Stop Privileging Large Industrial Sites Over Local Composters — Episode 125 of Building Local Power

Date: 27 Apr 2021 | posted in: Building Local Power | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

On this episode of Building Local Power, ILSR’s Jess Del Fiacco and Brenda Platt are joined by Tom Gilbert of Black Dirt Farm and Lor Holmes of the CERO Cooperative. Their discussion focuses on the need to support local and distributed infrastructure for food scrap recycling and composting.

Highlights include:

  • The many ways in which on-farm and local composting enterprises nourish healthy soils and community.
  • How state-level legislation and implementation policies around food scrap recycling have affected their businesses.
  • How large-scale businesses are being privileged at the expense of local operations — and how this can harm the environment and the economy.


“I think if we’re really hoping to manage resources effectively to capture their full value for the community, but also to address issues of white supremacy and gender violence and all of these other aspects of society that we don’t think of as necessarily purely economic issues… all of that work boils down to relationships. We need to build currencies of trust that allow us to act in solidarity and allow us to build out economies and communities that have really clearly articulated values.”


Jess Del Fiacco: Hello, and welcome to Building Local Power, a podcast dedicated to thought-provoking conversations about how we can challenge corporate monopolies and expand the power of people to shape their own future. I’m Jess Del Fiacco, the host of Building Local Power and communications manager here at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. For more than 25 years, ILSR has worked to build thriving, equitable communities where power, wealth, and accountability remain in local hands. Today, we’ll be discussing the need to support local and distributed infrastructure for food scrap recycling and composting. I’m excited to be joined by my colleague, Brenda Platt, as well as two folks who are helping to keep compost local. Tom Gilbert is a Vermont farmer who runs Black Dirt Farm and Lor Holmes is a worker-owner of the CERO Cooperative, a food waste pickup service provider for a wide range of commercial clients in the Boston area. So, welcome to the show, both of you.
Tom Gilbert: Thanks for having me.
Lor Holmes: Thank you.
Jess Del Fiacco: So, you’re both a part of the Sustainable Food Movement. Could you tell us just super briefly what it is you do, what your businesses are, and how you’re supporting your local agricultural economy? Tom, maybe we can start with you.
Tom Gilbert: Sure. I own and operate Black Dirt Farm, we’re in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont and our business model is designed to mimic the carbon cycle in a mature ecosystem. And so we start by going off the farm and collecting discarded food. We serve about 90 businesses and institutions and collect about 30 tons a week. And then we forage laying hens on that compost mix and ship eggs throughout Vermont and down into Boston. And then we make compost and worm castings with the resulting material. And then we also grow a small number of crops here. And in terms of the local economy, we really prioritize getting food into the mouths of our neighbors and do a lot of solidarity work locally to just build our community more than anything because I think that’s fundamentally sort of the stepping off point for everything else in the economic and system side of it is just the mechanism.
Lor Holmes: Yeah. Hi, CERO Cooperative does also have an acronym to it. The CERO in both Spanish and English stands for Cooperative Energy Recycling and Organics. So, we started our organics hauling business, which helps businesses, commercial entities, larger and smaller learn how to source, separate, clean compostable material. And then we provide this… So, we train folks and educate as to the importance of that and then we help them set up for service. We provide anywhere from daily to weekly, to on-call pickups of compostable material with our fleet of four trucks. And we transport that material both to local farm-based windrow composting facilities, and two dedicated farm-based anaerobic digesters. Dedicated, meaning that they only process yard, food, and animal waste as opposed to the big digesters you see that also process wastewater. So, we’re highest and best use business. And that’s a lot of reason why customers who work with us choose us as well as for being big service.
Lor Holmes: As far as the economy, our business was built by folks, grassroots leaders in our black and brown communities have been most impacted by environmental injustice, as well as economic injustice and other forms of oppression. And they decided they wanted to build a business. They wanted it to be worker-owned, to establish good, dignified green-collar jobs, we were calling them back at the beginning, ways that people in the community could make a decent living, even have the opportunity to own businesses or be part of owning cooperative businesses while improving the sustainability and environmental practices in the community and have very quickly seen how that’s part of our local circular food economy. In the most literal sense, I described how we deliver the compost out to the farms. Well, in the growing season like now, once we dump the food scraps into the compost piles and wash out the truck, we often reloading that truck with composted soil products that we bring back to the city to support urban agriculture. So, that’s a very literal manifestation where we’re using this year’s food scraps to produce next year’s food.
Jess Del Fiacco: Very cool.
Brenda Platt: Lor and Tom, I’m so blessed to know you both. I think I’ve been following your efforts since we wrote Growing Local Fertility: A Guide to Community Composting back in 2014. Lor, as I recall, CERO formed after Massachusetts passed that state law in 2013, which banned large food waste generators, large food waste generators, I think of one who were producing one ton or more a week of food scraps, banning them from landfilling or burning, right? And the law created these new opportunities for food recycling businesses and interests. And I remember you talking about this passionate group of black and brown folks from Boston’s neighborhoods you just mentioned, how they were like, “Hey man, we deserve a slice of this economic pie.” Can you just talk about just for a few seconds like how that law actually spurred the creation of CERO?
Lor Holmes: Well, it’s interesting. I think that my first day on the job I got hired by this group of folks and they knew was they wanted to do something in recycling. They wanted to do something green and they wanted to do a co-op. And I was the first hire. I was hired to be the startup manager. And on my first day on the job, I went to a zero-waste workshop with Ruth Abbe and Gary Liss and folks that we all know well as being the international experts on all this stuff. And at the same time, they were announcing Massachusetts DEP food waste ban, which was to take effect in 2014. This was the fall of 2012. And we were just looking for what would be this recycling thing? And it was at the same time that the market was starting to fall out of the other commodities because our single-stream recycling was giving us such crap.
Lor Holmes: So, I was having a hard time landing on something and as soon as we learned about the food waste ban, we put all our effort and before long decided, “You know what? This is just all we’re going to do, and we’re going to get really good at it.” And I think we’ve gotten pretty good at it. We’re now harvesting about 100 tons a week of clean compostable material.
Brenda Platt: Wow.
Lor Holmes: Not going into the landfill and it’s not going into the incinerators and it’s not going into dirty digesters. So we’re pretty proud of that.
Brenda Platt: You should be. Tom, your farm is kind of a different kind of worker-owner business, right? It’s a family farm. So, why are family farms important for healthy food and the ag system?
Tom Gilbert: I think Lor really captured all of those things really well. I think really fundamentally local control is highly critical to being able to control where resources go, but also how do they go there. And I think having a collective ownership model like CERO is super inspiring and wonderful because there’s a high level of transparency and accountability built into that. And that’s really inspiring and I think wonderfully effective. I think a family farm model is a alternative structure to that that can capture many of those things, especially if you put your focus on them, but it would be easy also to miss some of those outcomes as well. But for us, we put a lot into our local economy in general, as a family both through the farm, but also as participants.
Tom Gilbert: And I think if we’re really hoping to manage resources effectively to capture their full value for the community, but also to address issues of white supremacy and gender violence and all of these other aspects of society that we don’t think of as necessarily purely economic issues, really at the end of the day, all of that work boils down to relationships. We need to build currencies of trust that allow us to act in solidarity and allow us to build out economies and communities that have really clearly articulated values. And I think that’s the most powerful thing is we do so much work with all sorts of partners, other small farms, non-profits, schools.
Tom Gilbert: And the more we interact on a personal basis, and the more we really establish shared values, the more we can define those goals and that the challenge with the way that some of these systems and markets are starting to industrialize is those entities that are coming in say from out of state to take resources, again, back out of state, for instance, that they’re never going to be at the table in the local conversation. And they’re never going to be part of figuring out what is best for the community. And I think that all of these things come down to building intrinsic economies where the people who live with these systems ultimately are the decision-makers about how best to utilize them and making sure that the benefits of those things are spread widely. I think local control is an important thing and having lots of small operations involved means we get to decentralize that and distribute the benefits.
Brenda Platt: Well, here at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance we couldn’t agree with you more on that point about local control. And you’re not the only farmer doing this in Vermont. Talk about some of the other farmers you’re working with, what’s the landscape in Vermont for creating kind of this local economy and healthy sustainable food system? Because what’s happening, we’re going to get into the developments as you mentioned with resources leaving the state. But right now, leading up last few years, you’ve been building to something else in Vermont, right?
Tom Gilbert: Right. Yeah. I think one of the things that I am most inspired about is we really have a culture of mutualism and there is incredible information sharing and a lot of lateral trust and solidarity. And so, I think ultimately what we benefit from is having more than just sort of a constellation of… Or random businesses here and there doing great things, but we really have more of a constellation where the dots are getting connected and then you get to fill in a bigger picture than any one individual operation would otherwise get to do. So, around here, for instance, we’ve formed the Center for an Agricultural Economy in 2009 and are really just actively building out all the infrastructure in all the gaps in our highly local food system of seven towns. So that’s everything from food processing space to distribution, to trainings for farms and food processors and food justice work.
Tom Gilbert: And then, between the farms here, we have just such a wonderful community of growers and composters and processors that there’s just a incredibly open environment that is not based on competition and is based on that premise that all ships rise and sink together. And so, we do a lot of information sharing. Somebody figures something out, whether it’s on something ultimately sort of banal like worker’s comp and instead of sort of hoarding that information and building intellectual property really, there’s a sort of a notion that knowledge is part of the comments and that we all will benefit from it. So I think we have all sorts of wonderful aspects of that.
Brenda Platt: Lor, in Massachusetts you’re not the only community-based composter operating there. Are you finding similar sharing in your network?
Lor Holmes: Yeah, I think we do. I have tried to formalize this in fits and starts of bringing together community composters in our area to try primarily in the interest of kind of building power, us against all the big industry people. And we’re tiny even together. We’re a tiny bit of the market, but we do share, we do consult one another, but we also compete and we’re often pitted against one another in the contracting process. So, I’m not going to say we have it figured out. I think it’s challenging. There’s certainly, I think the bottom line for all of us is that there’s plenty of work to go around and that there’s much more for us to be gained by working together for the best kinds of policies, but not all community composters are the same either. Some of them are starting to get kind of maybe not necessarily bought, but partnered up with some of the others in the industry. And so, we can’t really just assume that because we’re small composters, we all feel the same way about stuff. I’m just being real.
Brenda Platt: Yeah. And we facilitate a national cultivating Community Composter Coalition and there’s such a wide range of members in our coalition. CERO is one of them. We have for-profit, non-profit, worker-owned. There are different sizes. And Tom, when you described about sharing information, Lor, you’re in one particular market area and there’s a lot of you and I can see where you compete. But nationally, we’re really seeing a lot of sharing of information among our members to lift everybody up, but-
Lor Holmes: If I can just add to that, Brenda. In fact, through your network, your national network, we’ve started a smaller group conversation among the ones that are worker-owned co-ops and more interested in solidarity economies and that kind of stuff. And we share information freely with one another that we might not with others in the group. So the network actually not only helped us find each other, but helped us kind of understand those forces better.
Brenda Platt: All right. So, let me ask you something just about, what do you see as the… Before these more recent, we’ll talk about this with the industry, larger-scale facilities kind of siphoning off, talk about competition, right? Siphoning off some of your clients and the materials that you were handling. Before these new trends started happening, were you experiencing growth? Were you like getting more clients, getting more material, producing high-quality stuff? What was that looking like? And Tom, let’s start with you.
Tom Gilbert: Yeah. You asked Lor about the Massachusetts ban on organics going to landfill, Vermont has a similar ban and so we… Well, I was in the market, not under the Black Dirt handle, but otherwise. We were having a fight for elbow room at the time and we were mostly competing with trash haulers at the time, not necessarily other food scrap haulers. But then with the passage of the law, it really did open up the market and we saw tremendous growth very quickly. We’re not a growth oriented business. So our whole premise is to sort of grow as necessary, but not beyond necessary, but that’s a hard place to hold in a larger competitive market, especially when you’re talking about not the local farms that I was describing before, but multi-state and multinational companies. But the market for us in the last several years, since the state opened things up for depackaging has shifted quite a bit.
Tom Gilbert: And while we have lost tonnage, in a very quick period of time, we lost 30% of our tonnage in several months, which was very challenging for us as somebody who operates with sort of just enough, but no more type mentality, we’ve since been able to make up the tonnage, but the challenge for us is that with depackaging, which I guess we’ll talk about a little bit more in a little bit, we lost all of our major scale generators. And so as Lor knows, and anybody in this business, economically it’s way more profitable to service a larger business like a grocery store than a school that’s just going to generate a single 48 gallon tote. And so, we’ve maintained our customer base and made up the tonnage, but we’re servicing way more small stops. So for us, the biggest issue has been a dramatic decrease in our efficiency.
Tom Gilbert: So unlike CERO, we’re in a rural market and everything is very spread out. And so if you’re having to drive miles just to go get one tote, it takes us at a grocery store a minute and a half per container, whereas a single tote school, it takes us three and a half to five minutes per container. And you can’t make that up in a day by swapping a 30-tote stop out for a one-tote stop. So, our numbers are pretty steady, but our efficiency and our margin have all gone down and our costs have gone up dramatically.
Brenda Platt: Well, actually, let’s talk about what is a depackager and how is that hurting your business? What is happening there with these depackaging facilities?
Tom Gilbert: Well, okay, so I’ll talk about depackaging. Depackaging is really more of an indicator of the larger problem and it has an acute impact, but the bigger problem is really a laissez-faire attitude towards markets and regulation and this sort of tolerance for contamination that we seem to have a cultural bias towards. So, depackagers are machines that separate food material from their packaging, and they are used as an alternative to what’s called source separation, meaning the separation of compostable materials from non-compostable materials at the point where it’s generated. And these machines are totally impressive in what they can do. It really is an impressive thing to be able to take pallets of tomato sauce and dump it in a hopper and have it crush everything and separate it. But it also results in, especially with films packaged materials versus say, cans, they do result in those organic materials getting contaminated.
Tom Gilbert: And so, it’s an inherent downgrade of the material. So what’s happening right now in Vermont is that stores that were sort of separating for over a decade are now just throwing all of their materials in a bin with the packaging on it. And so materials that previously didn’t have plastic in them, now are guaranteed to have say 1% plastic in them. And as a side note, the other irony is that in this sort of effort to make recycling and composting easier, we’re taking a stream of material, some of that packaging that was being recycled, and we’ve now downgraded it to the point where it’s either being incinerated or it’s going to much lower value recycling markets.
Tom Gilbert: The biggest challenge is that not only does that offer a level of convenience that we can’t and don’t really want to compete with, but it also puts us in a position where we start operating out of fear that our standards for source separation are too high and that when an alternative contract offer shows up that says, “Oh, you don’t have to meet any standard. You can just unthinkingly throw everything in one bin.” Most grocery stores, even a smaller local grocery store is going to find that attractive. It’s just a little less work. And so what it does is it starts downgrading the overall market and changing what the baseline for that market is. And it starts saying that the norm is contamination and source separation is an added hassle. And if the thing that we do to protect soil becomes an added hassle, then it gets externalized in the market and suddenly the issue isn’t a market for services, the issue is market for tolerance of contamination.
Jess Del Fiacco: Before we get to our next question, we’re just going to take a short break. Thanks for listening to Building Local Power. If you’re enjoying this conversation, I hope you’ll consider heading over to to help support our work. Your donation directly supports this podcast and helps us get great guests like Tom and Lor, and it supports all the work we do here at ILSR. Visit to make a contribution today. Any amount is sincerely appreciated. Now I’ll turn it back over to Brenda.
Brenda Platt: Top of the contamination issues, which I think are serious microplastics in soil is growing and plastics in general, we know are such a huge problem for the environment, but it’s also this notion that the companies that can handle this mixed waste, they’re large, they’re industrial, they’ve big capital investment. They’re not local, they’re often out-of-state. So, you’re privileging by not enforcing in Vermont, by not enforcing the source separation requirements and the universal recycling law. The state is inadvertently privileging large-scale industrial sites that are outside of the state. And then you’re losing this whole thing we’ve been talking about, about the benefits to local farmers and the local economy. And Lor, you’re facing the exact same thing in Massachusetts, right? So how are you losing your clients because of the same thing happening? What’s happening in Massachusetts for you?
Lor Holmes: Yeah. Tom gave a really great explanation for sort of what it is, and that’s essentially a universal explanation. I can add a little context for how it plays out for us. So, for example, we have a couple of our larger contracts with big grocery stores. I won’t name them, but this grocery store got approached by our competition and I’ll circle back to why this is so important in terms of policy and definitions efforts is that someone went to our grocery store and said, “You could capture 20% more of your organics if you just change out what you’re doing now. Stop source separating, just put it all in a dumpster,” just like Tom said. “Put everything in. We’ll take care of it. We’ll separate it.” And greenwashing that. In other words, I can’t even blame the customer because the customer is saying, “Isn’t this great. I’m going to boost my compost diversion by 20%.”
Lor Holmes: And we’re going to say, “No, actually you’re going to increase your trash diversion by 80%.” And we’ve been really trying to do some education and say to them, “Look, we understand you want to capture more organics. If you insist on doing some depacking, will you also consider sustaining the clean material that you’ve got? Let us keep on doing that for you and handle the other in another way.” The other thing that we have to properly characterize, and maybe I’m going to sound like it’s more sinister than the way Tom described it, and I don’t think he intended to portray this as any kind of a passive… This is system design under capitalism. Bottom line is that you design to extract the most resources you can for the largest profit that you can, and the policymakers, whether they’re at EPA or Environmental Protection or Department of Environmental Protection in our state, they’re more influenced by the industry guys than by anybody else.
Lor Holmes: It’s only for the last five to seven years that they’ve been getting used to us showing up at all of their meetings, and questioning the way these things are being written. But they’ve been writing them. They’ve been writing about the haulers, but the haulers don’t care, right? If you put it in the trash, or if you put it in the compost, or if you put it in the single-stream recycling bin, they’re going to get paid to take it away. And at most of those depackers, some of them separate it, and then the waste managements and the Casella still get paid to dispose of the stuff that they separate out as contamination. They get paid to put that in their landfill or their incinerator. And they get paid for the waste to energy in organics.
Lor Holmes: What’s the main problem with this? Now, it’s not only are they building depackers with state grants, right? So, these huge profit-making capitalists international corporations that are exporting our resources are also reaping enormous profits, and they are, like Tom said, they’re influencing the definition of what’s what, to the point that they’ve convinced the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection that, “We have now excess capacity for processing the estimated 600,000 tons a year of organics to be recovered from the waste stream.” So, what they’ve done is they’re calling it composting, whether you put it in a windrow compost farm, like what Tom runs, that turns stuff into beautiful dirt and reuse it where it can sequester carbon in the soil. The depack stuff is either making that kind of material and a liquid effluent that’s got tons of microplastics in it and spewing that through the soils.
Lor Holmes: And who knows what we’re going to be finding out about that, years from now when people start growing extra limbs and stuff like that? Animals start showing up not being able to have offspring, and who knows what? I think about Love Canal and all those unintended consequences are not being considered even at the places in the environmental protection space where they should be doing that. And so we have to fight really hard to say, “This is not… It’s not composting if it’s got such and such contamination. You’re not diverting to composting if you’re mixing the food waste with wastewater. What you’re doing is you’re turning compost into sewerage. You’re not turning sewage into compost.” And those toxic pellets that are in that digestate after they co-digest it with wastewater treatment is full of pharmaceuticals and all the toxic materials. We have scientists testify with us on this stuff all the time. Brenda, you’ve probably heard Laura Orlando speak about this stuff and there’s papers you might want to link to her work [crosstalk 00:27:16].
Brenda Platt: Okay. Lor, I’ll just say, this is where local control and keeping it local and rooted in community and mission-driven operations and farmers who know how to protect the soil and grow healthy food is so important. When you give up corporate control to the system, whether it’s the ag system or the recycling system, they’re all about the bottom line and making money. It’s not about what kind of community, what kind of neighborhoods, what kind of soils, how we want to live, what kind of food we want to eat. So, this notion of keeping it small, ownership matters, scale matters. It’s just so critical.
Brenda Platt: And it’s really fast-cutting from whether it’s ag or waste or other sectors. As Jess can tell you from the last episode that we released, you may know for those who listened to it, that ILSR was part of a new coalition called Small Business Rising. And it’s made up of independent businesses asking policymakers to reign in monopoly power like Amazons. And something that we’ve noted in that campaign is that we don’t necessarily need new legislation, we need to enforce existing, in that case, antitrust laws. So, in our arena, and so Tom, in Vermont, are you saying that the state needs to enforce the existing laws? Or do you think there are new rules that are needed? Or is it a mix of both?
Tom Gilbert: Well, I’m going to answer your question, but I’d like to pick up on the thread that you were just on for one more second, but specifically, I think in Vermont, we actually wrote a very good law the first time around, and now it’s an issue of enforcement and holding true to the values that were laid out in that law. So, I think that we’re actually in one of those rare situations as we’ve been talking to legislators about the problems where those that are sympathetic to our cause will say, “Oh, well, write the bill and we’ll get it in there.” And it’s like, “No, we don’t need actually more legislation,” which is a very tiring process, I must say.
Tom Gilbert: We really just need oversight, and that fundamentally, over the years, I’ve spent 20 plus years in the Vermont State House, spending quite a bit of time on different issues, and the most fundamental threat to the democratic process, even in a very small reasonably transparent state like Vermont is the lack of feedback loops between the legislature and the agencies. And the biggest challenge that we face for all the things that you were just talking about, both Lor and Brenda, the single greatest element to all of that is the unspoken aspects of culture and bias that find their way into these things.
Tom Gilbert: And so, the biggest problem is that at the agency level, for instance, I don’t think that there is necessarily malice at work. I think fundamentally, it’s just people bringing these cultural biases towards industrialization and a very sort of European idea of hierarchy that influences how we go about these things. And it’s really a question of those sort of core unspoken ideas. And so I think that the biggest fix that we could be doing is fundamentally in the legislative process, I would love to see each state have a value statements, and have its seven to 10 core values, principles like most religions have, and that every piece of legislation we have is tethered to one of those at least. And that we have a core clear idea of how each piece of legislation is intended to reflect our shared values.
Tom Gilbert: And I think with those types of things in place, it would enable a review process that would allow us to better align with those things. I think between here and there, the structural thing any of us working on these things can do is just make sure that we are not failing to really name and articulate the details of those things within the legislation. So, in the Vermont law, we have a hierarchy that very clearly states that here are the priority uses of these discarded food materials, and feeding people who are food insecure is the greatest priority above composting, above anything else. And the state has reinterpreted that as a menu of options. And to me and the legal counsel involved in this, it’s quite obvious what the legislature intended, but relying on legal counsel at the agency to interpret it, these guys must be stretching before they show up to the meetings to figure out how to contort themselves through these loopholes that they’re creating.
Tom Gilbert: And so, really what we should probably do at this point going forward is just to add a sentence to our existing legislation that simply says, “This is intended to direct markets and tell markets what to do.” And put a very clear point on it. And related to that, that I just want to come back to, beginning with what Lor said was prior to CERO showing up at these conversations, only certain interests were in the room and at the table. And I think it ties into what you were saying, Brenda, which is I believe in a certain idea of kind of liberation economics. I think that if we really want to chart the destiny of our communities, we need to own the economy. And we need-
Brenda Platt: Amen. Amen.
Tom Gilbert: … and then that means… And all aspects of our communities. And so, we really need to kind of radically reinhabit our communities at all levels, and that means being on school boards, and that means being on neighborhood associations, and that means showing up at policy conversations. And we can’t just be critics on the sidelines wishing it were different. This is the battle that we face right now. And it sometimes takes place in very unglamorous, unromantic situations, it’s not all happening on the street. And when we fight out our values at some of these places where ultimate decision-making happens, it is the place that we begin to pose the stake in the ground and say, “Here’s the line, and crossing this line where you’re having a negative impact on our community or on our soil going forward, that’s the boundary. We’re not crossing that.” And we can’t fight that fight if we’re not in those conversations.
Brenda Platt: That’s right. And I’ll just say that I think a value that gets overlooked or lost that somehow we need to integrate both into the laws and the rules, but into the education and the activism we’re doing, is this notion of not privileging large scale? We need to convince legislators that farmers and other small businesses that are rooted in community need to be protected. It’s not just like clean materials is important, source separation, all those things we’re talking about, but we also need to integrate this idea of scale and ownership and small-scale, independent businesses. Small Businesses Rising need to fight for our place at the table and our slice of the pie, and the rules and the regulations need to reflect that. So, I don’t know, we could… Lor, do you have advice?
Brenda Platt: That was great advice, Tom, about where we need to be. I think I’ve heard the saying, I didn’t come up with this, “If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.” So, we definitely need to be there and in all these places, but do you have specific advice for other folks in other states? I’ll just say this is not particular to Vermont or Massachusetts, bill was passed in Maryland, on the way to the governor’s desk, New Jersey and New York State have similar bills that is bills requiring large food waste generators to not put their food scraps in landfills or incinerators, but the way the rules are being written, it really is privileging dirty facilities in mixed waste and at the expense of supporting operations like yours, farmers and worker-owned cooperative and independent businesses. So, do you have advice for folks in other states? Lor, why don’t we start with you?
Lor Holmes: Sure. A lot of times people get in touch with me because of this food waste ban that Massachusetts was kind of early on in having this requirement for generators to source separate and compost material, right? So, I say that now source separate and compost material, and I’m just going to underline what Tom said, what you’ve got to do in your legislation and your regulation is define those terms very, very clearly and very, very carefully. Now, whether that’s by doing the hierarchy, which in Massachusetts, it’s worked well on one end. In other words, it has worked very, very well to do source reduction for food waste, and to do food rescue, have done really, really well. That’s great, but it hasn’t done so great on the processing end of things. And so, you’ve got to really, really define what’s acceptable processing of this material.
Lor Holmes: I don’t care if you separate it if you’re just going to do the same or worse or other just as bad polluting things with the material. And the other thing that I have a little bit of resistance in me, even though I’m all about small is beautiful and small-scale and local businesses and all that other kind of stuff, that does not mean we can’t think about scaling this as a solution. In other words, you can have local control, but you can have scaled and scalable solutions. So, for example, what we’ve been trying to get going and proposing in Massachusetts is much more a decentralized network of smaller processing facilities that require much, much less investment, and much, much less scrounging and scouring and hoarding feedstock material. I’m talking about community-scale anaerobic digesters. So, even in urban environments like ours, what you’ll do is start to reduce the carbon of all this transportation and the cost of all this transportation.
Lor Holmes: And so, what’s being sold… Again, because of the way the economic system is structured, what’s being sold by the big waste industry as being cheaper solutions, cheaper by what standard, right? Because they’re not accounting for any cost to the environment or to degradation of the roads and highways infrastructure or the air. And they’re centralizing both the profit, but they’re also centralizing whatever benefit there is so that they can take things from hundreds and hundreds of miles in a waste shed, and then they can do this waste to energy stuff and say they’re producing massive kilowatts of energy, where instead if you distributed that collection system among solar and anaerobic digestion, and did small-scale energy production across that same region in a decentralized networked grid say, alternative microgrids, you would produce much, much more power at a much, much lower price. And the benefits would be distributed among a much greater people and cities and towns and supporting positive supports for infrastructure. So, that’s my little wrap on that.
Brenda Platt: Yeah, we agree. And I think you’re absolutely right that small-scale can be scaled up in a kind of spoken hub. You can have lots of operations handling a lot more material. So, we have a few minutes left. Tom, any advice for folks in other states?
Tom Gilbert: I think that we just fundamentally need to clarify what our vision for our society is. I think we’re in this place where we have this sort of oddly agnostic approach to society where we’re bickering about even being a society, I suppose, on some basic level. And so long as we continue to sustain the idea that something like white supremacy is just sort of like a matter of personal opinion, and that it’s somehow acceptable within a society to oppress all portion of the rest of society, like these fundamental ideas of what does it mean to be a group? We didn’t get together when we were hunters and gatherers and say, “Hey, why don’t we all get together and we’ll all work for that person over there? And then the rest of us will suffer, but at least that person will be really happy.”
Tom Gilbert: I think we banded together at a mutual self-interest and out of the idea that we were stronger together. And so I think fundamental to any of the work that we’re doing because none of us can do… We can’t cover all the basis, we can’t do all of the work, but so long as we keep our work connected to these shared values, I think we can continue to build in the capacity to recalibrate and refocus along the way to respond to the changing landscape around us and keep evolving. So, I know that sounds [inaudible 00:40:55] kind of broad, but I really think the more we think of this as organizing and not just simply doing these one-off things, the more equipped we are to have the impacts of our work grow beyond our own capacity. And I think that’s the greatest thing is just collaboration, clarification, and solidarity.
Tom Gilbert: And I think with those things, if we don’t just throw our hands up and kind of give up on it, even though we got strong headwinds, we’ll be prepared. And I think there’s many wonderful stories, how community groups, whether they’re fighting environmental racism or other forms of social or economic injustice, or resource exploitation, they come together to… I think of the town of Randle, Washington that came together to oppose the I-90 land corridor or land exchange with Plum Creek Timber out in Washington State. And from that, a very disenfranchised, burnt-out logging town, the opposition of a land trade that threatened to level their school from mudslides and destroy all the forest around them emerged a community coalition of unlikely partners that’s working to advocate for their own community. And you see this all around in rural and urban areas. And the minute a community starts organizing, it becomes so much more powerful and capable of things beyond single-issue campaigns. And I think that’s where we start bringing in coalitions and we start building exponential capacity.
Brenda Platt: 100%.
Tom Gilbert: Yeah. Don’t [crosstalk 00:42:25].
Brenda Platt: Yeah. But we need to continue to fight for the world we want to live in, and that includes independent businesses, farmers, diverse and equitable community. So, keep fighting for the world we want to live in. And thank you both for the work you do to move us closer on that path. Very impressive. You guys, rockstars and roadstars. So thank you.
Tom Gilbert: I should just say, Brenda and Jess, I think ILSR is a totally pivotal organization to all of this work. And before you and I ever connected, Brenda, I found ILSR in my early kind of coming up time. I was lucky for the people that I stumbled into, but I stumbled into Will Brinton and ILSR. And I think those are the… So it comes full circle because I think we all need to stand on each other’s shoulders and move information laterally and that’s movement-building right there. And so you guys play a totally wonderful and pivotal part of that whole equation.
Brenda Platt: Thank you so much. So, we feel the same way about you guys. So I think that’s all the time we have today, right? Jess.
Jess Del Fiacco: Yep. Unfortunately it feels like this conversation could keep on going, but thank you guys so much for joining us and we are… Just so listeners know, you can find a lot of the things we talked about as well as more information about Lor and Tom’s work linked on the website for this episode. So thanks so much again, this was great.
Brenda Platt: Bye guys.
Lor Holmes: Thank you.
Tom Gilbert: Bye.
Lor Holmes: Bye-bye.
Jess Del Fiacco: Thank you for tuning in to this episode of the Building Local Power podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. You can find links to everything we discussed today by going to and clicking on the show page for this episode, that’s While you’re there, you can sign up for one of our many newsletters and connect with us on social media. We hope you’ll take the opportunity to help us out with a gift that helps produce this very podcast and supports the research and resources we make available for free on our website. Finally, we’d ask that you let us know how we’re doing with a rating or review on Apple Podcasts or wherever you find your podcasts. This show is produced by me, Jess Del Fiacco, and edited by Drew Birschbach. Our theme music is Funk Interlude by Dysfunction_AL. For the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, I’m Jess Del Fiacco and I hope you’ll 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: Maya Gaul 

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Jess Del Fiacco

Jessica Del Fiacco is the Institute for Local Self-Reliance’s Communications Manager. She works closely with all of our initiatives to build community power and combat monopolies, and she runs ILSR’s social media networks on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter. Jessica also produces the Institute’s Building Local Power podcast. Contact Jessica for media inquiries.