How Local Composting Can Transform Washington, D.C. (feat. Loop Closing)

Date: 18 Dec 2019 | posted in: Composting | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail
Jeffrey Neal

Welcome back to the Composting for Community podcast! On this episode, host Linda Bilsens Brolis is joined by Jeffrey Neal of Loop Closing. They discuss his vision for how small-scale, hyper-local composting can handle all of the food waste produced in Washington, DC, and the support needed to realize it.

They also discuss:

  • How he overcame some initial composting failures  
  • ILSR’s Neighborhood Soil Rebuilders Composter Training Program
  • Successful on-site composting for urban communities and businesses 
  • Loop Closing’s financial model for building out a distributed composting infrastructure for the District
  • Advice for approaching potential funders

Listen to this episode, then check out more episodes of the Composting for Community Podcast.

There’s a lot of other people who are frustrated we don’t have this infrastructure in place to recycle their food waste. And when I shared with them what I was doing, they were more than happy to participate and help.

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. Hi, I’m Linda Bilsens Brolis of ILSR’s composting initiative and I’ll be your host for this episode. We’re joined by a great friend of ours, Jeffrey Neal of Loop Closing. Say hello, Jeffrey.
Jeffrey Neal Hello.
Linda Bilsens Brolis So Jeffrey, tell our listeners about Loop Closing and how composting fits into your broader work.
Jeffrey Neal Yeah, so Loop Closing is an organization that we’ve started in DC, because we believe what we do with food waste is ridiculous. Most food waste is either hauled to a landfill or burned in an incinerator, which emits deadly air pollution, which causes more deaths than car crashes and murders combined. And Black and Latinx populations experience 60% more of this pollution than they create because of where we locate these facilities. And then the list continues. If food waste were a country, it’d be the third largest generator of greenhouse gas emissions, which is driving our climate crisis. And we only recycle 5% of this food waste we generate. Meanwhile, because this organic matter doesn’t get into our soils, the UN estimates that in 55 years, we will have depleted all of our soils on Earth, which is critical for continuing human life on Earth. So it’s pretty devastating what we do with our food waste. So looking at this and seeing that our current approach doesn’t work, Loop Closing was looking for alternative ways of dealing with this. And what we’ve stumbled upon is this idea that if you go small with systems, you can go big with diversion, and you can get to near a hundred percent diversion. And so we have to get past the hurdles that’s blocking status quo. And we do that by placing composting machines where dumpsters and trash cans once stood. And instead of food delivery vehicles returning empty, they transport this finished compost back to the farm. Loop Closing aims to regenerate our soils for next season’s crops, closes the ecological loop, mitigates and reverses climate change, and benefits all of us including underrepresented communities.
Linda Bilsens Brolis Wow. Those are some sobering facts that you shared with us at the beginning and it definitely reiterates something we’ve been hearing from other folks that we’ve talked to through this podcast. In a recent episode we talked with Marvin Hayes of the Baltimore Compost Collective.
Jeffrey Neal Oh, Marvin is great.
Linda Bilsens Brolis Yeah. And he talked about how trash incineration is tied to asthma and in the community, one of the communities that he serves in South Baltimore that is disproportionately affected and has disproportionately high rates of asthma. So, obviously serious problems that we need some serious solutions for. And it sounds like Loop Closing has a really creative and interesting solution for the Washington, DC area. Jeffrey, how did you get into community composting, for our listeners?
Jeffrey Neal Yeah. Well, before I talk about myself, I just want to give a shout out to Marvin. He’s really on the front lines of addressing our environmental injustice issues, and really doing some great work to deal with this change. So coming back to how did I get into community composting? Actually, very reluctantly, it was not something at all on my radar. And what will help is to talk about some failures I had initially. Once I realized how ridiculous it is, what we do with food waste, I decided, well, I don’t know how to systemically change the whole thing, but I can start with just changing myself. And so I decided I’m gonna at least compost my own food waste. And I didn’t have an easy solution. And my apartment, a multi-residential unit in DC, there wasn’t a blade of grass on my block. I couldn’t just pile up food waste in our yard and then let it compost like we did in our grandma and grandpa piles. And so I stumbled upon this presentation about how a teacher at a kindergarten class had worm bins and I thought, wow, kindergarteners can do worm bins and compost food waste. Surely I can do this in my condo. So I listened to his one hour presentation and he gave me a script of what to do and how to do it. And I started doing it and it was going great for a couple months and then I killed my worms. So I bought another batch of worms and tried again. And then I killed that batch of worms. So I realized, wow, I’m not even as smart as a kindergartener when it comes to composting my food waste. And a friend of mine knew this, heard of this and heard of this group called the Institute for Local Self-Reliance who was doing a composting class. And so I signed up and I took the class and ILSR taught me what I was doing wrong and then I was set. I could go back to my condo and I could now go back to composting and I’m done. Except for this one thing. ILSR required in this class that you do 30 hours of community work where you engage the community with the lessons you’ve learned from the master class. And I didn’t want to do that. I just wanted to go back to my life; compost, go on my next ski trip, go on my next rock climbing trip, go on my next bike ride, go hang out. But I agreed. I did my 30 hours of community work. And what I learned in those community engagements from the projects I chose was I’m not alone. There’s a lot of other people who are frustrated we don’t have this infrastructure in place to recycle their food waste. And when I shared with them what I was doing, they were more than happy to participate and help. And the community project grew. And what turned into, what started as a 30 hour commitment has now turned into a five year project that continues, well, two projects because I’m indecisive, so I couldn’t choose just one project. So I ended up doing two.
Linda Bilsens Brolis You’re an overachiever actually, I think.
Jeffrey Neal There we go. I like your wording. So how did I get into community composting? It was simply because of that. ILSR made me do it. They tricked me. And then when I met the community, I realized that there’s a thirst and desire for this. And so I’ve continued. And then, finally, my experience with the Navy is to lead change and solve our most challenging infrastructure and operations problems at Navy Marine Corps facilities around the world. I spent 24 years doing that. So understanding how infrastructure works, this has been a great outlet for me to now share those skills and lessons learned, applying it to our world of figuring out how to better recycle our food waste and make a better world.
Linda Bilsens Brolis Awesome. I swear that question was only partially a shameless plug for how ILSR and Loop Closing are connected to each other, but that was back in 2014. So we’ve known each other for quite awhile and I would just clarify that I’m pretty sure it was Benny Erez of Eco City Farms and Rhonda Sherman of North Carolina State University that gave you the intel on worm composting that time around cause they were teaching the worm modules.
Jeffrey Neal I can’t say enough about Benny and Rhonda. They continue to help me both on the composting and vermicomposting to this day. And I continue to meet with them, and Rhonda has a great annual conference in North Carolina, the vermiculture conference, and I’ve been there the last four years.
Linda Bilsens Brolis And you presented last year, right?
Jeffrey Neal I presented, yeah, a couple of years ago.
Linda Bilsens Brolis Congratulations. And yeah, this is just a beautiful testament to how composting can build community. I think we’re almost like family at this point. We’re very lucky for that. So Jeffrey, moving on to how you envision what Loop Closing does fitting into the future of composting in Washington DC; how do you think that is?
Jeffrey Neal Yeah, so what Loop Closing does and how it fits into the future of composting in Washington, DC has lots of levels. One level is there just needs to be some education on possibilities and then also aligning of policies in DC to allow for these possibilities. So that requires work with the local government, the local advocacy community, local businesses to talk about our common desires and hopes and then align that into some actionable plans. So that’s kind of your higher level policy side then in an implementation, there’s already some good work started at the community composting level, with the Department of Parks and Recreation what Josh Singer started, there’s now 56 onsite composting operations throughout the city. And so building on that, that gives anyone in the city who wants to compost their food waste 24/7 during the day an outlet to take it there, with the requirement that they help with the operations for an hour, either once a quarter or once a month. So these programs have been great to foster education, to foster a groundswell of participation for people who are willing to do that outlet. And it helps build a momentum that we need for greater diversion. So this is where Loop Closing comes in. We see a combining of community composting and business practices, that we can go from being stuck at 5% composting to 100% composting by leveraging this community composting approach, which is onsite compost. So that’s what we referenced earlier, if you replace our trash cans and dumpsters with composting machines where you can include some efficiencies with these devices. And then in the size of about a large sofa, if you put one of these machines on each block in DC — and if you do the grid in DC there’s a hundred streets North and South and East and West in that diamond — you come up with 5,000 street blocks, then you could put one of those on each block in DC you would have one and a half times capacity that’s needed to compost all of this food waste. So what we see Loop Closing doing is providing a solution to help get us from the national average of 5% to near 100% by composting food waste right underneath our nose. And then the second part of that equation is, well, what do you do with all this finished compost? Only some of it can be used locally to heal our soils, which is a huge need. But then what do you do with the rest of it? Well, what Loop Closing sees is we’ve already got the solution again right underneath our nose. All of those food delivery vehicles that come and feed us in the cities. They come full of food, they deliver the food at a restaurant, at a grocery store, at a hotel where wherever you serve food, and then they turn around and go back to the farm. And those food delivery vehicles, when they go to that restaurant and deliver the food can then take that finished compost from that restaurant or those dumpsters, and take it right back to the farm. And then when it gets to the farm, it can go back into the soil, which then regenerates the soil and oh geez, the millions, the many benefits we get from putting the compost in the soil can now happen. Growing our crops for next year, closing the ecological loop, and then just continuing that process, bringing the food back to the city, bringing the compost back out to the farm, creating a circular economy. And then the last part of that is that circular economy is something that all community members can participate, even those who have been excluded from our economic and financial benefits today.
Linda Bilsens Brolis And that’s a beautiful vision for the future of any city, not just Washington, DC. I’d just like to echo what you were saying at the beginning, about the role that the DC Department of Parks and Recreation’s Community Compost Cooperative Network has played in sort of helping to foster an awareness around composting in the city. And I know that from what we know at ILSR, both Baltimore and Philadelphia are using that as an example for what they’re now starting to do in their own local communities, which is really exciting. And I just wanted to ask if you could clarify a little bit more about this composting machine that you’ve referenced.
Jeffrey Neal Yeah, and it’s not just a or one compost machine. There’s dozens of composting machines that are engineered for onsite use that are on the market commercially available. And so it’s just a matter of sizing one for your needs and for your style. Some are completely automated, some are more mechanical and manual in operation. Some are pretty stainless steel shiny, some are more basic Bohemian style. You just, you find what works for you. But I want to make sure we understand one thing, they are not the technology that’s out now, which people claim is composting but is not composting, such as dehydrating food or pulping food to send it to a wastewater treatment system. Those aren’t composters. And that’s a big problem with our community, is if someone gets a machine like that, especially dehydrator, and they think they’ve composted food and then they put it in their garden in big piles, well that dehydrated food will rehydrate and it’ll start rotting and it’ll start burning out their crops just like over fertilizing a location could do. They’ll have this failure, this problem on their hands, and then they’ll say, “Oh look, see, composting doesn’t work.” But the problem is that is not composting. So it’s actually something that we really need to guard against and bring awareness to of what is composting, what is not composting. So first of all these machines I’m talking about are actually machines that compost. What can be added is anaerobic digesting machines that are for the community and onsite use. There’s a, I understand that there’s some technology out there and I’m looking forward to testing some of that.
Linda Bilsens Brolis Yeah. And thank you for making that clarification. Um, I know those, if you think about dehydrating food waste, which is mostly water, it’s hugely energy intensive. So thank you for clarifying that. We’re not talking about dehydrating food scraps, we’re talking about machines that help with the composting process. So the next question, I’m going to make it kind of a two part question based on this vision that you’ve just laid out for us, what kind of support would be beneficial to helping that vision come to fruition? You know, whether it’s from local government or the public. And then second part, what are your, what are your goals for the coming year?
Jeffrey Neal Yeah. I think those kind of dovetail together well, as far as what support would be helpful and what are the goals for next year. And I think it’ll help to first start with where we are now. So where we are now is we’ve tested over the last five years. I should go to the beginning where I was skeptical that you could compost food waste onsite in a city. There’s rats, there’s what I thought would be smells and neighbor resistance. And I thought this was a crazy idea. Keep in mind, I’ve managed facilities for 24 years, and if you came to one of my bases and asked, “Hey Jeffrey, I want to put a composting system on your base,” I would have said, heck no. I know about waste. You haul it away. That was my thinking. That was conventional wisdom. So it wasn’t until we actually had to do this community composting project for the Neighborhood Soil Rebuilders course that I did onsite composting at any sort of community level, and then realized what it actually was. It doesn’t smell like a landfill. It actually when done right, it smells like a forest after a light rain, and you have that damp lovely vegetative smell come up, or it smells like a grocery section of a department store. So that was a huge paradigm shift for me. And then I also was concerned about mitigating rats. So for the last four or five years we’ve done onsite composting systems in some very challenging locations. And not only is it not creating a rat problem or smell problem, it mitigates the existing problems that our current practices have created. So we’ve tested these systems at a half dozen locations and we’ve had success. The other part of the formula is this won’t work unless it’s financially feasible. So if you look at the $11 billion market that we use in the US to dispose of food waste, and you take DC’s share of say $67 million, when you account for the cost of living here, if you put one of these composters on each block that I’m talking about, a high Cadillac shiny, nice one at retail price, that costs if you paid for that would take two and a half years to pay back what we currently spend on food waste. So just a two and a half year payback. So financially that’s a good investment. And if you’re at scale like that, the costs would drive down to about a half or a quarter. So you’d be looking at a year and a half or less than a year payback here. So financially that’s feasible. And then if you paid local staff to operate these systems and oversee these systems, let’s say you have one person for every 25 blocks, you could pay that person $165,000 a year. So there’s enough money available to change how we do this and make this type of hyper onsite system operable. And then the cost to get it back into our soils — well we already have those vehicles going back to the farms empty, so that’s a minimal increase in fee, if any. So that’s where we are, is we’ve modeled it. What we need for support is a chance to pilot these projects. We need to go to a restaurant, a grocery store, a coffee shop, a university, a hotel, a church. We need to put a system onsite to compost all of the food waste from that location, show the feasibility of this in practice. So what we need is working capital so that we can finance these systems and then have the team available to provide the support that’s needed. What we need is capital for that. Whether it comes from government or it comes from angel investment or comes from family foundations or philanthropic organizations that see the benefit of this. There’s lots of options for where it could come from. But that would be the next step. And then the key is once the actual food service providers have these examples, then when talking to the next food service provider about taking this option, they can talk to another food service provider who’s already doing it, someone like them, and hear the message from them instead of an outsider telling them. So the government role in that is one, allow us to do that, whether it’s Department of Health inspectors allowing us to have composting systems behind or at restaurants, or to move finished compost in food delivery vehicles, or provide grants and funding to show the feasibility of this.
Linda Bilsens Brolis Great. Thanks for laying out the plan, the strategic plan for achieving this goal. I hope, uh, we’ll have to share this interview with some decision makers and folks that might potentially host one of these pilot projects. So is there anything that you’d like to talk about in terms of your goal for the coming year or is that, was that kind of wrapped up?
Jeffrey Neal Yeah. That was kind of wrapped up in there, goal for the next year is to get a half dozen to a dozen pilot projects operating in 2020 so that the data can be collected. Obviously when you do a pilot project, a big goal is to have lessons learned. So these pilot projects aren’t going to go perfect. There’s going to be a lot of things that don’t go as hoped, but this is where we get to learn those lessons and then those lessons can be applied to scaling this so we can get some meaningful diversion in the coming years.
Linda Bilsens Brolis Great. So in the last couple of minutes, maybe you could share your, any suggestions for new composters, something, things that you maybe wish you would’ve known when you were first getting started?
Jeffrey Neal Oh geez. For new composters, you just gotta get started. Just do it. Don’t wait. Start and you’ll find the resources and you’ll learn the lessons you need to learn along the way and definitely reach out and talk with people because you’ll be surprised where the answers come from. And then I’d say if you’re new to compost and you have ideas about how to do things better, be confident in that. And I would say for, actually have a tip for those who have ideas and are wanting to push these ideas and get support for them, to remember this. The person that you’re asking for support from, let’s say it’s an angel investor or venture capital firm on the debt equity side, or let’s say it’s a philanthropic foundation, change the perspective from, “Gee, I want to sell them and convince them I have a good idea and to support me,” and instead switch the perspective to, I have something these people want and need. And what I mean by that is, these organizations have a lot of money to move and they have to move it every year and they have a hard time finding people with good ideas and they have a hard time finding people who can actually implement those ideas, have the talent and the passion to do that. So those of us who are trying to push these new ideas need to realize actually, the power is on our side. And if we talk from position of power that I’ve got what you need, then that shifts the dynamic of the conversation and is something that I think we all need to better focus on. When we’re talking with policymakers and we’re talking with potential supporters and other ways we have a solution that they need and talk from that position.
Linda Bilsens Brolis Awesome. Very valuable advice. Thank you Jeffrey. And to close, how can folks find out more about Loop Closing?
Jeffrey Neal To find out more about Loop Closing, please go to our website, which is LoopClosing.com, or to our Twitter account or Instagram or Facebook page. All LoopClosing.com or all Loop Closing.
Linda Bilsens Brolis All of the social media. Great. Thank you Jeffrey so much for joining us and thank you all for listening.
Jeffrey Neal And thank you for hosting Linda. I appreciate it.
Linda Bilsens Brolis Thanks so much for listening to this episode of the Composting for Community podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. This episode is produced by myself and Hibba Meraay. We’ll be back again next month with a new episode. Our theme music is, I dunno, by 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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Audio Credit: I Dunno by Grapes. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial (3.0) license.

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Linda Bilsens Brolis
Follow Linda Bilsens Brolis:
Linda Bilsens Brolis

Linda is the Project Manager for ILSR’s Composting for Community project and Neighborhood Soil Rebuilders community composter training program.

Linda Bilsens Brolis
Follow Linda Bilsens Brolis:
Linda is the Project Manager for ILSR’s Composting for Community project and Neighborhood Soil Rebuilders community composter training program.