What do we lose when we no longer have control over what happens to the waste we produce? In this episode of the Composting for Community Podcast, we speak to Melissa Corichi of Let It Rot, a community composting business in Palm Beach County in South Florida. Melissa has been operating her business since 2015 with the aim of diverting waste in her local community, growing food, and protecting the environment. Her business, however, has been put in jeopardy due to the two incinerators in her county run by the local Solid Waste Authority (SWA). Because of local laws, the SWA claims complete jurisdiction over all waste generated in the county, effectively disallowing the recycling of organic materials beyond the backyard scale. The result: Let It Rot is closing its doors.
We talk about:
- How the need to feed the local incinerators is preventing meaningful waste diversion efforts in Palm Beach County.
- How local rules eliminate the freedom of its residents to choose how the waste they generate is managed.
- Melissa’s call for support and the needs community composters face when advocating for policy changes that challenge monopoly power over waste.
- The power of community composting to empower a diverse array of community-based initiatives while building social capital.
We also provide a brief primer on incineration in the US, including an overview of the impacts of incineration on communities where they are built. We close with a list of actions that we all can take: some to help Melissa in her current battle, some to prevent this from happening in other communities.
“Your only choice is to have the SWA take all your trash and the SWA burns all of the organic trash – so unfortunately all of these people are forced to support a system that they don’t believe in.”
“I work with a lot of different kinds of people from a lot of different kinds of backgrounds, and they all have different political beliefs and spiritual beliefs and jobs and careers and lifestyles. And one thing that they’ve all been able to bond over and agree upon is that composting is very important, not only for the sake of keeping trash out of the landfill or not feeding our incinerator, but also for the purposes of organic gardening, organic food, and soil building.”
– Melissa Corichi
“Tell Me About: Waste Incineration in Florida,” Florida Museum (2022)
“Turning garbage to electricity: An early look at a monster incinerator,” Palm Beach Post (2016)
Renewable Energy Facility 1, Palm Beach County Solid Waste Authority (accessed Sept 2023)
“Burned: Why Waste Incineration Is Harmful,” NDRC (2021)
“Florida Recycling Statutes and Rules,” Florida Department of Environmental Protection (accessed Sept 2023)
“Waste incinerators undermine clean energy goals,” Neil Tangri (2023)
“Revealed: 1.6m Americans live near the most polluting incinerators in the US,” The Guardian (2019)
“Energy Recovery from the Combustion of Municipal Solid Waste,” EPA (accessed Sept 2023)
“Anti-Garbage Incineration Around the Globe, A Review,” ILSR (2018)
“The fight against Detroit’s controversial waste incinerator hits home for Ahmina Maxey,” University of Michigan, Detroit (2019)
Detroit Organics Recycling, Detroit City Council Green Taskforce (accessed Sept 2023)
“Local composting business, ‘Let it Rot’ shut down by Solid Waste Authority,” ABC 25 WPBF News, September 29, 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 Alliances Composting for Community Initiative, and in this episode I talked to Melissa Corichi of Let It Rot, a community composting business in Palm Beach County in south Florida. Melissa started Let it Rot in 2015 to accomplish food scraps from her community and support local efforts to divert waste, grow food, and protect the environment, but the county is also home to two separate waste incinerators. Last year, Let it Rot and its partner organizations began receiving threats of steep daily fines, supposedly stealing material from the county’s solid waste authority and Florida Power and Light, an electric utility that uses the power generated from the trash burned in the incinerators.
|Because of state and local laws, the solid waste authority claims complete jurisdiction over all waste generated in the county. Effectively, this allowing the recycling of organic materials beyond the backyard scale. The result, Let it Rot is closing its doors. This is a story of how incinerator are directly at odds with meaningful waste reduction efforts, eliminating our freedom to choose how the waste we generate is managed. I just want to add a gentle warning here, that while the episode is a little heavier than our others, we close with positive actions that anyone can take, so stay tuned.
|Hello folks. I’m here with Melissa Corichi, owner of Let it Rot, worm farm and community compost in South Florida. Thanks for joining us, Melissa.
|Thank you for having me.
|Linda Bilsens Brolis:
|We’re going to get into the details of the challenges you’re facing as a community composter, but first tell us about Let It Rot and about your community in Palm Beach County.
|I got started with Let It Rot back in 2015. It was actually a project for a class I was taking in college called Social Entrepreneurship, and we were challenged to come up with some sort of business that would compliment our nonprofit partner, and our nonprofit partner that semester was the Palm Beach County Food Bank, which is this massive warehouse for food recovery, sorting and distribution to the food pantry network that we have here in Palm Beach County. When we went there, what I noticed right away was there was tons and tons of produce donations that were all over ripe or already too rotten to be redistributed and they were just getting thrown away. In fact, they said that they were throwing away over 20,000 pounds of organics a year, just part of the sorting process that they were going through and what kind of food they were allowed to redistribute.
|I had this bright idea to compost the produce, make some soil, and then trade that with the farmers who were donating the produce for more food donations. I applied for a grant and I ended up getting offered about $25,000 to start the program, so I did. I built a worm bin in one of the sheds of the food bank and started diverting some of the rotten produce to the worm bin that I had in the shed of the food bank. I ended up, I think diverting about 7,000 pounds of produce scraps the first year that I worked. I was not good at worm farming and I didn’t make hardly any soil. It wasn’t really a successful venture. The food bank did not want to keep working with me, but I kind of fell in love with the composting process and the idea of recovering these resources.
|I heard about the community composting movement and decided to launch my own little pilot pickup route and I offered free pickups to a couple of people in the community I was living in on a weekly basis. From that pilot program, I started accepting real customers. I started collecting customers at about $10 a month and eventually my prices increased all the way up to $16 a month, which is what my residents pay right now, but I went from having 10 free customers to having over 100 subscribers to my community compost pickup program. I tried to work with my community as much as possible and found this incredible urban farm in downtown West Palm Beach called Urban Growers at the Henrietta Bridge Farm, and I built my first little public compost station there and I got to start working with some people in the community. It was a low income community food desert, which is why that space got funded to grow food.
|I met a lot of young people who had no experience with farming or nature growing food, and they started helping me run my community compost. I taught them how to do the compost. I got them washing all those buckets for me right away. Unfortunately, when COVID happened, the community garden was temporarily shut down and it ended up getting defunded and closed down. That brought me to a place where I had no land and was hauling a thousand pounds of food scraps a week with nowhere to compost it, so I launched a compost program where I met a lot of homesteaders and gardeners in my community and I taught them all how to compost. Instead of bringing the compost to a central location and composting it every day, I would go to a new person’s house and help them do the compost that afternoon and inspire them to build their soil and do better and grow organically.
|From there, eventually I bought my own place and I started composting on my own piece of property, which is where I’m at now. The business has kind of iterated through the community a couple different ways. I have a bunch of zero wasters and people who are on their own personal mission of sustainability that I’ve met through great community resources that I’ve worked with or worked for in the past. We have a package free grocery store that I met a lot of these people at. I work with this awesome community center for the immigrant community to find them jobs and place them in legal jobs, and I’ve done some work with them. They have a community garden as well. I have the urban farm in downtown West Palm Beach, and I’ve gotten to meet so many different people who I call the green community and bring them together with this shared love of the environment and sustainability.
|Linda Bilsens Brolis:
|That’s such a great overview of the many evolutions that you’ve made as a business and how you’ve adapted as you’ve gotten to know your community in a more intimate way. That’s so cool that you’ve been engaging such a diverse array of community members, which is I think pretty typical of the community composting movement, so thanks for laying that out for us. Now let’s talk about the elephant in the room, the Palm Beach County Solid Waste Authority, which now has two incinerators in the county. The newest one which opened in 2015, I believe, it was the first incinerator to be built in the US in almost 20 years, and the biggest capital project ever in Palm Beach County at over $600 million. Wow.
|Just call it the Billion Dollar Waste to Energy Plant because so much funding went into this facility because in Palm Beach County’s eyes, the first facility that they built the same year that I started the business was a huge success to them. Between the two facilities, I think they can power about 80,000 homes in our community. I first got in trouble with the solid waste authority because I’m taking organics out of the waste stream, and they burn organics for energy here. I was served my first cease and desist letter in April of 2022. I was basically told that I’m not a registered entity with the solid waste authority and I need to be a registered subcontractor in order to work in the waste hauling and processing industry.
|When I explained what a small business I was and what kind of numbers I was doing and that according to the state law I didn’t need to register with them just yet because I wasn’t in a position where I needed to be regulated with the amount of waste I was processing, they told me flat out that organics recycling isn’t allowed in Palm Beach County due to something called the Flow Code. The Flow Code is the direction that they send different waste streams to the different facilities in Palm Beach County, and all of the organics are sent to our waste to energy plants. Between the two, they can burn almost 2 million pounds of trash annually. I process under 100,000 pounds of waste annually. I think the biggest numbers I’ve done so far was about 80,000 pounds last year, which was a huge feat for me because the year before I only did like 50,000 pounds, and I do all of my composting backyard composting style. No equipment, with a pitchfork in a pile.
|Right now we’re doing a lot of trench composting so I don’t have to turn my piles, but the Solid Waste Authority, when they were initially funded with this project to build these waste to energy plants, they were also given the privilege of writing all the laws about trash and how it’s handled here in Palm Beach County. The Solid Waste Authority decided to very blatantly claim that all trash here in Palm Beach County is property of theirs, so the cease and desist that I was getting essentially was telling me that I’m stealing from the Solid Waste Authority from Palm Beach County and from FPL, and that’s where they’ve been coming at me continuously to shut down my operation.
|Linda Bilsens Brolis:
|Wow. ILSR has a long history of helping to fight proposed incinerators. Back in the 80s, I guess in early 90s when that was still sort of a trend, I’d always heard that once an incinerator gets built, that community is basically locked into feeding that incinerator because it’s such a big investment. I know in the case of the newest one in Palm Beach County, it’s like a 20-year loan that has to be paid back, and that’s paid back by the rate payers. Basically it’s locking in the county and the residents of the county into using that incinerator. I just think this is such a poignant example of what happens in terms of the control of that material and the lack of choice. Where has this put you and your business at this point?
|It’s put me in a really uncomfortable position where I’ve had to make some really difficult choices about what I’m going to do and the future for myself and the future of Let it Rot. I have tried to advocate for myself. I’ve been to many county commissioner board meetings. I worked with one of our state legislators, Rick Roth, to try to talk with the county about the difficulties that they were placing on me and my business, and I was not really able to get any sort of permission or right to work. I wasn’t able to get any sort of exemption from the laws here.
|I have talked to a lot of other businesses that operate the same way I do that are in different counties of Florida, and I know up in Orlando, O-Town Compost was able to get an exemption from the laws there that were preventing them from being able to keep working. I tried to take that route and didn’t get anywhere. I talked to Renewable down in Broward County who is also facing some potential dangers with a waste to energy plant that’s being put into Broward County. Maybe it’s just proposed. It hasn’t been voted on or funded just yet, and they’re looking at adopting all of the same laws in Palm Beach County in Broward County, which would essentially put their businesses out of business as well. I purchased property with the intention of running Let it Rot off of the property that I purchased and live off of, and now I’m in the uncomfortable situation where I can’t update my business address and my personal address because I have the county looking for me to shut down my operations.
|When I first started getting the cease and desist letters from Palm Beach County, they actually sent regulators out to all of the businesses that I had listed on my website as partners that I work with and told these businesses that they were operating illegal transfer stations and they would be subjected to fines of $500 a day for every day they continue to keep working with me. A lot of these businesses are small businesses like my own and decided that it wasn’t worth that kind of risk to continue working for me, so I had to watch these sustainability initiatives disappear and these people who really wanted to do better for the environment and for their community lose that opportunity to do so because there is no countywide composting alternative that’s offered here. Your only choice is to have SWA haul your trash, and the SSA burns all of the organic trash here. Unfortunately, all of these people are forced to support a system that they don’t believe in.
|Linda Bilsens Brolis:
|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. If you’re looking for other ways to support us, consider rating or leaving a review of the 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.
|It’s an example of once an incinerator is built, it disincentivizes or crushes in this instance any significant efforts towards diversion, but that’s on top of the other environmental and public health impacts that an incinerator has, which we won’t cover here, but we can add some information on that for those that need it in the show notes below. What do you think is being lost when a community composters such as yourself is no longer able to operate the benefits that you provided, the diverse communities that you were working with? Can you tell us your thoughts about that?
|Well, I work with a lot of different kinds of people from a lot of different kinds of backgrounds and they all have different political beliefs and spiritual beliefs and jobs and careers and lifestyles. One thing that they’ve all been able to bond over and agree upon is that composting is very important not only for the sake of keeping trash out of the landfill or not feeding our incinerator in this case, but also for the purposes of organic gardening, organic food, soil building. Most of the customers who find me believe in clean eating and a clean environment and not using pesticides and herbicides and things like that that poison our local environment.
|Palm Beach County is an area of Florida that’s incredibly beautiful. We have a lot of natural landscapes. The ocean is right here. One thing that’s really important to everybody here that’s a continual crisis on almost an annual basis is the blue-green algae blooms that we have as a result of the fertilizers that are used in agriculture here. For those of you who aren’t very familiar with Palm Beach County and how our agriculture industry works, we grow a ton of food here in Florida. Corn and sugar are some of the biggest things that we grow and we use a ton of fertilizer every year in order to grow that stuff.
|That fertilizer rinses into our groundwater and eventually drains into this big lake in the center of the state called Lake Okeechobee. Lake Okeechobee has been designed by the Army Corp engineers to have floodgates on either side of it. Annually as the rains come in and the water in Lake Okeechobee starts to really rise, they have to drain Lake Okeechobee a little bit and release the water from Lake Okeechobee out either direction into either the Atlantic Ocean or the Gulf of Mexico. Something that happens as a result of doing that is the nitrification of our waterways, our intracoastals and our oceans. We have hundreds of thousands of animals, fish seabirds and other stuff that depend on that ecosystem that die every year because of these releases that we do.
|Something that’s very important to everybody here in Palm Beach County is figuring out a way to end that and composting and creating living soils and practicing more regenerative methods of growing and farming are high priorities to the community here, especially the green community, which is the people I’ve brought together with my business. In shutting me down and preventing me on such a small scale to make soils locally that are healthier and can be used in a more sustainable way to grow food is just squashing that whole industry from potentially popping up and helping solve a huge problem that we have with no immediate solution.
|Linda Bilsens Brolis:
|Yeah. It’s devastating. At a time when we really need to be rallying to make those kinds of changes and we need to be composting more, not less, and we need less pollution, not more.
|In Florida, at least around here, we don’t have real good dirt. We have something called sugar sand, and sugar sand is what it sounds like. It’s just sand. You go to dig a hole and it’s like digging a hole at the beach. It just continues to fill itself back in. There’s no organic matter to our soil to help hold moisture and nutrients, so the landscape is becoming more and more desolate as these inorganic growing practices are being applied. One thing that I can teach people right away with doing all the composting I’ve been doing is how important organic matter is to the soil, and it’s so easy to see the difference with the quality of soil that we have here to begin with that it has been pretty easy to convince people to start composting with me or learn how to compost with my compost program because of the results that I’ve gotten in my own garden and the gardens that I’ve worked with for other people.
|Linda Bilsens Brolis:
|You’re also empowering people to take an active role in their immediate lives in an immediate environment instead of having to wait for bigger efforts to take root. It’s a way to empower folks that’s being squashed at this point, so very sorry to hear that. At this point, what would you say your plans for the future look like?
|I’ve made the very difficult choice to shut down all my operations. These next two weeks are the last two weeks that I’ll be doing pickups for all my residential subscribers. I have to move on with beginning my life in my new home, and I haven’t been able to do that because I’ve had to hide what I’m doing here from the county to avoid getting these fines and repercussions of the work that I’ve been doing. I made the choice to go into a completely different industry. I studied this year and I got licensed to sell insurance. I essentially asked myself what is an industry I could go into where I could still help people and where I could make a much better living than what I’ve been able to do working in the compost industry, and I had an opportunity to learn insurance and start working in that field.
|I would be lying if I said that some of the intention to have a bigger income wasn’t to be able to afford the legal help that I need in order to go up against the county and try to fight for the right to compost here. As far as Let it Rot goes, it’s always been a very grassroots operation. I’ve made a living off of it, but I have never had the resources to really reinvest and grow the business and scale it up into something bigger. The trouble I got in with the county kind of prevented me from wanting to take out a loan or go into debt to grow the business or fight for the business to stay open and potentially devastate myself in the home that I’m living in. I wish that I would have gone the nonprofit route when I got started because that would open me up to more funding opportunities and better resources where maybe I could have fought the government a little bit better and had a little bit more support in doing so.
|The only reason I never did is because I lost my partnership with the Community Garden who was a functioning nonprofit that allowed me to work under their nonprofit tax identification, and I lost all of the staff and help and support along with having that space. I went from having a ton of volunteers and a ton of people that I was paying to help me too to not being in that community anymore and not having any of those human resources that I used to have. All of the day-to-day of running Let it Rot fell on me. I am driving all of my pickup routes. I am doing all of the compost every week. I’m washing all of the buckets every weekend and getting myself together to go haul another thousand pounds of compostable waste the following week.
|It just became too much to keep up with while trying to advocate for myself and fight for my right to keep operating. While continuing to run the day-to-day, I made the difficult decision to start studying in a different industry and make my graceful exit from community composting into something where I might potentially have some better resources and opportunities if Let it Rot is something I do want to turn around and continue to pursue when I do have those resources and I’m in a better place.
|Linda Bilsens Brolis:
|Wow. It’s just amazing to hear what you have accomplished to this point as a one woman show, and you’re facing a huge barrier that would’ve been difficult to foresee. Hindsight is 2020 to a point, but you also have no idea how things would’ve played out if you had done things differently, if you had gone the nonprofit route, for example. What at this point would you want to share with those listening who might be community composters or might be policymakers that are in communities that could be facing a similar scenario as what you’ve been dealing with?
|Don’t underestimate the value of a tight-knit community and some really good intentions. I feel like my entire journey with Let It Rot, I never really knew what I was signing myself up for or getting myself into, and a lot of these opportunities sort of just fell into my lap and I jumped on them. I’ve gotten to work with so many incredible business entities, NGOs, nonprofit organizations. I’ve gotten to go behind the scenes for commercial productions. I’ve gotten to work events and empower people to feel better about how much waste they’re generating at their wedding or their birthday party or their business networking meeting, and I did a lot of that on my own with just the idea that I could help these people be as sustainable as possible. Had I never been put in a situation where I had to fight the local government in order to keep working, I definitely would have never stopped composting or shut down Let it Rot.
|The feeling that I get when I inspire somebody else that they can do good in the world and they can do a little bit better by just being conscious of their impact has been one of the most rewarding things that I’ve experienced on a regular basis. I have customers that are so grateful to work with me and for all the work that I do. Customer service is never a stressful or difficult thing to go through in this industry. People are just so happy to be a part of what you’re offering and that you can help them. I would tell people not to give up and to keep working and to keep fighting and really follow their passion.
|Linda Bilsens Brolis:
|It sounds like that’s exactly what you did and that’s a beautiful legacy that you’re leaving. If even being interrupted right now, maybe in the grand scheme of things this will be a blip, but is there any way that folks can get involved in your efforts at this point?
|Ideally, I can do something to change the laws around here and make Palm Beach County a little bit friendlier to initiatives like Let it Rot and community composting. I’m not going to be able to do that while running my own community composting business, but I am very interested in continuing to get to know my county officials and trying to influence them for potentially another community compost business to pop up here and offer what I was able to offer Palm Beach County. I don’t know where and how to get started doing that. Any kind of help from somebody who has maybe been through this sort of situation and has navigated themselves out of it to enable composting to happen, I would love to hear from.
|I really did try to fight and advocate for composting in Palm Beach County and unfortunately I just didn’t have enough support and resources to be heard as loud as I was shouting. I still have my website up, letitrot.org, and I am open to any conversation that anybody might have with me about how to navigate the laws here and potentially change them for a more sustainable future here. I don’t really know anything specific to ask for because I just got to a place where everything that I was doing wasn’t getting me anywhere and it was just burning me out and exhausting me, but there’s definitely a desire to change the laws here in Palm Beach County and allow community composting to be something that happens. Anybody who’s willing to help me advocate for some open laws and initiatives to change, I would love to hear from.
|Linda Bilsens Brolis:
|Awesome. Well, thanks again for taking time to share your story with us, to share the joys and successes that you did experience with Let It Rot and the unfortunate reality that you’re facing right now that hopefully is just the end of a chapter, but that is not the end of your Let It Rot chapter.
|Thank you so much for talking to me. I love to share my story and I would love to hear from anybody who has anything to say about it.
|Linda Bilsens Brolis:
|To close out this episode, we wanted to provide a little more context for Melissa’s battle. You can also find links to more resources in the notes for this episode. Waste incineration refers to the burning of municipal solid waste which is problematic for many reasons. While today’s waste incineration technology is more sophisticated than that of the 50s, it’s highly expensive and does not adequately control toxic emissions from today’s chemically complex waste. Even new municipal waste incinerators emit toxic metals, dioxins, acid gases, and climate pollutants. And they don’t eliminate the need for a landfill, since they produce an ash residue that is toxic and must be disposed of.
|Because newer incinerators recover heat to produce steam and electricity, they are sometimes misleadingly referred to as “waste-to-energy” facilities. In reality, they are “wasted energy” plants. Burning waste is incredibly energy intensive – especially for wet organic materials like food scraps – and actually represents a net loss of energy when you account for the energy embodied in the materials being burned. It should not be considered a source of renewable energy. Despite this, many states unfortunately legally classify incineration as “renewable” in their state rules, including Florida.
|Research by ILSR and other groups shows that there are other direct impacts to communities from incineration. As we heard here, incinerators severely curtail or even eliminate meaningful recycling and composting efforts. They exacerbate environmental injustice by adding pollution to already overburdened communities. They represent huge capital investments that require cities and counties to make debt payments for decades, costs that are often footed by taxpayers. At the same time, incinerators create far fewer jobs per ton as compared to recycling and composting.
|For these reasons, resistance to the construction of new incinerators has grown over time. An estimated 300 proposed incinerators were defeated by citizen and small business coalitions in the US from the 70s to mid 90s. ILSR was directly involved in many of these battles. There has been only one new garbage incinerator built in the US since 1995… and it’s the one that’s shutting down Let It Rot.
|So what’s at stake? You heard from Melissa about the diverse set of community members and initiatives she was engaging with and empowering. And yet, The Palm Beach County SWA shut down Let It Rot for processing at most, 80,000 lbs of organics in a year out of the roughly 1.8 million TONS of waste it sends to its incinerators – that’s less than .002%. With this, they are saying that her customers don’t have the freedom to choose how the resources embedded in their waste are reinvested.
|So what can we do? If you’re considering starting any sort of waste diversion initiative or business, know what state and local laws exist before you begin, and know who your competitors are. Get involved where you can and help others get seats at decision-making tables where waste infrastructure is being planned. These rules are decided locally. They should not be written behind closed doors, especially by corporate interests.
|Prevent incinerators from being built and fight them where they exist. The recent closure of Detroit’s incinerator that resulted from a decade-long community-led campaign, shows that this is possible. Now, the city is prioritizing the development of distributed composting options. And finally, Melissa currently has a petition to get Palm Beach County’s policymakers to change local laws to allow composting, as well as a gofundme campaign to raise funds to help cover her legal costs. So, let’s get to it!
|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.
*Correction: During the interview, Melissa mentions the amount of waste the Palm Beach County SWA sends to incinerators. This amount is 1.8 million tons, not pounds.
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Image Credit: Melissa Corichi of Let It Rot Worm Farm & Community Compost