In this episode, Christopher Mitchell, the director of ILSR’s Community Broadband Networks initiative, interviews Brenda Platt, ILSR co-director and director of our Waste to Wealth initiative. The two discuss the history of ILSR’s Zero Waste work and how the conversation around composting and waste has changed in her 30 years at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.
Platt is also working closely with Maryland legislators to implement laws that increase the percentage of waste diverted from landfills to create rich compost and increase economic development.
“One of the beauties of composting is that it can be small-scale, large-scale, and everything in between,” says Brenda Platt. “But we’ve been promoting communities to build small-scale, distributed infrastructure around composting with local partners such as residences, businesses, and schools.”
Here are Brenda’s recommendations to learn more about our composting work, please send any comments on the hierarchy (below) to firstname.lastname@example.org:
by Brenda Platt, Institute for Local Self-Reliance; James McSweeney and Jenn Davis, Highfields Center for Composting
|Brenda, I’m really curious about the future of food waste and yard waste in Maryland. Tell me a little bit about what the future holds.
|Well, I think the future is bright for recovering food scraps and yard trimmings in Maryland. Maryland issued a zero waste plan more than a year ago, and recovering organic material is one of the core objectives of the plan, and it calls for 90% recycling of food scraps and yard trimmings by the year 2040.
It’s very aspirational and Maryland is on it’s way to meeting those goals, but there’s really a long way to go, particularly with food scraps.
|That’s great, and that voice you’re hearing, that’s Brenda Platt, the co-director for the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and the director of the Compositing for Community program at ILSR, and I should have said, the award-winning Brenda Platt.
This is Chris Mitchell. I’m back in the host chair. I usually do our broadband type work at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, and I’m running the Building Local Power podcast again this week. We’re talking about composting in Maryland and how it’s building local power.
And Brenda, as we start, let me just ask you to just tell people, what award did you win?
|The U.S. Composting Council, which is a national trade industry association has several awards, and this year I’m the winner of the H. Clark Gregory Award. That’s an award that’s given to an individual displaying outstanding service to the U.S. composting industry for a period of years, and particularly recognizes individuals who’ve had a lasting positive impact on the industry, particularly for grassroots efforts, such as backyard composting and public education.
It’s always an honor to be recognized by your colleagues and peers.
|I think it’s well deserved from everything I’ve heard. I’ve talked with some of the people that you work with and they always hold you in very high esteem. I think one of the reasons for that … It may have to do with you working so hard to get Maryland to pass this zero waste plan.I wonder if we might just start … You’ve been with the institute, for forever, from my point of view, as I’ve only been here for 10 years. Can you just tell me a little bit about, just a minute or two, when you started at ILSR, what kind of recycling there was and whether there’s this sense that zero waste was even a possibility, and then we can just fast-forward to what Maryland’s doing now.
|Well, I started at the institute in 1986, and zero waste was not even part of the lexicon. We were part of a larger movement, you could say, in the mid-90s to promote zero waste planning. I’ll just say a lot people when I mention zero waste, their kind of eyes roll. They go, “Zero waste, yeah right, Brenda.”It’s really akin to like a manufacturers having a goal of like zero defects in their products. Or a community has a goal of zero drugs in their community or schools, so we like to say if you’re not for zero waste, how much are you for?
It’s really a planning construct, it’s a goal. There’s [inaudible 00:03:20] goals along the way, and composting and food waste and yard waste, recycling, is really a very strong part of any community’s zero waste plan or goal. I would just tell you that the leaders in zero waste planning and meeting goals is the business community. There’s a zero waste business alliance, and there’s dozens of businesses that have embraced zero waste planning and are saving money in their bottom line.
The international definition of zero waste is 90% or better, so it’s not really zero in terms of the consensus definition, but there are a number of communities from Austin, Texas to San Francisco to small communities in between that have embraced zero waste planning, and it’s been really a pleasure to be working on a sector and particularly on composting, you know, an issue that addresses so many of the pressing issues of the day.
Not just trash reduction, but creating jobs, meeting client protection goals, composting in particular, because composting is a process that manufacturers [inaudible 00:04:33] product. It’s a soil amendment. It ends up back in soil. And guess what? Once in soil, it sequesters carbon.
There’s so many benefits to moving towards zero waste planning and having composting be part of the strategy towards that.
|One of the things that I think people here … When you say zero waste, at least, I’m just gonna imagine this because this is what pops in my head is I think plastic being wasted and thrown away. But it’s interesting because you know things like leaves, and its impact on the watershed, and we’re talking about communities that are environmentally sustainable, and even food security.Maybe just walk us through just a little bit … This isn’t just about having pretty gardens. This is much deeper in terms of how healthy a community is.
|Right. And I’m with you on plastics. One of my pet peeves is styrofoam and single use food service ware items. Part of getting to zero waste is moving towards reducing waste, using more durables and reusables, and we’re seeing a lot of that. Just take the plastic shopping bag, which there’s many communities that have either outright banned it or put a fee on it.People are using reusable shopping bags, so we’re seeing a culture change along with the most critical policies.
Now when it comes to composting, it’s true. It’s not just about … only about using compost in your gardens to grow flowers or plants. One of the biggest growing markets for compost in the country is in what we call “green infrastructure.” And those are things like rooftop bioswales, rain gardens, green roofs. All of those green infrastructures that are designed to handle storm water run-offs from parking lots or hard surface areas.
The old way used to be to build like concrete canals or collect it, and when you have green infrastructure, which mimics the natural environment, it acts more like a sieve, if you will, so it filters the storm water. It holds the storm water. It slows it down. You’ve got native species that are growing in it that can handle the water.
Compost in particular, which is really organic matter, has something called humus in it, which is like a glue-like substance that holds, not only the compost together, but the soil particles together. When you had compost organic matter to a rain garden or even your turf grass, your lawns, you’re helping your lawns and those other landscaped areas actually like absorb the water.
Studies show that you need 10% less water when you have soil amended with compost, so it can be tremendous savings on water, nutrients, slowing storm water, sequestering carbon. We are now been doing a lot of work on showing that not only can you save money on communities by doing river-smart landscapes …
In Montgomery County, Maryland, which is the largest population in Maryland, they have a program called the RainScapes program. You can actually get a rebate, up to $750, if you put in a conversation landscape or a rain garden that’s using compost. And if you’re a private business or an institution like a church and office building, your rebate could be $10,000.
There are communities that are building incentives to try and encourage people to add compost to your soils.
|We talked quite a bit about some of the work that the Institute for Local Self-Reliance is doing with the Neighborhood Soil Rebuilders program past episode with Linda, your colleague there, in the program.One of the things I just can’t help but think about is that this seems like a whole new industry that’s taking root and growing. And it actually is similar to 40 years ago, more than 40 years ago, when ILSR was formed, the solar industry was just kind of being born. And if you look today, I think it’s unfortunate, but a lot of the benefits of manufacturing solar panels and things like that are in other countries.
It seems like your work is trying to figure how to make sure that as this composting industry develops, that we keep the benefits local to the communities.
|That’s right. One of the beauties of composting is that it can be small scale, large scale and everything in between. But what we’re finding is that many cities that are rolling out their food scrap collection programs, making it convenient for citizens to participate by giving them a bin, collecting it every week, just like we’ve done in the last 20 years with recycables being collected at households.
But we’re seeing that often those materials are going to a far away facility, so the finished compost isn’t making its way back to the community, to households that have set their food scraps at the curb. And one of the things that we’ve been promoting is that communities could be supporting small scale, decentralized, or distributed infrastructure.
There’s local farmers that could be supported. In addition to rural farms, there’s urban farms, there’s community gardens, there’s composting at schools. And this is the intersection with the Neighborhood Soil Rebuilders Community Composting Training Program we’ve launched is that small-scale sites will only be successful if they have trained operators.
It’s not rocket science, but there is some science, and things you need to know in order to produce high quality compost in order to avoid the pitfalls of unwanted critters running around at your site, and there are best management practices around that.
You want to make sure that you’re reaching high temperatures that can deal with any pathogens that might be in there. We are dealing with rotting food waste, and actually what we teach is you want to be using fresh beet stalks before it actually gets to that rotting phase.
Through the training program, we’re producing kind of a new generation of community leaders who understand the benefits of composting, how to do it, that are leading to small scale decentralized sites being successful. And we’ve launched the program in the DC area already. I mean we have a number of community compost sites not only at urban farms and community gardens, we’ve got some at schools.
It’s been replicated in Atlanta. They have one of their projects that started up from one of the trainees is at a church, in addition to schools and inner city community farms and gardens. It’s helping make these sites very successful.
|I want to like just touch on some of things you’re recommending that Maryland do. You’ve long worked in Maryland, and I think there’s a couple things that you’d recommend that states be considering.So tell us a little bit about what a state can do to allow more of this composting at a local level.
|We’ve been working in Maryland for a number years as you’ve noted. Well, it does help to work with state legislatures that you have a good relationship with, and so we were invited to work with, at the time, delegate Heather Mizeur, our representative, and she introduced a bill that passed that called on the state agencies to re-look at their composting regulations and permitting.And so without that state bill that basically called on the state agencies to take a look at where they were and where they needed to be and to do the outreach and education, I don’t think things would’ve moved.
In this particular state, that was critical. But then it really led to the state agencies, not only the Maryland Department of Environment, but also the Maryland Department of Agriculture, with the other stakeholders, collectors, composters, environmental groups, groups like ours, coming together and identifying that we needed to update the permitting regs.
Without a clear regulatory path in Maryland, we weren’t going to see investors or the private sector build facilities because it was such a gray area. That actually was a process that took three years, and we worked hard to make sure that there were policies that supported on-farm composting, medium scale. We worked hard to make sure there were clear exemptions for small scale sites. We had then followed up with that as we were just talking about with programs to help ensure that those small-scale sites that are exempt are still well-operated.
|What are some of the issues that you’re working on in Maryland now?
|Some of the things that were kind of left on the table as a follow-up to the update on the permitting regs, which became finalized in the middle of 2015, is really now what are we gonna do to create incentives? What are we gonna do to deal with zoning issues, identify properties? There’s still in Maryland, a lack of facilities, that all scales that can take food waste.There’s generally no problem with yard waste, but there’s still more yard waste that could be recovered. We have a bill that we’ve been working with a group of stakeholders in Maryland that actually had a Senate hearing last week in the House hearing on the Maryland house side will be February 8th.
That bill, bill 171, really calls for the Maryland Department of Environment to have a work group with other stakeholders to look at how it can expand the infrastructure for food waste and yard waste recovery. And it calls for very specific things in the bill, so they have to look at things like identifying sites.
How do we create a grant and loan program to encourage infrastructure?
|Do you think that bill’s gonna pass?
|Right now, the bill is unopposed, so my fingers and toes are crossed that it will pass, and we’ll continue to move the ball on advancing composting in the state.
|Let me ask you a concluding question to … You can certainly answer however you’d like, but I’m curious, what’s a really exciting development in composting that just makes you feel like this is a great moment?
|Having just been at the U.S. Composing Council’s Conference and International Tradeshow, where I received the award we talked about earlier, we brought together the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. We had a big best practices and community composting workshop and several sessions on cultivating community composting, and we brought close to 70 community composters from all around the country to that meeting.We raised money for a scholarship, so we had people from Flint, Michigan, Detroit, Michigan, Atlanta, Baltimore, Los Angeles, DC, Reno, Nevada, Cleveland, and they are young, they are mixed age, they are diverse, and they are the fastest growing movement of the industry right now. And it is just so exciting to be at the table with them. They are a bike-powered food scrap collectors, some of them are volunteer operations, but many of them are for-profits. Some of them own co-operatives.
One of them like [inaudible 00:15:44] co-operative out of Boston is owned by predominantly Latino and African-American workers who were either underemployed or unemployed who saw that this was a growing sector of Massachusetts with the state [inaudible 00:16:02] it was going to be moved more food waste recovery. And they said, “You know what? We’re gonna get a piece of this pie.”
And so they are growing, and many of them are doing it on a community scale where those community assets, food waste and yard trimmings. The benefits, the workforce scales are all kept within the local community, and to support not only the local economy, but the public health and other benefits of those communities.
And it’s just really exciting to see this small scale kind of community composting sector grow and be recognized within the the larger composting industry.
|That’s really good to hear. Let me ask you then for a reading recommendation that also inspires you that you share with our audience.
|One of the things that we’ve done recently is that we’ve launched a hierarchy to reduce food waste and grow a community that looks at putting a lens on the scale on who owns the composting infrastructure, and that’s available on our website.
So please Google that and we’d love your feedback on whether we’re on the right track here like rescuing edible food and then promoting home composting and small-scale decentralized composting. And a companion piece to that, I’ll just point out, is a report Growing Local Fertility: A Guide to Community Composting, and that’s also available on our website.
There’s links to other resources as well, so check them out.
|Great, and that’s available at ILSR.org/initiatives/composting. Or you can certainly search for Waste to Wealth compositing. I think that’s gonna be one of the easiest ways to get you to the site. But we’ll also have links on the webpage that has this podcast.
Let me just thank you Brenda for coming on Building Local Power and sharing with us some of your insights about composting, where it’s been, where it’s going.
|Thank you. My pleasure.
|That was Brenda Platt visiting with Christopher Mitchell. She’s one of our co-directors here at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, and she also directs the Composting for Community program.
Christopher’s director of the institute’s Community Broadband Networks Initiative. For episode number 11 of the Building Local Power podcast, Brenda and Christopher were discussing composting programs, especially in Maryland, and how they can help build local power. Check out the resources Brenda recommended at ILSR.org and be sure to investigate more composting resources through our Waste to Wealth library.
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