Unpacking the Year in Composting

Date: 3 Nov 2022 | posted in: Building Local Power | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

“Compost is inherently local,” says Brenda Platt, Director of ILSR’s Composting for Community initiative. By building community composting programs, we are in turn creating green jobs, enhancing soil (and food) quality, fighting climate change, and investing in local communities. In effect, composting is the perfect instrument with which to forge a healthy future.

Building Local Power is wrapping up the year by asking our experts to reflect on the lessons and growth of 2022: what changed, and what does it mean for their work in the year ahead? On this episode, Brenda Platt is joined by Clarissa Libertelli, Community Composting Coalition Coordinator, to walk us through how ILSR’s work has activated communities across the country to shut down incinerators; provided composting opportunities for the formerly incarcerated; and built networks to mobilize collective action. They look toward the horizon, noting opportunities to leverage federal funding from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and the reauthorization of the Farm Bill to support local farmers and communities in creating healthy soils. Still, Brenda reminds us, there’s much work to be done: even with the additional allocation of federal dollars for climate mitigation and soil enhancement programs, ILSR and its allies must stay resolutely focused on the significant, untapped power at the state level.

“Composting was also a way to honor the journey that the food had taken and to make sure that it didn’t go to waste. To some people composting is soil health and to some people it’s about cultural connection and honoring the food.”
– Clarissa Libertelli

“Solid waste management has in this country basically been relegated to the states. So there is a lot of power at the state level, like a surcharge on waste flowing to landfills and incinerators.
– Brenda Platt

Brenda Platt: Compost is different. It’s inherently local or it can be. We don’t ship our banana peels from one side of the country to the other. And the finished compost also tends to be the soil amendment used locally within the local regional economy.
Reggie Rucker: Hello, and welcome to Building Local Power, a podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, dedicated to challenging corporate monopolies in expanding the power of people who shape their own future. I, of course, am your co-host Reggie, and I cannot believe it’s November. It’s November. So anyways, as we look to close out the year, we’re going to have some conversations with ILSR staff and experts here and really talk about how the forces at play have impacted the work they’ve done over the past year. And then really look at how that shapes their work going into 2023 and even beyond. But of course, before we get into all of that, I got to throw it over to my co-host, the fabulous and phenomenal Luke Gannon. What’s up Luke?
Luke Gannon: Thanks, Reggie. I can’t believe it’s November either. I mean, what happened 2022? And that’s actually exactly what we will be asking our guests today. We’ll be looking at the accomplishments of the composting initiative in 2022 and the possibilities for 2023. We are joined by members of our composting team, Brenda Platt, who leads the Composting for Community Initiative to advance local composting and create a more sustainable and just environment and economy. Clarissa Libertelli works alongside Brenda as the Community Compostor Coalition coordinator, which she’ll talk more about in a bit. Welcome to the show, Brenda and Clarissa.
Brenda Platt: Glad to be here.
Reggie Rucker: As we get into this conversation, want to do a little bit of level setting and have you tell us about what’s the state of the composting world. What’s happened this year that is notable, that the public should be aware of that’s really impacting the way that you all are doing your work?
Brenda Platt: Climate disruption is here. We’re seeing droughts and fires in the West. And it’s not only hitting California, the Pacific Northwest. I was recently in Oklahoma visiting and speaking at a state conference, and the state, when I was there, was under severe drought.
Speaker 5: Since June 11th, we are in the driest 30 day stretch in the last 100 years and it is raising concerns for Oklahoma farmers and ranchers.
Brenda Platt: And it’s still under extreme drought. 82% of the state is under extreme drought, where wildfires are increasing in number and severity, air quality is poor with dust storms and smoke, like we’re back to the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, which actually launched the Soil Conservation Service in the United States to build healthy soils. And that’s a direct connection to compost because compost is organic matter and inevitably, it ends up back in the soil and it’s recognized as one of the key strategies for combating climate impacts in the short term really, and in the long term, of course.
Climate disruption is happening now, compost is the solution. The Biden-Harris administration recently announced that $500 million are available to make American made fertilizers and alternative soil nutrients. And why did they do that? That’s in response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine that has made synthetic fertilizer costs to skyrocket. And farmers are facing these untenable situations where they can’t get these synthetic fertilizers. And who makes a big bunch of those? It’s Russia. They make 13% of the global supply, 15 million metric tons a year. This is driving made in America alternatives and what’s one of them? Compost.
So those are just some of the things that are happening now.
Reggie Rucker: When you hear about the opportunities from the infrastructure bill, what is your take or how are you able to get that information out into the community and help take advantage of this additional funding to have more community composters?
Brenda Platt: The Bipartisan Infrastructure Act included $50 million a year for five years for recycling, including reuse and composting. And we’ve been at the table advocating for that money when it’s made available to cover not just large scale infrastructure, but that infrastructure should count as home composting bins and bins in your classroom and local composting bins at community gardens and urban farms at schools. So we’re hoping that infrastructure is defined as not just big large scale industrial sites and $3 million projects, but literally everything in between. And one of the beauties of composting is it can be small scale and large scale and everything in between. It’s very flexible. You too can compost if you want. That funding is going to be announced this month, so look for it. Your state can qualify, your local government can qualify, and that’s going to be a lot of money, not just for infrastructure, but there’s some other money that’s coming out of the same buckets that for education and outreach on this.
And it’s not only federal money, but we’ve been working at the state level as well to increase funding for local composting in Maryland. This year we introduced a bill to create a nominal surcharge on waste flowing to landfills, incinerators of $5 a ton that would go into a grant program that would create $30 million a year to fund all kinds of programs, including supporting farmers and building healthy soils. It didn’t pass this year because it’s an election year in Maryland, but it’ll be reintroduced. So we’re hopeful that, that’ll pass this year.
And one of the interesting things about that policy is that it was based on policies in place and many other states. And it’s not California and Oregon, not that there’s anything wrong with the policies in those states, but states that have those policies that are like Ohio, Indiana, North Carolina, New Jersey, Pennsylvania. If those states can do it, why not in Maryland? Why not in any state? So we have a policy template available that any state can adapt to pass a similar policy. Nominal surcharge on waste flowing to landfills and incinerators to fund the solutions. It’s very important to have these policies in place to help spur the communities we want. Policy is just really critical.
Luke Gannon: Yeah, I love that. That really feels like a huge accomplishment, just the fact that any state can adapt that bill. So Brenda, could you talk about another one of your team’s accomplishments in 2022 and what its impact was at the local state and the federal level?
Brenda Platt: We began the year with the US EPA issuing a press release with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance name in it, which is something I never thought I would see. And the press release basically recognized the Institute for our community composting work primarily in the mid-Atlantic. We’re working in Philadelphia, Baltimore, DC, a bunch of other communities. We’ve been doing not only this policy work, which I should say EPA did not fund, but they were funding our training programs. Community composting, you might say is an accessory activity at community gardens and urban farms in these cities. And one of the things we did this year is we launched an online community, Composting 101 course, which anybody can take. If you too want to learn how to compost, it’s an online course, like less than four hours you can take it and that’s something that’s available. So we have been growing community composting and Clarissa has been doing amazing work in leading the coalition and we have a number of members all across the country and outside the country as well.
Luke Gannon: Clarissa, can you dive into that? What does your position look like? How are you working with communities?
Clarissa Libert…: I’m the coordinator for the coalition, which is made up of all types of community composters. We have worker owned cooperatives, we have local government members even that are interested in starting pilot programs or already have and want to know how to scale up their programs. That was one of the biggest challenges facing our members this year, that they were interested in getting more resources on and more webinars, more information on how to scale up their operations because the community composting sector seems to be pretty booming right now. We did our first census ever this year in order to kind of get a baseline on that growth. But even just in capturing the information from in part our members and then also in part other community composers we identified. We saw that just when the operations even started, we got a sense of the growth that over half of the operations we surveyed had started since 2017.
And that trend is also reflected in our membership. We’ve had 52 new members in 2022. Now, we have 228 total and 15 people applied in just from this past month, which is probably in part because of the popularity of our government support for community composting webinar series, which we offer for members free. And that itself is evidence of composting being popular because governments want to know how to get involved. They’re, as Brenda said, talking about it as a solution to our climate problem, to our waste problems. And that is not just an interest from local government, it’s also from community members themselves that we’re seeing as the people who are originating a lot of these community composting operations.
One of our new members this year was Breathe Free Detroit, from Michigan and they actually started as a zero waste organization for the community shutting down an incinerator in Detroit. And they practiced composting and recycling as an act of resistance to starve the incinerator of organic waste. Now, the incinerator is closed and they’re looking to still do composting, but as a continuing positive solution for their communities. So they’re hoping that their pilot program in Detroit will be the foundation for a multi-scale, citywide composting policy. And that’s just one of the many members that we have that’s doing cool stuff like that. We also have the Compost Cooperative in Greenfield, Massachusetts that gives living wage opportunities for ownership for formerly incarcerated people and other people who face barriers to employment. So we’re definitely seeing that our members are not only getting support for their communities, they’re supporting their communities too and investing in their communities.
Reggie Rucker: There’s a lot that I want to pick up on there. I’m going to start with the Detroit piece of it. How much do you know about what was taking place in their campaigns? What do you think it was that really resonated with the community and created the groundswell that was able to lead to this very successful outcome?
Brenda Platt: I can jump in here because we’ve been working Detroit for many years to help close the trash incinerator, which was the largest trash incinerator in the country. It was burning 4,000 tons per day of trash, much of which was coming from outside the city. And where was the incinerator located? In a predominantly black, chronically disenfranchised part of the city? I think that the backstory is really that the community was really organized around fighting the incinerator. And part of the solution is if you look at what we put out the curb every week, almost half of what we put out the curb is readily compostable. So it’s kind of the low hanging fruit. And unlike recycling, where it’s a little harder to get a recycled paper mill or a recycled steel mill built in your community. And a lot of our recycled commodities over the last number of decades have been shipped outside.
So it’s like our major, number one export is waste paper in this country. So it shipped outside of the US to be made into finished products. We’re like a developing nation, where we import finished goods to export raw materials in the form of our waste commodities. But compost is different. It’s inherently local or it can be. We don’t ship our banana peels from one side of the country to the other. And the finished compost also tends to be the soil amendment used locally within the local regional economy. So for these groups in Detroit, promoting local composting, is kind of a, I don’t want to say a no-brainer, but really a no-brainer.
And this connection to the other thing that’s going on in our country, which we can talk about is all these conversations we’re having about racial equity and building community assets and keeping those locally, creating jobs and green jobs and investing in these communities. Well, local compost is a win-win for that too. Community composting is kind of this not so radical notion that you’re making compost and using it within the same community in which the kitchen scraps or yard materials are generated, instead of shipping it outside to be made to compost.
So when you’re doing that locally, you’re creating these local enterprises like the Compost Cooperative that Clarissa mentioned in Massachusetts and you’re creating local jobs and opportunities and skills in the local community. So there’s just so many benefits. Some of the newer members of our coalition are really working in these vulnerable communities. We have applicants that are working at senior centers and rec centers and these neighborhoods are going through these urban agricultural booms and they’re looking to seize this opportunity to educate and rebuild soil and manage their food waste and provide these alternative nutrients to their communities through composting. And I think the Free Detroit is no different.
Reggie Rucker: Clarissa, you had mentioned, was this uptick in interest in local composting. Were there any others key takeaways from the census that really stood out that you and the composting team are now going to start turning into important parts of your work?
Clarissa Libert…: Besides just the number of operations increasing over the years, the scale being their number one challenge and also something that we saw in the data that we collect on the number of food scraps that they processed and finished composts that they put out is just that even in this last year, the operations have been scaling up and dealing with a greater quantity of material. Which has always been kind of a struggle, even with small amounts of material. That in and of itself has been a difficulty for our members because there isn’t a huge amount of equipment that’s been made for small scale composters. So they’re in this kind of niche and not getting so much attention from equipment manufacturers and people in the industry. And that’s something that we’ve been working on for a while, but definitely has been underscored by the findings of the census.
But a cool thing about that is that we have, next year we’re planning for our in-person community composting forum and that is in partnership with the US Composting Council. So they are making an effort to recognize, and Brenda can maybe speak a little bit more on this, but they have been making more of an effort to recognize community composting as an important part of the sector, which could have a really big impact on the kind of resources available for people like our members. So that is exciting.
Brenda Platt: This year we’re going to have the US Composting Council, we’re co-sponsoring a field day that in part features small scale equipment. Finally. So manufacturers out there, we need equipment for small scale community-based operators and probably not just for composters.
Luke Gannon: I love that there’s an in-person community composting forum. Oh my god, I’m so excited for more in-person events. So that’s really cool. But something I’m thinking about is the Detroit example was a really excellent illustration of how we build the local power to fight corporate control. Brenda, what is another example of a project or research from the composting team that has really exemplified ILSR’s mission?
Brenda Platt: I would say generally, what we’re promoting in the local composting is actually the transfer of that power to the local level.
So Clarissa mentioned these worker owned enterprises. I talked about Oklahoma. Oklahoma, one of our members is in Oklahoma. It’s Fertile Ground Compost. They’re a worker owned cooperative in Oklahoma. So no matter where you are in the country, not just California or Massachusetts, we could be spurring these enterprises. And maybe around the country, it’s not talking about climate, but maybe it’s talking about how we weather these storms and droughts and building healthy soil. That’s a language we can all talk about, creating jobs, building healthy soil, supporting farmers, empowering youth, educating youth, building job skills. This is all the work we’re doing.
I mentioned our training program. Training is really essential for composting. So no matter what size you’re operating at, you need to know what you’re doing. One of the key facets of the success of any composting operation is having a trained operator. And some of the graduates of our programs are going out and building the power at the local community. We have folks that have started their own businesses, folks that have started food scrap hauling. So there’s all kinds of these operations. There’s no one model. They really range. It’s so exciting from again, these worker owned enterprises to volunteer run operations that are harnessing the power volunteerism to keep these community assets local.
Reggie Rucker: We will be right back after a very short break.
As an organization seeking the end of corporate control in local communities, you’ll understand why our commercial break sounds a little different. There’s no corporation selling you something in an ad, just me thanking you for listening to our show. And if you’re enjoying this episode, which if you’ve made it this far, I’m assuming you are, I definitely encourage you to go check out more of our work at ilsr.org. There, you’ll learn things like what should you do with your Halloween pumpkin rather than throw it away? Spoiler alert, it’s composting. Hopefully, it’s not too late. But here’s the thing, we’re only able to produce this content with the generous support of people like you. So if you can, please head over to ilsr.org/donate to make a contribution. Any amount is deeply, deeply appreciated. And if you’re looking for additional ways to support, we love reviews and would love one from you. These reviews make a huge difference in helping us reach a wider audience. Okay, that’s our break. Thank you so much for listening. And now, back to our show.
Reggie Rucker: We had a fascinating conversation with Josh Ewing who talked about how rural communities really need to be central in the climate conversation. Can you say a little bit about what you’ve noticed in terms of the language people use, how we approach these conversations around composting, that really could and should be more inclusive than they tend to be these days?
Brenda Platt: We do emphasize the climate connections. Clarissa did amazing infographic earlier this year showing that. But sometimes, not everywhere in the country, that’s the winning argument. And in Oklahoma, people care about soil health. They know the origins of the Dust Bowl in that state. Maybe it’s not talking so much as let’s compost and enhance the soil to protect the climate, but let’s build healthy soils and support farmers in doing this work and reduce the impacts of the severe droughts the state is facing.
We’ll put in the show notes a link to a video I did with this amazing guy, I call him the Compost Cowboy in Oklahoma, Blaine. He’s with the Department of Conservation in the state and he does this rain simulation on different types of soils. He’s got bare soil, he’s got compost, he’s got soil amended with compost covered with plants, and he runs simulated rainwater through it. And you can see visually, how much of the soil is absorbing the water and how much is running off. And the compost with the plants growing on it, it all infiltrates in and none of it is running off. And it’s guys like this we need to clone to go around and talk to our farmers and policy makers to kind of show people so visually the impacts of what healthy soils can do.
Reggie Rucker: I’m loving this visualization of the Compost Cowboy. Clarissa, it looks like you want to expand on that a little bit.
Clarissa Libert…: With broadening our conversation about the benefits of composting is another thing that our team has been talking about a lot this year, is we already know the environmental justice benefits of composting, but that’s not always reflected in the people who our work is reaching. And so we’ve been making a big effort on that. For example, doing home composting workshops in Spanish. And when we were doing the preparation for that with Daniela Ochoa Gonzalez, who is from Regenerative Solutions, we were also trying to ask her a little bit about why she thought how we should do the outreach around the workshops because why would a Spanish speaking community in DC be interested in something like that?
And her perspective was so interesting. It was not anything that would’ve would’ve occurred to me, but was that a lot of Spanish speaking immigrants in the US come from places where our produce is coming from and we’re eating the food here and wasting quantities of it that would probably be offensive to some of the people in those countries. And then the food waste stays here, the wasted food stays here, and those countries do not get to see the benefits of composting. And so to her, composting was also a way to honor the journey that the food had taken and to make sure that it didn’t go to waste.
And so I thought that was pretty beautiful. And another example of how, to some people composting is soil health and to some people it’s about cultural connection and honoring the food. So that’s a whole nother perspective.
Luke Gannon: It seems like composting isn’t just about the environment, even though of course in large part it is. But it also seems social, it’s cultural, it’s historical. So Clarissa, in 2023, are there any plans for the composting team to broaden this message that it really does check a bunch of these different boxes?
Clarissa Libert…: Composting for me, it was definitely the people connection, the climate change, climate justice, environmental justice, food, soils, how it threads through everything. That is what is very exciting about composting and there’s definitely something that everybody could relate to when it comes to composting. So I think that we’re going to be articulating some of those connections a little bit more in our outreach materials, whether through graphics or maybe even through programming. And then also, as Brenda said, we’re going to be trying to reach out to those communities, put more of our resources in Spanish, translate it into maybe even other languages so that we can have those conversations like I had with Daniela, where I actually learned about a new connection that I never knew before.
Reggie Rucker: Thinking forward into 2023 at this point, what are the ways in which you can take some of the lessons that have been learned from the census work, the growing of the coalition, the Spanish workshops, and some of what you’ve learned about how to engage a more diverse community, getting communities that have political leanings that don’t obviously seem aligned with this work that is clearly aligned with this work because of the impact it has on them. All the things that you’ve learned over the course of this year, what’s that going to look like as you move into the 2023 work? And Clarissa or Brenda, open it to either of you?
Brenda Platt: Well, one of the things we do want to expand the access to our training materials and make them available in any community. We have ILSR composting learning activities that students can do, teachers can use for science projects, learn how to compost. It’s not rocket science, but there are some basics to learn. Building the training program is just foundational to having trained operators go out there in the world. So that’s something we’ll be growing. We’ll be working on policies incorporating composting. We’re seeing more states pass policies to promote healthy soils. We want to get composting in there. And likewise, a lot of states are passing bills that address and advocate for composting. We want to see the connections to healthy soils in those bills. So we’ll be doing a lot more policy work this year. And of course, growing the coalition, which Clarissa can address.
Clarissa Libert…: We don’t need to do much to grow the coalition because the movement itself is growing and people seem to be finding us through all of the resources we put out. So that is pretty awesome. I definitely want to do a better job at meeting the needs of the coalition, doing more events to address some of their challenges. This year, we did an event on insurance for community composters, which is another difficult thing because of their scale. So a lot more things like that. We’ve started a peer learning community session so that they can be sharing knowledge with each other, peer to peer.
Luke Gannon: I love that the coalition itself is growing and I do certainly want to recognize that you all did a lot to make that happen. So I want to quickly take a step back and look at the broader picture. Brenda, What is the role of the federal government in terms of environmental solutions and specifically composting, in 2023?
Brenda Platt: I think the Bipartisan Infrastructure Act, the Made in America, new fertilizer, $500 million can help drive the market for compost. There’s a lot of focus, rightly so, on climate solutions that deal with greenhouse gas emissions. And we’re looking at vehicles and energy use and cutting fossil fuel and the energy consumed by our buildings. There’s probably not enough on the climate sinks, kind of sequestering carbon, and I think that would be an area that could warrant more attention. I think the reauthorization of the Farm Bill next year is a huge opportunity again, to support farmers in doing this and set them up for success, get them the equipment they need and the support they need and make the regulatory path easier to meet, to make the rules easier to do the right thing here, to move away from these synthetic fertilizers and into these alternative nutrients like locally made compost.
And we need high quality compost. So when in doubt, do not put it in your bin. Do not put the plastics or the stuff that doesn’t belong in the compost bin in the compost bin. Contamination is a big issue, so you can do your part. But I think there’s a role absolutely, for the federal government. I will say however, that solid waste management has basically, in this country, been relegated to the states. So there is a lot of power at the state level, like a surcharge on waste flowing to landfills and incinerators, like a little nominal surcharge to get lots of investment money to do the alternative to throwing stuff away and destroying these materials. So there’s a lot that can happen at the local and state level and we’re looking forward to that.
Luke Gannon: So it is time for one of my favorite questions. We get to talk about books, which I love doing and encourage all of our listeners to go shop and hang out at their local bookstore. They are phenomenal places. So Brenda, now I’m going to throw this to you first. What is a book that was released in 2022 that really influenced your team’s work?
Brenda Platt: One book that came out this year is the Composting Handbook. It’s probably like two inches thick, so I’m not sure everybody wants to look for that at your local book store. But it did influence us because we’ve been waiting for this reissue of this book for so many years and it’s finally out. But it’s almost too big. But one thing I’ll recommend that people check out, it’s a new report by our allies, the Global Anti Incinerator Alliance, called Zero Waste to Zero Emissions: How Reducing Waste is a Climate Gamechanger. And one of their key takeaways is that composting is the key climate game changer. And it’s not that long of a report, it’s a great report. So check that out and it’s free so you don’t actually have to pay for it. Zero Waste to Zero Emissions, and we’ll put the link in the show notes.
Reggie Rucker: Okay, so I heard zero waste, zero emissions and zero cost. Yeah, that sounds like a winning formula. Clarissa, how about you?
Clarissa Libert…: Pedagogy of the Oppressed, I read this year and that has everything to do with what we do with composting, working with communities. So yes, highly recommend that. You could probably also read a good SparkNotes of the content and that would do you well.
Luke Gannon: Well, thank you both so much for coming on the show. I would definitely recommend seeing all of the composting teams work. It is absolutely incredible. Clarissa’s infographics I have seen and just her graphics are amazing. So definitely head over there, we’ll have that all in the show notes. But thank you both so much.
Reggie Rucker: Yeah, thanks so much you too. This was really great.
Brenda Platt: Our pleasure.
Clarissa Libert…: Thanks guys.
Reggie Rucker: What another great conversation. I just love having these discussions with the team here. Anyways, hope you did too. Thank you for listening to this episode of the Building Local Power Podcast, from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. You can find links to resources, references, transcripts, everything discussed today by going to ilsr.org, finding the podcast tab, and then just clicking on the link to today’s episode. Once again, that is ilsr.org.
Luke Gannon: As I’ve mentioned before, we are trying to make this show better every single day. So if you have a suggestion, please reach out. If you have a review, please do leave one, where you listen to your podcasts. To stay informed, sign up for our composting newsletter. That is at ilsr.org. Again, all of your reviews, likes and donations help produce this very podcast and support the research and resources that we make available for free, on our website. The truly terrific person that co-hosts this podcast is Reggie Rucker. This podcast is edited by Drew Birschbach. Our theme music is Funk Interlude by Dysfunctionale. This is 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: Worcester Youth Collaboratives 

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