How does the return on investment for community-based composting compare to that of centralized composting? What unique co-benefits do community composters bring to the table, beyond waste diversion? In this episode of the Composting for Community Podcast, we are joined by Kourtnii Brown, founder and director of Common Compost (Oakland, California) and CEO of the California Alliance for Community Composting. We discuss the immense potential of community composting to scale up and meet diversion goals and improve community resilience based on the findings of the Community Composting for Green Spaces (CCGS) 2021/22 pilot program.
CCGS aims to strengthen, protect, and develop small and medium composting projects across California while supporting and empowering the communities they serve. In 2020, the California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery (CalRecycle) awarded the California Alliance of Community Composters (CACC), in collaboration with People, Food and Land Foundation (PFL), $1.54 million to launch the CCGS pilot program, supporting 125 community composting projects and establish 65 part-time employment opportunities. The pilot also observed a number of co-benefits: meaningful jobs in marginalized communities, increased organizational capacity, effective community education, greenhouse gas emissions reduction, and increased use of green spaces.
In this episode, Kourtnii Brown reflects on the impact participating initiatives had in their communities, the potential of community composters to help reach California’s ambitious waste diversion goal of 75% by 2025, and inspiration for other communities to launch similar initiatives.
By investing just a million dollars of any county or any city’s budget today to support launching a decentralized network, about a hundred community-based projects in public green space, low cost diversion capacity can be accomplished in under two years and it can be sustained for many more. In some rural counties it could provide the solution that would meet total capacity needed to reach zero waste goals.
If you look at the outcomes of this pilot program, [if] all 109 of those sites were able to maintain their current diversion levels and we were to just continue to invest $1 million annually into the sites themselves, we estimate that we could collectively continue to divert about 7 million pounds a year, produce 2,750 cubic yards of compost a year, reduce emissions by 550 metric tons of CO2 equivalent – so almost 200 cars off the road a year – we would achieve another million metric tons from applying that yummy compost to local gardens and farms and also 35 full-time equivalent jobs.
ILSR Webinar ft. Kourtnii Brown: Census of Community Composters – Key Findings, Challenges & Future Outlook
Why Community Composting Is Critical To California’s Infrastructure — BioCycle, February 20, 2023
|Linda Bilsens Brolis:
|Across the country, the community composting movement is growing. Small-scale composting provides communities immediate opportunities for reducing waste, improving local soil, creating jobs, and fighting climate change. You’re listening to the Composting for Community Podcast where we’ll bring you stories from the people doing this work on the ground and in the soil.
|Welcome back to the Composting for Community Podcast. I’m Linda Bilsens Brolis of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance’s Composting for Community Initiative. In this episode, I talk to Kourtni Brown, founder and director of Common Compost, a community focused food scrap recycling and composting service provider in Oakland, California.
|Kourtni is also a founding member, acting president and CEO of the California Alliance for Community Composting. The CACC is a coalition of community composters that form to strengthen, protect, and develop small and medium-scale composting projects across California while supporting and empowering the communities they serve.
|In 2020, the CACC secured a major win for community composting in the state. They, in collaboration with the People, Food and Land Foundation were awarded a one and a half million dollar grant from the California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery to pilot the Community Composting for Green Spaces Program.
|This episode offers a deep dive into the impact assessment of the program’s two-year pilot, which measured not only the organics diversion potential of community composting, but also a number of unique co-benefits that frequently go unaccounted for in conventional waste diversion initiatives. Kourtni lays out how this impressive program demonstrates that community composting is a wise, cross-cutting investment for California that can also serve as a model for communities around the country. Let’s dive in.
|Hello, folks. I’m joined now by Kourtni Brown. Welcome, Kourtni.
|Thank you. Thanks for having me.
|Linda Bilsens Brolis:
|So great to have you here. I want to talk to you about the California Alliance for Community Composting, but before we do that, I wanted to talk to you about your personal relationship with composting. How did you get started? What got you hooked? That kind of thing.
|Yeah, sure. Well, it was the worms. I come from a background in environmental policy and I was on a work trip in Sri Lanka and actually saw municipal composting being done on a large scale with worms. And I immediately came home and asked my roommate if she would be interested in starting a worm bin on her back stairwell for composting our own food material at home, and she was totally in. And when I saw how easy it was, I was like, “We need to be sharing this idea with more people.”
|It started by actually doing the composting itself and trying to take it outside of my own home and do it more in my community, then we realized very quickly we needed a much bigger worm bin in order to handle that volume. Then I became more into manufacturing, building flow-through worm bin systems and started my own enterprise called Common Compost and worked on just building bins and trying to get them out into areas of our community where they would be best utilized.
|Linda Bilsens Brolis:
|What a cool way to get started. Seeing composting abroad also got me hooked. I feel like in so many other parts of the world, localized composting is just so normal and the simple utility of it just seems so much clearer. And you come back to the US and our waste management systems seem so much bigger and more convoluted. So how did you grow Common Compost into what it is now?
|I was working for a international development organization and I quit my position in the fall of 2014 to really take the leap and pursue, develop Common Compost. So I entered a hackathon, it was called Living the New Economy. It was coming up with sustainable business ideas that really could start to begin solving real issues in our communities on a whole wide scale of things that made them more economically resilient.
|So I took waste management as the topic that was most inspiring to me, and in that, food waste as part of an issue that is really compounding climate change and trying to look at how our own community was really managing that stream of material. So I won the hackathon part of it. It actually included a scholarship to Optima Business Bootcamp, which was a social entrepreneurship bootcamp for building out business ideas in this way.
|I really took Common Compost through the year of 2015, just to learn how to have organizational development behind an idea and to see where it could go, if it was profit driving. I think in this all, I made a lot of friends who were also community composters.
|So that process in the year of 2015 and into 2016 of trying to launch this business, we started running into some political barriers. And so I went back to those friends and asked them, “Did you deal with this during your organizational development as well?”
|And then found out we actually had a lot of the same political barriers in common. So formed just an unincorporated alliance to go to our local city councils, to go to state agencies, and just ask for a little bit more protections in the work that community-based organizations are doing to recover this material as a local resource. This is about between the fall of 2014 and the spring of 2017.
|Linda Bilsens Brolis:
|What a journey for Common Compost. And in addition to running your own business, you’re also serving as the CEO of the California Alliance for Community Composting. How did that come about?
|In the spring of 2017, the US Composting Council held their annual conference in Los Angeles and I applied for a scholarship through the Institute for Local Self-Reliance to attend that conference. And that’s actually where I met most of these folks in person for the first time, including Michael Martinez of LA Compost. We had a informal gathering to discuss how we could better work together in the State of California for our common goals, and that little evening soiree was the beginning of the California Alliance for Community Composting.
|For the next two years, we started showing up as individuals and as a cohort to workshops and working groups on SB 1383, the California State legislation that works to reduce short-term climate pollutants, methane being one of those. So that’s how it’s tied into food waste and food waste diversion.
|Really understanding how best to educate our policymakers to really understand that the solution is solvable at all scales, and this is an area where we’re working and this is what we’re doing and these are our benefits and impacts. And that as they considered roll-outs and general regulations that they considered in that, protections for small-scale and community-based operations.
|But understanding that we really couldn’t come together as an unincorporated alliance and advocate for common goals when a lot of us are farmers and gardeners and composters. We’re not policy makers, we’re certainly not lawyers. So just having the language once we got a seat at the table to effectively discuss what makes good policy for composters. It was really training our own folks to be able to have those dialogues as well as to have the dialogues themselves.
|Linda Bilsens Brolis:
|Yes, it’s so important, learning how to take a seat at the table and then also knowing what to do with it. It seems like your collective efforts have really carved out support for community composting within the state. It’s so impressive.
|On that note, let’s turn to an interesting and inspiring project that the CACC has been undertaking, the Community Composting for Green Spaces Program. Please tell us about it.
|It’s the first ever of its kind pilot program that was funded by the California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery. This is the state agency primarily tasked with drafting the regulations and administering the implementation of Senate Bill 1383.
|So as we sat at these tables and we negotiated for these protections, we also asked for financial investments in small-scale activities primarily because we’re so good at community education and outreach. So it turns out basically that our policy advocacy was quite effective and CalRecycle did dedicate some investment in small-scale solutions. So they ran a pilot program that was released in December of 2019.
|So at this point in time, none of the individual organizations and enterprises that were part of CACC could actually access this grant opportunity. You had to be 501(c)(3) nonprofit or you had to actually be a registered business entity, and I think a lot of us were still operating under the radar.
|So we decided to get a fiscal sponsor that was willing to accept, if we were to get the grant award, to accept the funding and allow us to actually administer the grant program as a conglomerate of organizations. Those original organizations were LA Compost with Michael Martinez, the Integrative Development Initiative with Elinor Cescenzi, we have Soilify with Lynn Fang, and myself as Common Compost.
|So we all got together and we wrote the winning proposal for the first pilot round of Community Composting for Green Spaces, where we really got to design how a state agency would be able to effectively, financially, and technically support community-based organizations to take on doing some of this diversion to reach the state’s targets.
|Community Composting for Green Spaces launched in October of 2020, and we all worked collaboratively with a expert advisory group of 12 additional individuals to create programming which was not only responsive to the needs of these communities, but was able to strengthen, empower, and protect the project works. And to learn something too about the best models, about best practices, about our impacts at this level, and be able to tell that story for the first time on a coordinated statewide level.
|Linda Bilsens Brolis:
|Wow, it’s super impressive. Could you talk to us about the impact of the programs to date?
|With the Community Composting for Green Spaces, we took about six months to do community outreach to identify the groups that were going to work with us, to train them, and to work on their project site designs, installation, and launching them.
|So when everybody finally got up and running, it was September of 2021. For the next 18 months, we tracked key performance metrics at each site. We gathered and analyzed data on diversion, trees planted, jobs, tasks, and hours worked, and also the compost produced.
|Operators were using simple Google forms at first to do this data, but we also worked with the leadership team at Epic Renewal to begin the development of software and hardware that will be open sourced application for handheld devices that aims at making this data tracking on those core key metrics we need for every site, not only in our program, but it really helps with key development indicators in any compost hub.
|And then at 10 of the select sites we also worked with, WeRadiate to do remote sensing technology to start measuring key metrics on compost quality itself, so temperature, moisture, oxygen levels. And Lynn Fang also conducted a pre and post soil quality analysis at a dozen of the select locations to help measure the effectiveness of compost application on soil health. And Elinor Cescenzi and a team of contractors also conducted community compost hub health assessments.
|And this was basically to begin looking at all the other co-benefits that happen here outside of just diversion. So economic resilience, food systems, organizational capacity, community education, and also overcoming barriers to use of green spaces, genuinely looking at compost hubs as a way to overcome unhealthy and unjust systems and inspire places where people can come and to gather and to learn and to benefit, and also to walk away with good, healthy and nutritious fresh produce.
|We supported 12.5 full-time jobs through the course of the program. That boiled down to about 9 full-time jobs every quarter. These were folks who were from disadvantaged and low-income communities working at projects that were stewarded within those communities, owned, operated, and supported by those communities as well. The jobs were shown to be fun and fulfilling and engaging and really helped bring in over thousands of volunteers to put hands-on work into these projects.
|And so when those happen, I think the biggest benefit of what is going on in the community composting world is they go home to their house and they do a much better job with source separation and with diverting that material in whatever the municipal solid waste service system that is happening back at home.
|Linda Bilsens Brolis:
|That’s a great point. And overall, you outlined a lot of co-benefits of community composting that I think are frequently overlooked.
|We’ll be right back after a really short break. Thanks for listening to this episode of the Composting for Community Podcast. If you’re enjoying it, please consider supporting our work with a donation by going to ilsr.org/donate. Your donations make this show and all the work we do here at ILSR possible. Visit ilsr.org/donate to make your contribution today. Any amount is sincerely appreciated. And if you’re looking for other ways to support us, consider rating or leaving a review of this show wherever you listen to your podcast. These reviews help us reach a wider audience. Thanks again for listening. And now back to the show.
|So you just touched on some co-benefits of community composting that you observed through the green spaces pilot, those that relate to job creation and chronically underserved communities, meaningful community engagement and education and access to green spaces. Could you speak a bit more on what you observed as to the cost-effectiveness of community composting as it relates to waste diversion?
|Oh, yes. Thank you for this question. I am really excited to dive into these numbers in a little bit more detail. For the 18 months when sites were actively composting, we supported 117 projects and we spent about $930,000 on 109 of those project sites that actually reported diversion. They reported 10.5 million pounds between food material and green material diverted from landfills in California. That boils down to 5,233 tons. That is equivalent to taking 200 cars off the road for one year.
|So we’re really proud of the greenhouse gas emission reductions that we were able to accomplish through this program. But I think there is another layer of the onion that we need to peel back here with the cost investments at a decentralized and small-scale level. And that’s if you look at the work that was being done at these 109 project sites and the amount of material that was diverted through them, it cost us $178 per ton of material in operations, equipment, and providing all of the other community co-benefits like farming, volunteer engagement, and education to manage that amount of material.
|And I think this is a very cost-effective and competitive price point for diverting organics from landfill. Because if you look at California right now and what the state has projected that it will cost to meet their very ambitious diversion target, which is 75% reduction by 2025, that’s next year, and we are nowhere close to meeting this goal.
|California has projected that it will cost them $17.4 billion to build about 85 centralized facilities in order to divert 26.8 million pounds annually from landfills. But if we were to take just 1% of that projected $17.4 billion and we invested it in decentralized-scale solutions in combination still with the larger-scale solutions. So for 1% that is equivalent to $174 million.
|Now taking the data that came out of this pilot project, let’s round up to spending $1 million on 100 projects per year and we’ll round down with our total diversion to 5,000 tons per year. So for $1 million, you get 100 projects and you get 5,000 tons. These are very good even numbers to use.
|So with that math, if we had 5,000 tons for every $1 million invested and we were to take 1% of the 17.4 billion, so that’s 174 million, we would be able to divert 870,000 tons of material for just 1% investment. But if you look at 870,000 tons as a percentage of the 26.8 million in total that needs to get diverted annually, that turns out to be 3.25% of California’s annual capacity needed to do this work. So for 1% investment, you get a 3% capacity return.
|Now if we take even the next layer of the onion and we look at what it costs to divert that amount of pounds, the average for commercial operators in California today is $374 per ton of material, to move it and to take it to centralized facilities. But for ours, it cost us $178 per ton of organics to move that material. Included in that cost is the equipment itself, is also labor, and is also these co-benefits.
|So we’re looking at a capacity return of 1% of investment to 3.25% of the capacity, but we’re also looking at a price point return of 1/3 the cost of a commercial operator to provide the same services for a jurisdiction.
|Linda Bilsens Brolis:
|Wow, that all is super compelling. Can you help us understand how all that translates to greenhouse gas emissions reduction potential of community composting?
|Yes, absolutely. So we are a two for one deal in this aspect because we divert the material. And so, we get a metric ton of CO2 equivalent in greenhouse gas emission reduction just from diversion, but we also create compost and we apply it right there at the sites where we are diverting the material. So we get an additional greenhouse gas benefit from putting organic matter on the ground, making that soil healthier so that it can actually hold more carbon and draw more carbon out of the atmosphere.
|So with this program at 109 of those sites, they were able to produce 4,420 cubic yards of compost and apply it on site or distribute it in their very local network of community gardens and parks. We also planted 488 trees in these compost hubs to green spaces. Most of them were fruit bearing trees, so also to feed people. And that afforded us an additional 3 million metric tons of CO2e over a 40-year period too.
|So if you really look at what our price per metric ton of carbon dioxide equivalent for diverting material at a community compost hub where you’re also greening the spaces and growing food, we drop down to $353 per metric ton of CO2e. That’s diversion, trees, and compost application.
|I think it’s also relevant to note that these impact stats haven’t yet taken into consideration the additional GHG emissions avoided from composting locally in terms of the foregone vehicle miles traveled in order to divert the same material at far away compost facilities that are usually located outside of this 200 mile sustainability radius.
|So when we’re looking at the cost to human health for cleaner air and by decreasing truck congestion on the roads and the maintenance for those roads, these externality costs would actually make us even more cost-effective. The cost of these externalities actually make our programs that much more beneficial for local investments.
|Linda Bilsens Brolis:
|Wow. That’s really why I was so excited to talk to you because you have data to back up the benefits that we often tout as being associated with community composting, such as their being more cost-effective and being quicker to bring online and getting all these co-benefits that go with that you might overlook if you’re just focusing on bigger, more centralized infrastructure. It’s just really exciting that you have this great data to back that up.
|So now, if another community in another part of the country was looking to replicate something like the Community Composting for Green Spaces Program, what would you recommend?
|Great question. If you look at the outcomes of this pilot program and all 109 of those sites were able to maintain their current diversion levels and we were to just continue to invest $1 million annually into the sites themselves, we estimate that we could collectively continue to divert about 7 million pounds a year, produce 2,750 cubic yards of compost a year, reduce emissions by 550 metric tons of CO2 equivalent, so almost 200 cars off the road a year. And we would achieve another million metric tons from applying that yummy compost to local gardens and farms and also 35 full-time equivalent jobs.
|So this means it is more cost-effective for every dollar that you invest in waste diversion to be directed towards developing community-scale solutions across all states and all municipalities, because community composting provides three times more throughput capacity for every dollar spent. And because our costs also include jobs for at least two years, local compost hubs, access to education, access to green space, healthy compost, healthy soil, and healthy food.
|So I think how that boils down at a local level is by investing just $1 million of any county or any city’s budget today to support launching a decentralized network, about 100 community-based projects in public green spaces, low cost diversion capacity can be accomplished in under two years, and it can be sustained for many more. And in some rural counties, it could provide the solution that would meet total capacity needed to reach zero waste goals.
|Linda Bilsens Brolis:
|Awesome. That seems like it should be attainable for many communities around the country, especially with support from the EPA and the USDA.
|At this point, what are some of your goals for the coming year, whether it’s for you personally or for CACC?
|So we were the successful award recipients for the second round of this program, CCGS-2. It will run July 2023 through April 2025. CalRecycle invested an additional $5 million in the program. They are allocating a specific $510,000 for tribal entities to do this program as their tribal nations, and then the other 4.5 million for community-based groups. So CACC the successful award recipient in seven of the eight regions. So even though we will be coordinating it statewide, it is very much now broken down into a regional program.
|My focus is, the next 20 months, to really take what we started during the first round of Community Composting for Green Spaces and apply it with that nuanced regional level where the sites that are launched, the technical support that we offer, and the regional coordinators who are shepherding these participants through the program really get very localized, but still having the access and the benefits to statewide knowledge networks and statewide training opportunities.
|We’re really moving this program from state level down into the regional level. And then we can expand there and then hopefully focus that even further down into the city and to the local level.
|Linda Bilsens Brolis:
|Well, that’s super exciting. I’m looking forward to following that trajectory, and it sounds like you all continue to create a model that can hopefully be exported elsewhere.
|At this point, any other thoughts or words of wisdom specifically for composters and advocates looking to secure funding for the community composting efforts?
|Yes. There are several state and federal funding opportunities for compost programs that are related to more than just food material diversion to qualify for these activities such as climate mitigation grants, healthy soils initiative, sustainable cities networks, city urban greening programs, habitat conservation, and food rescue grants. So a lot of way, all of these are very related to food treated as a resource that needs to be recovered to create more food.
|So it’s really important to begin educating your policymakers or engaging with those agencies that are offering these funding opportunities as early as possible, letting them know what you do for your work, how that is related to these programs and whatnot. And then secondarily, applying for those grants and those opportunities. The more the community composters are able to be eligible and also show up for contracting, bidding, and RFA processes with large-scale agencies, the more that we can start funneling these resources into growing this network and strengthening this network.
|A lot of that is maybe first starting with yourself, educating yourself on just how to have a grant language, policy language, how to go to state agencies, how to make introductions. But then once you’re there, to really talk from your heart about the work that you do so that you can create a space for you to be able to work in those areas and those opportunities.
|All too often, I think that they are designed and geared towards having large-scale, one-size-fits-all models, for-profit models, and that can make it really hard and create a lot of barriers just to get access to these opportunities. Before they’re even designed, it’s really important to be part of that process.
|Linda Bilsens Brolis:
|That’s fabulous and very much resonates with our experience. And I think once policymakers who might not be familiar with the composting space, get to see what community composters bring to the table, when they really understand the roles that community composters and other community-based enterprises play. That changes the understanding of what you really are getting as part of that package.
|It might seem easier to go with one big project that you have to keep track of, but you’re missing out on this opportunity for all these other co-benefits. And I think that the data that you all have calculated from your project really can help other community composters make these points or policy makers in their own communities.
|So to close, I wanted to ask if you have any advice or lessons learned for composters that are just getting started in this space or something that’s inspired you along your path?
|Well, I would say compost is very forgiving when you’re learning. The decomposition process by nature is a very slow process, so sometimes it can make that learning very slow, and sometimes mistakes can be made and corrections to those mistakes do take some time.
|It’s a wonderful thing to be a part of because after you really meet your own best practices, you can take it to this next level of craft compost and this level of quality where we can control every input and every part of the output when we do it in such small batches that it really becomes like a family member, an extension of yourself. You get very sentimental about your compost piles.
|So just to remember that the compost pile itself is a really loving, forgiving, accepting, and nurturing, and also giving part of your life.
|Linda Bilsens Brolis:
|That’s a beautiful way of thinking about a compost pile. I love that. Kourtni, thank you so much for taking time from your very busy schedule to tell us about your work and the Community Composting for Green Spaces Program. And just I’m super excited to see what you guys do next.
|Yes. Thank you so much, Linda, for having me. Thank you for the support from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. They’ve not only been a mentor and an inspiration to a lot of what we’re trying to create as well. So very grateful for this partnership and wonderful to talk to you again.
|Linda Bilsens Brolis:
|Thanks for listening to this episode of the Composting for Community Podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. This episode was produced by Drew Birschbach and ILSR’s composting team. Our theme music is I Don’t Know from Grapes. Be sure to check out the rest of the ILSR podcast family, including Building Local Power, Local Energy Rules, and Community Broadband Bits at ilsr.org.
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