Composting Cultivates Economic Development (Episode 7)

Welcome to episode seven of the Building Local Power podcast.

In this episode, Chris Mitchell, the director of our Community Broadband Networks initiative, interviews Linda Bilsens, Project Manager of ILSR’s Neighborhood Soil Rebuilders Program. Bilsens explains how producing compost from food scraps builds local economic development, fights climate change, and cultivates community.

Chris and Linda discuss how both individuals and communities can partake in rebuilding their local soils by composting organic materials. Check out the further information on our composting work here: Neighborhood Soil Rebuilders training program. Contact Linda Bilsens if you’re interested in replicating this program.

“The communities that are embracing this…that I’ve seen that they’re tired of waiting for someone else to do something,” says Bilsens of the powerful benefits that composting can have on communities.

If you missed the first episodes of our podcast you can find those conversations with Olivia LaVecchia here, Neil Seldman here, John Farrell here, David Morris here, Lisa Gonzalez here, and Stacy Mitchell here. Also to see all of our episodes make sure to bookmark our Building Local Power Podcast Homepage. View the full transcript of the podcast, below.

Linda Bilsens: We throw away quite a bit of material each year. More than 50% of what we throw away is actually compostable. We actually throw away about 38 million tons of food waste each year, and only 5% of that is composted, which I think is crazy.
Chris Mitchell: That sounds pretty crazy. I think maybe we should talk about it for the next 20 minutes or so.
Linda Bilsens: Sounds good.
Chris Mitchell: You’re Linda Bilsens, the program manager for the Institute for Local Self-Reliance’s Neighborhood Soil Rebuilders Program. I’m Chris Mitchell. I do broadband-type stuff for the institute focusing on locally-owned networks, but I also interview people at ILSR about building local power. That’s what we’re going to talk about today. I’d like to start out a little bit wide since this is the first time we’re talking about composting on building local power and just ask you, sure, those are big numbers that you just threw out, but why should we care about composting?
Linda Bilsens: I was asking myself the same question a few years ago when I first starting getting into composting. Basically I got into composting because I wanted to be able to grow my own food, so I started gardening and working on farms. When it came down to it, the soil is pretty much what makes all of that possible. If you’re going to be growing in the same place over and over again, you have to add back what you take away, and composting is the way that you do that. So I basically came to composting because I wanted to grow my own food.
Chris Mitchell: One of the things that I think is interesting about composting as well as many components of our waste stream is that you can pretty much do it anywhere. Is that right?
Linda Bilsens: Yep, absolutely. You don’t need a lot of infrastructure to make it happen especially at the small scale, so that’s pretty much we focus on is just getting people started. There are some lessons to learn about how to do it a little bit better without running into some of the nuisance problems that you could otherwise come across, but in general it’s really you just got to go start doing it.
Chris Mitchell: If we were to see hundreds of communities doing that around the nation, in what ways would that contribute to more local power do you think? Aside from just having better soils, how would the community benefit if they were putting energy into these kinds of programs?
Linda Bilsens  The main reasons that get me excited about this work is that composting is something that you don’t really have to wait for a government program or a business to provide a service. You can basically start doing it today. Because as long as you’re producing waste, which we all do, if you eat any food, if you cook at all, if you have a backyard or a garden, you have stuff to compost. Instead of throwing it in your garbage bin, if you have any space or a community garden, you can start composting that today and see a tangible product in a few months time.
Chris Mitchell: My wife is very supportive of composting, and we got into it a number of years ago. I’ll say two immediate impacts in our household that I wouldn’t say are about building local power but just were interesting to me is that most of our trash disappeared. It turned out that we cook a fair amount, so a lot of our trash was stuff that we could compost. Then the second thing is that we don’t have to take our trash out as often …
Linda Bilsens: Totally.
Chris Mitchell:  … because we’re mostly throwing away plastic or other things that is not going to rot in our kitchen, so we could wait until the bag was more full to take that trip out that nobody wants to do.
Linda Bilsens: Totally.
Chris Mitchell: So those are concrete effects.
Linda Bilsens: You’re actually taking out the smelliest part of your waste as well, which is pretty exciting, I think, and you’re doing something productive with it at the same time.
 Chris Mitchell: What else were you going to say in terms of what helps us build local power?
Linda Bilsens With the community composting scale, which is really what we tend to prioritize, is that you have this opportunity to … It’s like another opportunity to connect with your neighbors and your neighborhood. It’s another opportunity to come together and work on something together for a common end goal. Here in DC, around a number of the community gardens that exist, there are about 40 or so, you see people of diverse backgrounds coming together and working together on something as simple as compost. There’s just kind of a touchpoint for the community. I think it gives us another opportunity for common ground, another opportunity to interact with each other, get to know each other, which I think is pretty critical if you want to come together to exert any sort of local power.
Chris Mitchell: Some people have started businesses, too. I mean this isn’t just something one does to make one’s self feel better. You could actually start a small business doing this.
Linda Bilsens: Definitely. It still requires you to be quite entrepreneurial at this stage. I think that we don’t really value compost or soil or the other benefits that comes from composting enough for it to be something that just anybody could start up, but I think if you’re entrepreneurial and you’re dedicated to it, you can definitely start a business.
Chris Mitchell: Let’s talk about the Neighborhood Soil Rebuilder Program. What exactly is that? What do we do at ILSR around this issue?
Linda Bilsens: The full title is the Neighborhood Soil Rebuilders Composter Training Program. That’s pretty much what it is it’s a composter training program. It’s built off of what is more broadly known as the Master Composter model. This is offered throughout the country, and it’s often offered in conjunction with a master gardener program, which more people would be familiar with likely. Yeah, there’s like at least 50 plus programs around the country. There’s probably more, but that’s the number that we identified a couple of years when we were surveying. It’s all about giving people the basic tools that they need to start composting. What differs for us and I think the title makes the point, is that we’re focusing on neighborhoods not just backyards, so we focus on community composting which involves not just one household but a number of households or a community of some sort.
Chris Mitchell: Is this something that it’s just white people do? I think that a lot of people might think, “Oh, composting. It’s the latest trend in counterculture, white folks.” I suspect that’s not been your experience.
Linda Bilsens: Definitely not. What excites me so much about composting and what I’ve witnessed here in the DC community in particular but also in the Baltimore community where we just started working is that it is empowering for everyone. Composting is an opportunity to take control of what would be a waste and make it a resource. I think that’s appealing to most everybody. I do think that whether it’s immigrant populations or groups of immigrants that are just coming over that come from agriculturely focused countries, or anybody that’s interested in growing their own food for the various reasons that someone might be interested in that, composting is a natural complement to all of that. So I do think it’s appealing to just about anybody. Especially with the inequalities that we see in our food system, it’s really a compelling tool for any community.
Chris Mitchell: I see that. It’s interesting that [you’re 00:07:58] worked and we have programs that are related as far away as Atlanta and Lincoln, Nebraska. Is there anything that you find interesting about the kind of communities that are embracing this?
Linda Bilsens: The communities that are embracing this, there is a common thread that I’ve seen. It’s basically people who are just tired of waiting for somebody else to do something.
Chris Mitchell: That’s great.
Linda Bilsens: Yeah. I mean it’s just this really simple … It almost seems silly. Composting to some people seems silly, but once you start doing it and you actually see that you can create something and you’re also helping address a number of other big problems that we as a humanity face, it’s pretty inspiring stuff.
Chris Mitchell: Let’s talk about one of those in particular. How does composting interface with climate change?
Linda Bilsens: By composting, we’re taking out this huge chunk of the waste stream that otherwise ends up in landfills or incinerators. I think that food waste in specific is the largest portion of waste that ends up being incinerated or landfilled in the United States, so you’re taking it away from being burned or from sitting in a landfill. Also food waste in particular, organic materials, when they decompose in anaerobic conditions, they basically create a stronger greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. It creates methane.
Chris Mitchell: A different way of saying that, of course, when they rot, bad things happen, right?
Linda Bilsens: Totally. There’s ground water pollution. There’s air pollution. There’s always bad things that can come from it, so you’re kind of avoiding that.
Chris Mitchell: Right, and rotting is not composting.
Linda Bilsens: Nope, nope. Though I do hear people in the composting world say, “Rot on,” as like a “Rock on.” Though I think rotting is not necessarily a negative term, yeah, you don’t want to putrefy things. You want things to decompose properly.
Chris Mitchell: That’s a good word, putrefy. You think rot, it’s kind of a word that makes you think of nasty things, but then putrefy is yet another level up.
Linda Bilsens: Definitely. Another benefit to the climate from composting has to do with the carbon sequestration potential of healthy soil, and compost is an important amendment to keeping soil healthy. By improving the quality of the soil, you improve the biology of the soil, which is tied to the ability of soil to sequester carbon, basically pulling it out of the atmosphere and holding on to it, but you also grow more plants which also sequester carbons. So it’s really exciting. This is a new field that I think is gaining traction now, but it’s kind of a hot topic.
Chris Mitchell: It is. In fact some very powerful people have become more interested in it. Can you tell us about a surprise guest that you had over last winter?
Linda Bilsens: My husband and I had been nominated basically to be featured as part of what we thought was an HGTV special on urban farming. Home and Garden Television was supposedly coming to DC, and they wanted to feature some community gardens in the DC area to show how cool urban ag is. My husband was arranging all this. After a few visits with what we thought was HGTV staff, we had this interview. So we arrive in our backyard, and there’s 20 plus people kind of crawling around. We start this interview with Home and Garden Television. As we’re answering a random question about how we started the garden and what did we do to the soil to improve it, as my husband’s in the middle of answering, up behind us comes this voice. We turn and it happens to be the First Lady Michelle Obama so both of us completely awestruck and speechless.
Chris Mitchell: I can imagine.
Linda Bilsens: I’m pretty sure I squealed actually.
Chris Mitchell: There’s probably video evidence of that.
Linda Bilsens: Oh, yeah. No, I’ve heard it lots of times at this point. I’m certain of it. Yeah, so she surprised us. We totally got pumped by Michelle Obama, and it was pretty exciting.
Chris Mitchell: That’s great. Do you have a sense, then, that this is something that is catching on around the country?
Linda Bilsens: Yeah. No, absolutely. Though Michelle Obama’s visit was fantastic and such an honor and it was exciting to see somebody that prominent supporting or interested in what we were doing because she was technically there to see the garden. But as soon as we brought up the concept of composting and how important it is to us maintaining our garden and the importance of not wasting that food, she wanted to go see the composting system. So she led the entire camera team through our tiny little walkway to the composting system, and she wanted to test out the compost sifter that we have. She totally understood why we were doing what we were doing, and she was excited about it, and she was very complimentary of it. It was really exciting to see that. Also through the rest of our work and the Composting for Community Project under which the NSR falls …
Chris Mitchell: That’s the Neighborhood Soil Rebuilders Program, NSR?
Linda Bilsens: Yes. Through the rest of our work in the Composting for Community Project under which the Neighborhood Soil Rebuilders Program falls, we’re getting a chance to work with community composters from around the country, so it’s certainly something that is growing in terms of a movement.
Chris Mitchell: What’s the best place to go for people that want to learn more about it and how they might get involved?
Linda Bilsens: Our webpage on the ILSR website would be a great place to start. That’s the Other places that they might look for information would be BioCycle. It’s a magazine for the composting industry. Nora Goldstein, who’s a close friend of the institute, she’s the editor of that magazine. Composting at the community scale is a passion for hers as much as it is for us. So those are two great places to start.
Chris Mitchell: Wonderful. We’d like to end this show by asking for a recommendation for something to read: article, book, maybe even a podcast, who knows? What’s something interesting you’ve heard or read that you want to share with people?
Linda Bilsens: A couple of things come to mind. The Marin Carbon Project in California is putting out lots of interesting research papers on the topic of carbon sequestration and soil and compost in particular, so if anybody’s interested in that, they’re a great source for information. There’s also a series about the inequality in our food system and how to address that I’ve been fully making my way through. It’s actually a publication called Food First, The Institute for Food and Development Policy. There’s a series that they put out recently about dismantling racism in the food system, which I think is really eye opening. It gets me motivated.
Chris Mitchell: Excellent. I think those are very interesting recommendations. I’ll be checking them out myself. Thank you for taking some time to tell us more about the composting work and why it’s relevant, how it can build local power.
Linda Bilsens: Thanks Chris.
Lisa Gonzalez That was Linda Bilsens, program manager for the Neighborhood Soil Rebuilders Program at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance talking with Chris Mitchell about the program and how composting contributes to local power. Learn more about the program at Subscribe to this podcast and all of the podcasts in the ILSR family on iTunes, Stitcher, or wherever else you get your podcasts. Never miss out on our original research by also subscribing to our monthly newsletter at Thanks to Dysfunction Al for the music licensed through Creative Commons. The song is “Funk Interlude.” I’m Lisa Gonzalez from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. Thanks for listening to Episode Number 7 of our building local power podcast.

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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.

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Nick Stumo-Langer

Nick Stumo-Langer was Communications Manager at ILSR working for all five initiatives. He ran ILSR's Facebook and Twitter profiles and builds relationships with reporters. He is an alumnus of St. Olaf College and animated by the concerns of monopoly power across our economy.