and I need to teach them about anti-incineration and that composting is the alternative to trash incinerators so they can be here. So like I tell everybody, I hope that will be my legacy. I know we will never get to 100% zero waste, but if we get to 80 or 90, or if I just start Baltimore City to start their large scale composting site and hire some youth, hire some ex offender, hire the squeegee boys, give them an opportunity to be the entrepreneurs that they are, and give them opportunity for workforce development.
Linda Bilsens Brolis: That sounds like a very inspiring vision. Can you tell folks, what is a squeegee boy?
Marvin Hayes: Oh, so squeegee boys are young men who want to be entrepreneurs. They want to make an income for their selves, and they go around and they clean people windows throughout Baltimore City. Some of them have done some negative things, but it’s not all of them. So you can send me all of the positive… They have great entrepreneurial leadership skills, so I think if we take on their positives and give them an opportunity, once again they’re just young man looking for an opportunity. They don’t mean to hurt anybody. They don’t mean to harass anybody, but unfortunately, here in Baltimore city, we don’t have a lot of opportunities for the youth.
So open this large scale composting, and let me run it and hire all the youth of Baltimore City. Please give me all your ex offenders who are doing amazing composting in the institutions and doing amazing. They’re master gardeners, so if you give them out and once they come back and they can transition into workforce and making a living, they won’t have to go back to negative. We will not have a retention rate over at the jail. We will have a recidivism rate where they’re coming and being prominent, positive members of our community.
So that’s what I would like to see happen, so that’s a little bit of a squeegee boy. A squeegee boy is just a guy that goes around with a squeegee and a little bit of Windex and wash your windows for you for a small fee and they are the entrepreneurs, but they just need support and opportunities.
Linda Bilsens Brolis: I think those, that’s a very good perspective, that if we can funnel people’s energy and intention into something positive, especially something that benefits the environment during this climate crisis that we’re facing at the same time that we’re helping people meet their own needs, I think that’s a win-win for everybody.
Marvin Hayes: I think exposure is so important. Three years ago, could I tell you that I would be a master composter? Would I tell you at Sandtown-Winchester that I would have vermaculture, that I would be composting my food, my food scraps with worms, with a hundred red wigglers, two totes and a little bit of soil in two inches of food scrap? It’s come from exposure and come from support. I think if you provide support for anybody, they will flourish and I have been so supported.
The Collective truly is a collective. Without my partners, another quote, “It’s hard for a good man to be king. You must surround yourself with good people,” so any advice for anybody that wants to do composting, get a great team. Get people that’s going to support them. I’m so blessed to have the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, United Workers, the Filbert Street Garden, Baltimore City, the Office of Sustainability, NRDC, my residents in Federal Hill, Curtis Bay, Brooklyn, Locust Point, Riverside. You guys are why the compost collective is successful, so surround yourself by good people.
Create a team, help somebody else out. When you’re starting out, it can be overwhelming trying to find space to put your food scraps or to process them, so just have patience and be willing to learn and you’ll make some amazing black gold soil enhancer.
Linda Bilsens Brolis: That’s great advice for everybody. As a closing, how can folks learn more about the Baltimore Compost Collective?
Marvin Hayes: You can go to Please go to our gallery section where you’ll see all of the amazing workshops that I’ve been having an opportunity, me and myself and my youth composter, Mr. Kenneth Moss to educate Baltimore City about the benefits of compost. Please go to our new section. We have a new article, In These Times, Asthma Compost Can Be An Alternative To Lower The Asthma Rate, so please read that article. Excellent article. Thank you In These Times. Thank you so much.
Linda Bilsens Brolis: Awesome. Well thank you, Marvin, so much for joining us and thank you all for listening.
Marvin Hayes: Thank you. Thank you. Compost, a rind is a terrible thing to waste.
Hibba Meraay: Thank you all for tuning into this episode of the Building Local Power podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. You can find all the links to what we discussed today including the Composting for Community podcast at by clicking on the show page for this episode. That’s
While you’re there, you can sign up for one of our many newsletters and connect with us on social media. You can also rate and review this podcast on iTunes. It really helps other listeners find us. This show is produced by Lisa Gonzalez and me, Hibba Meraay. Our theme music is Funk Interlude by Dysfunction AL. For the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, I’m Hibba Meraay, and I hope you join us again in two weeks for the next episode of Building Local Power.



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Audio Credit: Funk Interlude by Dysfunction_AL Ft: Fourstones – Scomber (Bonus Track). Copyright 2016 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial (3.0) license.

Photo Credit: ILSR’s Composting for Community Initiative 

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