Why Scale Matters in Protecting the Climate and How Composting Can Help (Episode 81)

Date: 19 Sep 2019 | posted in: Building Local Power | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

Host Hibba Meraay is joined by Brenda Platt, Director of ILSR’s Composting for Community Initiative. Hibba and Brenda dive into the climate crisis and what communities are doing at the local level to address it. They also discuss:

  • Why scale matters in how we manage our waste and how small-scale composting can play a big role in mitigating the climate crisis
  • How big corporations are fundamentally at odds with being low carbon
  • Why climate issues need to be central to the work of all people working in public policy
  • The intersections of climate change and equity
  • Promising developments to address the climate crisis at the municipal and local level


Right now our waste is going to landfills and trash incinerators that are owned by big waste companies. So, we can take away some of their power and some of their influence and expand decision making to local communities [when we compost locally].


Hibba Meraay: Welcome back to another episode of Building Local Power. I’m Hibba Meraay, communications manager at the Institute for Local Self Reliance. This time on the show I talked to Brenda Platt, director of our composting for community initiative. We talked about the climate crisis and what communities are doing at the local level to address it.

Hey Brenda.

Brenda Platt: Hey Hibba
Hibba Meraay: So the climate crisis is increasingly captivating people’s attention and is at the forefront of a lot of people’s minds. Especially given recent headlines like the burning of the Amazon and Hurricane Dorian in The Bahamas. And even political plans that we’ve seen are making a lot of news, like the Green New Deal, and more recently Bernie’s climate plan.

So we thought it would be a good time to talk about how our work at the Institute protects the climate, specifically both on the composting team, which you direct, but also how climate change fits into our larger mission at ILSR.

Brenda Platt: So glad to be joining you for this conversation, because climate destruction is certainly keeping me up at night.
Hibba Meraay: Yeah, I think I actually read some recent articles about how stress about climate change impacts people, like in their daily lives, which is increasingly an issue for everyone. So glad to be here as well.

I think first I’d just love to talk about kind of how your work specifically addresses climate protection. And maybe you could talk a little about why it’s better to have a community based system to deal with waste rather than big corporations managing your waste system.

Brenda Platt: Yeah. Well first let me just start by saying there is a direct link between soil and climate protection, and then again between compost and soil. New studies are showing that soil can act as a huge carbon sink to help balance out greenhouse gas emissions. And that could have the potential of holding up to three times as much carbon as what’s found in the atmosphere. So it’s so crucial that we look at practices that enhance healthy soils.

And healthy soils, just to be clear, are those that are rich in microbes, high in organic matter, store carbon, are stable, can retain water. And one of the beauties of compost is that compost provides all of those benefits and it is the best way to add organic matter to soil. So it’s great to be working in a field advancing composting. Something that everybody can do, every community can do, no matter where you are in the country.

And we can make compost from many types of organic materials, yard and garden trimmings, wood waste, and food waste. I would just say that food waste is particularly important, because when it’s landfilled it produces methane, which is one of the most potent greenhouse gases in terms of its global warming potential. In the short term, and like a 20 year time horizon, methane is 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide. And a lot of people don’t realize that.

Hibba Meraay: Oh wow.
Brenda Platt: Yeah. So composting is win-win, because if you don’t send to the landfill, you’re not producing methane, but if you add it to soils, you’re sequestering carbon. So it’s a win-win. And in the US, we are still throwing away 30 million tons of food scraps every year. And landfills are a top source of methane. So it’s really important that we focus on food waste.

In fact, the book that many listeners may have already seen, the 2017 book Drawdown, which is kind of a roadmap for a plan to reverse global warming, according to that book what we eat turns out to be the number one cause of global warming. And they include all food-related emissions from farming to deforestation to food waste, and maintains that if we can transform a source of greenhouse greenhouse gases into a sink, that’s what we need to be doing.

So instead of releasing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, improving our food production and the way we reduce and recover food waste can capture carbon. And it can not only increase soil fertility and soil health and water availability, but ultimately begin to address food access issues, food security, nutrition and other things that we can do. So composting is just one among a number of the strategies that were laid out in the book Drawdown, but one of the critical ones in terms of the win-win for protecting the climate.

Hibba Meraay: Yeah. That’s so interesting. I wonder how many people know that the food system is like the number one contributing cause to global warming. I definitely didn’t know that. And I think it’s interesting because it’s hard to imagine a world in which we reverse the huge agribusiness and all of like the way that food is grown to mass feed people today. But I think it is a lot more empowering to think about like, okay, what are we doing with the food waste, and how can we at least deal with the byproducts of that system in a more sustainable way? Like you mentioned.
Brenda Platt: And I think one of the reasons that food waste and the food production is so huge is that we waste so much food. You know, some studies are showing that 40% of food that’s produced is waste in this country. So there’s huge, huge potential to avoid food waste to begin with. And then what we can recycle and recover, you know, we can rescue a lot of food to feed people who need it. And then what we can’t reduce, what we can’t rescue, we can recycle into compost.

And a lot of that food … food scraps that can be composted, can’t be rescued. You know, we can’t use watermelon rinds or banana peels to feed people, that can be composted. And to your question earlier about the scale of the composting, since this is something that we focus quite a lot of our resources on here at the Institute for Local Self Reliance and our work, is that scale does matter.

So if we can make compost at home in our backyards and in community gardens at schools and elsewhere and urban farms, then that compost gets cycled back into local soils. And at the same time, we’re creating local jobs. We’re educating local youth. We’re producing healthy food in areas that need food the most. So it can be done locally, and often we’re seeing a huge jump in cities and counties that are doing more on food waste recovery. But often they turn to large scale systems first.

It’s not that we won’t need the large scale systems, everything’s needed. We need more infrastructure for composting, but don’t overlook small scale home composting, community scale, supporting farmers in your region who really know all about the soil and want to do more of this. So scale does really matter in how we do it. And the policies and the contracting and everything that can happen at the local level to support community scale enterprises is very, very important.

Hibba Meraay: Right. Yeah. I think that’s actually a perfect segue, because my next question was about how ILSR’s work as a whole is relevant to climate change. I think … what is it about our perspective and our framework that’s useful? And part of it you already mentioned is scale, right? So we emphasize this issue of decentralization and distribution of power. Yeah. I would ask you, what do you think we are adding to this conversation?
Brenda Platt: Well, you referenced at the beginning of this conversation, the Green New Deal and equity and community development and job creation, is one of the central tenants of the New Green Deal. And that’s something that we care about too. When you have a diverse infrastructure, distributed infrastructure, if you will, or decentralized and small scale, then you’re creating more enterprises, more jobs.

And in the case of wasted materials and discarded materials, if those materials can be re-manufactured locally within local economies, then you’re closing the loop. You’re creating the circular economy locally. So that’s really important. If you just take waste … of our residential, commercial, retail waste stream, solid waste streams, almost half of what we produce is compostable materials. If you include not only food scraps and yard trimmings and some paper in there and wood waste. And so if you can convert that into compost locally, you’re creating local jobs and the product itself tends to be used locally.

So for local farms, local gardens. But also one of the biggest markets for compost is in managing storm water run off and then what’s called green infrastructure. So green infrastructure could be like a roof gardens, bioswales, rain gardens, things that help soils retain water, slow … in the case of a storm when you have big storm runoff, can help manage that. So it’s not all pollutants ending up in our surface waters, rivers and streams, and ultimately, bays and ocean.

So compost, it can be used for preventing soil erosion, helping mitigate storm water runoff. And so when it’s used locally, then you’re having all those benefits within your local economy and your local community. So that’s huge. And then when you look at the contrast, where does our waste go now? Well, right now our waste is going to landfills and trash incinerators. And those are owned by big waste company companies. So we can take away some of their power, some of their influence and expand decision making away from corporations to local communities and local people. So that is really key in that sector that we work in, waste and composting.

And in some of the other sectors, it’s the same thing. We have in our energy democracy program, is focusing on small scale solar and wind and community controlled utilities. And so again, when you have large … we’re not against large wind farms and solar farms. But when you have large, even renewable energy sites, you have a lot of loss of energy across the transmission lines. You’re not creating local jobs.

Here in DC, the DC government is supporting a solar energy program where they’re employing … it’s called Solar Works DC. And they’re employing local people and and through a multi-week program, giving them the job skills to install solar panels in low income neighborhoods. So that just kind of gives you an idea of when you have small scale systems and it’s done locally, you’re creating enterprises and local jobs. And it’s kind of a common thread through a lot of the work we do at the Institute.

Hibba Meraay: Right. I think like you said, we’re really trying to take a holistic approach. So it’s not just about composting for the sake of composting, or solar energy for the sake of that. Even though that stuff is great and important. It’s also about, like you said, taking away the revenue stream and the power and the influence from these big companies that would otherwise have the waste. And so when you’re able to bring that back to the local community and empower the local folks to manage their own waste, or manage their own energy, then you’re really redistributing the power, not just like the economic power, but the political power and that piece.
Brenda Platt: Yeah, that’s right. And in the case of waste, it’s not just the big waste companies that handle the waste, that make money off collecting waste, and taking it to the landfills, incinerators that they own. But also if we look at the products that we’re buying, those tend to be big corporations too. So single-use plastics, you look at DuPont and Dow and Solo cup. All these companies that make money off us buying single-use plastic products, just to put in a landfill and incinerate.

So looking at recycling commodities and materials and reuse and repair, create many, many more jobs than disposal scenarios. I’ve done a lot of work over the last few decades, comparing the jobs through landfilling and incineration with reuse, repair, recycling and composting. And just sorting recyclables creates 10 times more jobs than landfilling and incineration.

Hibba Meraay: Oh wow.
Brenda Platt: Yeah. It’s huge. But then when we make new products from the old, or we reuse and repair. That’s the largest economic payoff in the recycling loop. So remanufacturing facilities, repair, which is high labor, high skills creates so many more jobs. This is like electronics repair, even wooden pallet repair. We looked at textiles reuse and recovery. Multi-materials across the board, when you reuse repair, you’re creating many more jobs. And these tend to be especially repair, reuse building salvage, and deconstruction. Those tend to be really local businesses. We can’t ship our bricks from one part of the country to the other to be reused. That tends to happen within a local economy. It’s pretty exciting that we can do this locally. It’s not technological obstacles to doing this.
Hibba Meraay: Yeah, I think one of the things we’ve touched on is basically, there’s a lot of evidence that smaller businesses and independent business reduces climate impacts. So basically, it’s like nearly impossible for big corporations that are really centralized to be low-carbon. It’s just not possible at scale, like you said with all of like transportation emissions, and things like that. So could you talk a little bit more about that, and how big corporations are fundamentally at odds with being low-carbon?
Brenda Platt: Yeah. There’s a lot of evidence that smaller businesses reduce climate impacts. We actually did a report, my colleague, Stacy Mitchell, in our Community-Scaled Economy Initiative. She did a report about five years ago, November 2013, called Walmart’s Assault on the Climate, The Truth Behind One of the Biggest Climate polluters and Slickest Greenwashers in America. And that report found that nearly after a decade after it launched its “Sustainability Campaign”, that Walmart’s greenhouse gas emissions have grown substantially, and continue to rise. And that when calculating its emissions, Walmart failed to account for major fast growing sources of pollution in its operations.

Things like, they excluded in international shipping. They didn’t take into account new store construction, and product manufacturing. And it had many media announcements about solar and wind projects. But our report found that Walmart lagged compared to competing chains, and many independent retailers who were making the switch to renewable energy. And the other thing I’ve noticed that, and this will be no surprise to any of our listeners, is that Walmart is a major contributor to the campaigns of lawmakers, who are blocking action to address the climate crisis. So there’s that too.

So when you have so much control on these big… political power in these big corporations, not only is it harder for them to reduce their climate impact, because of the nature of the whole business model being centralized, and how they source materials. But then they have the political clout to impact and block actions that are needed to address the climate crisis. So, corporate concentration is a huge, huge area that we need to focus on.

Hibba Meraay: It’s interesting because these big corporations really use climate change and greenwashing, you said it’s like a marketing tool for them. And they’re not really thinking systemically about what their global or even local contribution is. So that’s not great. But we’re going to take a short break and when we come back, we’re going to talk more about climate change.

Thanks so much for tuning into this episode of Building Local Power. This is the part of a podcast where you usually hear an advertisement for something like an audio book, or something like that. But that’s not really how it works here at ILSR. We are a national organization that supports local economies, so we do not accept national advertising. In lieu of that, please consider making a donation to ILSR. It underwrites our work, and also supports the production of this very podcast, and all the resources and research that are available for free on our website. So please take a minute to go to ilsr.org/donate that’s I-L-S-R.org/donate. Any amount is welcome and appreciated. Thanks so much. And now back to the show.

Great. So before the break, Brenda, you and I were talking a little bit about our work at ILSR, and how it addresses the climate crisis. I’d love to hear from you why the climate issues need to be central to the work of all people working in public policy. I think sort of in the public policy space, there’s been a division where there are environmental organizations that’ll work on environmental issues. And there are consumer protection organizations, and things like that. But now, given that the climate crisis is really coming to a head in the media, and all of these places, more people are recognizing this is really related to the work that we do. So I would love to hear your thoughts on that.

Brenda Platt: Yeah. So why do climate issues need to be central to the work of everyone, and especially those working in public policy? Well, I’ll just say nothing else matters if we don’t have a livable planet. And honestly, I don’t understand the false narrative that claims we can’t afford to protect the climate because it’s bad for business. Climate change is the biggest risk for all businesses. And I think the work that we do, in being focused on solutions, is really encouraging. Not only for me and my colleagues who work in this space, but for those that, we work with businesses, we work with local policy makers, elected officials, nonprofit organizations, community groups. And we have to give people hope. We have to give youth and all people actions they can take to make a difference. I believe that everyone has agency, and we have to take advantage of that.

And I also think that policy makers need to understand that this is not just a case of whether we save the climate, or we don’t. We we are facing different scenarios. And what we do today can impact whether average global temperatures rise by two degrees, four degrees, or even an horrific eight degrees. And I think this was well delineated by David Wallace-Wells in his book, The Uninhabitable Earth, where he kind of lays out the imperative for averting the worst case scenario.

So again, nothing else matters if we don’t have a livable planet. So climate issues need to be central to all the work we do. And I will just say that equity, and keeping things local, and involving the community as a voice at the table, is also very critical. In the work that I do with composting, for instance, we are really, I think, making headway in advancing composting, because we are involving youth and a lot of community groups and disadvantaged communities.

Just to give you an example, in the city of Baltimore we helped start the Baltimore Compost Collective, which is a youth engaged food scrap collection and composting service. And Marvin Hayes, who heads up that program, is in his community every week talking about how we need to compost to avoid burning the trash. Baltimore has a trash burner that hopefully will be closed soon. And he’s making the connections between composting and growing local food, and the environmental and health impacts of the incinerator in his community. He says, “Learn so we don’t have to burn.”

He’s talking about making black gold for the Curtis Bay neighborhood, which he calls the Wakanda of Baltimore. And that black gold, the vibranium of Baltimore. And he’s making these connections that aren’t directly related. When he’s talking, it’s climate as well. Because we know that poor people are going to be the most impacted by climate issues. But by advancing community-scale composting in a city like Baltimore, you can bring everybody along with you if you talk about the benefits in terms of jobs, and equity, and youth engagement, and youth employment, and workforce development, and skills development.

And that’s why it’s so critical that when policy makers not only are addressing how to protect the climate, but they’re doing it in a way that builds community equity, and community involvement, and community engagement. We won’t win unless we do that.

Hibba Meraay: Yeah. I think that’s a great example. So yesterday, this will air in a few weeks, but yesterday was the climate town hall where they had all of the presidential democratic candidates talk about climate change and what their plans are to address it. And I think we’ve really seen a shift in the public narrative. Right? And for folks that work in policy, people are really starting to understand climate issues through the equity lens. Like you said, disadvantaged communities are the ones that are hit. I’ve heard the saying, “First and worst”, by climate crisis. And so I think a few years ago the policy world was more fragmented and like, “Oh the environmental policy people just do climate change stuff.” But now it’s really an issue of, if you want to talk about equity and you want to talk about good jobs for disadvantaged communities, you have to also be talking about climate change and the connections, and the climate impact, and the connections to race, and income and all of that stuff, and health outcomes like you said.
Brenda Platt: Yeah. And I mentioned the Solar Works DC program in Washington DC. And that’s just another example where, it’s the city is invested in that program. But it’s not only employing people and giving them job skills, but the solar panels are being installed on apartment complexes in some of DC’s most disadvantaged communities. So there’s a way that we can roll out renewable energy. There’s a way that we can address emissions from the food production sector in a way that builds community and engages people, and gets them vested in this work. And wants to see more of this.
Hibba Meraay: So I want to talk a little bit more about, optimistically, I guess a little bit more about the promising actions that might be happening. So in lieu of any major federal commitments, we’ve seen states in a lot of cities taking action on the climate crisis. Our energy democracy team actually shares stories of cities that have committed to 100% renewable energy through their Voices of 100% podcast series. I’m wondering if you’re seeing any promising momentum and climate action at the municipal local level. A lot of times when we’re talking about climate crisis, the picture is really grim and that’s important to be real about that so that we can have the appropriate sense of urgency. But are you optimistic about any developments at the local level?
Brenda Platt: Oh my God, yes. I mean so much of what’s happening with composting is taking place at the local city and county level and even neighborhood level. And we’re seeing so many more local government-supported programs and particularly on the food scrap collection. We actually led a research study for BioCycle.

It’s a journal of organics recycling, and we led research on the growth of local government-supported programs that collect food scraps for recycling. And not only for composting but also another form of recycling called anaerobic digestion, which is another biological process, but it produces biogas.

But we found that food scrap recovery is growing and increasingly recognized, not only for reaching high-waste diversion levels but also for protecting the climate and feeding the soil.

We found that there were now 5 million households in the US that have access to curbside programs and another close to 7 million households that have access to drop-off programs. And that the curbside numbers was an increase in 87% since BioCycle did the survey five years ago.

And those programs are in 20 States now. And one of the things I can also add is, when we look at the states that are leading with those programs, that state policy is also playing a critical role. California is a perfect example of that. They have more curbside collection programs for food waste, and it was a little under a hundred. And California may have some of the best state laws encouraging recycling and composting, and many of those laws such as its mandatory business commercial recycling requirements directly aim to reduce greenhouse gases through recycling and composting.

And one of the things that’s notable about, I think some of California’s policies is their laws really are about trying to create re-manufacturing production facilities within the state to create more jobs and close that loop within the state economy, so that’s notable.

The other thing California has done because they recognize the connection of waste to the climate change and global warming, and the benefits of healthy soils is they’ve created a Healthy Soils Initiative under which they’re giving multimillion-dollar grants to advance composting and amend soil with compost.

So communities at the local level can certainly move forward with promoting drop-off and collection programs. And state policy is important. But in the absence of state policy, just know that your local government can take action even if there’s no state leadership involved. And so of the close to 350 communities that we documented, not all of those are in states that have state policy.

And often what is true is that when local governments, local communities are proving that it can happen, then the state pays attention. So it’s a little bit of a give and take from the local and the state level. And Vermont, by the way, is another state where I think we had a couple of dozen communities documented and Vermont is another state that passed statewide legislation.

They passed in 2012 a Universal Recycling Law and they’re phasing in policies and programs, not just for composting and food scrap, but also for a wide range of recyclables. And those materials are going to be banned from landfills in 2020. So if you know this ban is coming, then at the local level you’re going to develop these programs.

So I’m very encouraged and very optimistic about what can happen at the local level. And I have a fun fact is one of the reasons that the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, when it was founded in 1974, has always worked on waste as one of its big issues is that waste tends to be a local municipal issue. It’s your local Departments of Public Works that are responsible for collecting trash and recycling it or composting it. And so that ends up being a municipal issue and responsibility.

So local cities have a lot of power to change how they do things with waste. And it’s not just food scrap collection and composting, but we’re seeing cities pass bans on styrofoam polystyrene, which is number six. We’re seeing bans and fees on single-use retail plastic bags. We’re seeing Berkeley I think is the first one now to pass legislation that’s going to be looking at incentivizing, getting rid of single-use food service or items.

We can be doing this all over. So cities have a lot, a lot of power policy-wise, program-wise with their budgets to take action in this space. And I find that very encouraging.

Hibba Meraay: That’s great. I feel really encouraged. I think after hearing all of that and also just knowing there are things that people can do in the wake of this giant climate anxiety that we touched at the beginning of the episode.

So that’s all really good to hear. I think in our conversation we’ve sort of scratched the surface, right? There’s so much more to talk about in climate change, but unfortunately, our episodes have to end some time. So we’ve given our take on how ILSR views the climate crisis. Are there any resources that you want to highlight for folks that are listening or even the recent work by the composting initiative that you’d like to recommend our listeners to check out?

Brenda Platt: Yeah. Well, we’re just launching a new series, webinar series called Compost Climate Connections, and the first one has been with Dr. Sally Brown with the University of Washington, out in Seattle September 17th, and she’ll be talking about not only the ability of compost to sequester carbon but also, the other benefits to the soil that compost provides.

And then we’ll be following that up with Cala Rose Ostrander with the Marin Carbon Farming Project, and the Marin Carbon Farming Project is something everybody should check out. I mean that’s a project that was probably founded about a decade ago by John Wick in part.

And some of their findings is that if you apply a thin layer of compost once on grazed rangeland, it’s like putting medicine on poor soil, it quickly becomes healthy and on its own, starts to promote more plant growth, which sequesters more carbon, which held more water, which promoted more plant growth and so on.

They found that if compost were applied to 5% of the state’s grazing lands, that’s California, the soil could capture greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to removing 6 million cars from the road. So that’s Marin Carbon Project, check that out.

On a shorter side, I’ll just say there’s a four-minute video that I think is worth seeing, it’s called the Soil Story and it’s by Kiss the Ground. And that just, I just think visually and so briefly just perfectly illustrates the importance of soil and carbon cycling and drawing down from the atmosphere into the soil and includes the role of compost. So check that out.

And we also, I mentioned the California’s Healthy Soils Initiative, check that out too. So there’s lots of resources available, but those are just some I’ll just highlight now.

Hibba Meraay: Yeah. And I’ll remind folks that all of the resources that we’ve mentioned today will be linked on the show page for the episode. I also want to plug our composting podcast. We have a few new episodes that we’ve put out recently, so if you’re interested in learning more about composting, Linda, from our composting team interviews folks that are in our Community Composting Coalition about their work, and the difference that they’re making in the communities where they’re based.

So that’s composting for community, if you’re interested in checking that out. Thank you so much, Brenda, for joining us today. I think I’m walking away with this conversation feeling a little bit more hopeful in the face of sort of hard topic of climate change. But I’m excited about what’s going on at the local level and definitely enlightened, so thanks for joining.

Brenda Platt: Oh my pleasure. And remember, if we’re lucky, and we each come into contact with food waste or food scraps three times a day so everybody can make a difference.
Hibba Meraay: Thank you all for tuning in to this episode of Building Local Power from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. You can find the links to what we discussed today at ilsr.org on the show page for this episode. That’s ilsr.org. While you’re there, you can sign up for one of our many newsletters and connect with us on social media. If you like what you hear, please help us out by rating this podcast and sharing it with your friends on iTunes or wherever you find your podcast. Your ratings and reviews really help us reach other listeners, so please take a minute to leave us a five-star rating or a nice review or both. This show is produced by Lisa Gonzalez and me, Hibba Meraay. Our theme music is Funk Interlude by Dysfunction_Al. 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: Marvin Hayes, Baltimore Compost Collective

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