July 17th, 2018 at 2p.m. EST, ILSR hosted a webinar to dive into the details of our new report, Yes! In My Backyard: A Home Composting Guide for Local Government. The report advocates for home composting programs as one of the best opportunities to reduce food waste, especially as they can be implemented relatively quickly and in areas lacking curbside organics collection or facilities to compost. Eleven programs were profiled, demonstrating a variety of ways to implement a home composting program.
The webinar included co-author and ILSR co-director Brenda Platt detailing the overall findings, as well as representatives from three of the profiled programs, sharing tips for replication and lessons learned.
View the recording and download the slides below.
Brenda Platt is the co-director of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. She has worked 31 years fighting trash burners and promoting waste reduction, recycling and composting, particularly recycling-based jobs. She currently directs ILSR’s Composting for Community project, which is advancing locally based composting in order to create jobs, enhance soils, sequester carbon, reduce waste, and build more resilient and healthy communities. She has a B.S. degree in Mechanical Engineering from The George Washington University. She is a trained composter and has been licensed in Maryland to operate commercial composting facilities. Ms. Platt is a member of the US Composting Council and its Environmental and Legislative Affairs Committee. She is a founding member of the GrassRoots Recycling Network and a past board member of the National Recycling Coalition and the Container Recycling Institute. She also co-led an award-winning Young Activist Club in her community that successfully worked to get styrofoam and other polystyrene out of schools and local foodservice businesses. In 2017, the US Composting Council awarded Brenda its H. Clark Gregory Award for outstanding service to the composting industry through grassroots efforts.
Ron Neumond is a Waste Diversion Planner working on the Zero Waste Program Development Team with Austin Resource Recovery. Ron is currently the Program Manager for the City of Austin’s Composting Rebate Program. He also assists with Zero Waste research and policy development. His past experience includes environmental planning, community advocacy and market research. He’s a former faculty member of Design Institute of San Diego and an adjunct faculty member at Art Institute of Austin teaching Building Codes & Regulations as well as Sustainable and Environmental Design. Ron’s Masters work is in Urban and Regional Planning (emphasis in Environmental Policy and Land Use) from CalPoly, Pomona; and is a LEED AP in Neighborhood Development.
Carl Grimm is a senior planner at Metro where he works to eliminate health, environmental and equity impacts from products used and disposed in the Portland metropolitan region. He developed and managed the San Francisco home composting program in the 1990’s then went on to establish the Chicago Home Composting Program in 2005. At Metro, Carl led the natural gardening program for over a decade. He currently chairs Metro’s Integrated Pest Management Advisory Committee, coordinates the Adult Conservation Educator’s Northwest collaborative and plays leading advisory rolls in the Interstate Chemicals Clearinghouse, Oregon State University’s SolvePestProblems.org project and Oregon Flora’s Native Plant Gardening interactive database project. Carl lives and gardens in Portland with his wife and two sons, ages 4 and 7.
Ian Jurgensen has ten years project management experience in municipal government, environmental non-profits and fast paced design companies. His focus areas include solid waste sustainability, urban forestry programs, local food initiatives, energy use analysis, green construction and urban resilience. Currently, he manages sustainability programs and policy development for Mayor Dyer’s Green Works Initiative, including the backyard composting program.
View and download slides:
Questions and Answers:
Much of the funding for these programs come from tip fees, is this model self defeating?
Ron Neumond, Austin Resource Recovery: Our funding is through a Clean Community Fee on their utility bill.
Do you mention bin resale of cheap or free bins in the report?
Brenda Platt, ILSR: Pages 22-24 of the report cover some examples but nothing in-depth. New York City sells repurposed metal trash cans and also constructs worm bins. Napa offers classes where residents construct their own worm bins. Outside of the programs reviewed for the report, Mesa, AZ, repurposes worn out plastic trash carts into compost bins and offers them to residents for a $5 delivery fee. Montgomery County, MD, offers free GEOBIN® composters to residents. They are essentially rolls of plastic that can be easily assembled into a cylinder but only wants them used for yard waste, not for food waste (as they’re open). We also emphasize the importance of government programs supporting DIY bins (in addition to prefabricated bins). See pages 22 and 48.
What’s the value of adding a home composting program when you have curbside collection in place?
Ron Neumond, Austin Resource Recovery: We are currently looking at this. We’ve had the rebate program in place for 8 years and just started to phase in curbside composting services to single-family households. However, we do maintain a relatively high level of interest in home composting. We do know that many people prefer to keep their own materials for their home and/or community gardening needs.
Brenda Platt, ILSR: Part 2 of the report (pages 16-20) focused on Why Have a Home Composting Program? See especially the section entitled, Home Composting Integrates with Curbside Collection (page 19). If 10% of households are home composting, local government is still avoiding the costs of handling extra material and paying tipping fees (whether at commercial composting or disposal sites). It helps keep compost and organic matter in local soils and builds a culture of composting know-how. Also local government can take advantage of expanded interest in growing food at home to educate everyone about the benefits of composting, thus enhancing curbside collection programs. An estimated 45% of households in America, or 42 million households, are growing food at home or in a community garden. According to last year’s National Gardening Survey, the DIY yard and garden industry is valued at $36.9 billion and is growing, led by millennials and by growth in food gardening. (See page 7 of report for citations.) This is a pivotal and important moment to be promoting home composting!
In my experience chickens are fed purchased grain daily and then eat some insects in the yard. Are they able to eat the various types of food waste a household generates?
Ron Neumond, Austin Resource Recovery: Yes! Chickens love food scraps! But not all types of food waste is ok for chickens. They are omnivores, so veggies are best. Preferably no meats, dairy or chicken related products. There’s always conflicting information on what is good/bad, etc. But in general terms, kitchen food scraps will by no means replace chicken feed and insects.
How exactly does composting sequester carbon?
Brenda Platt, ILSR: There’s a 4-minute video, The Story of Soil by Kiss the Ground, that does a good job of explaining this. Also see the Marin Carbon Farming Project. We produced a poster to explain this as well; click here. Basically compost = organic matter, which when added to soil helps retain carbon in soils.
Most decomposers in compost are bacteria, yet everything but bacteria are shown in the educational materials showing the life in a compost pile. Why?
Brenda Platt, ILSR: The Los Angeles County fact sheet includes bacteria (see page 7). I showed only a screenshot of one of the pages in this document, which happened to feature other decomposers. In ILSR’s composter training classes we emphasize bacteria as an important first degree decomposer. Good point that educational materials showing the life in a compost pile need to be sure to include bacteria.
Ron Neumond, Austin Resource Recovery: Most of our materials do not show bacteria, but rather make mention of them. We have found that most people we talk to are not that interested in the bacteria or are uncomfortable with the thought of it. They are more interested in “doing it right” and maintaining the correct mixture to avoid negative outcomes and/or how quickly they will have a finished product.
How does the composting program integrate with the local food production program?
Brenda Platt, ILSR: In general home and community-scale composting integrates very well with local food production. Many home composters home compost precisely because they want to grow their own food. In ILSR’s report, Growing Local Fertility: Guide to Community Composting we document community gardens, and urban and rural farms that are composting because they are producing food (e.g., Red Hook Community Farm in Brooklyn, NY; ECO City Farms in Bladensburg, MD). In Austin’s Master Zero Waste Plan, the chapter on Composting Organics (pages 105-123) includes many references to integrating composting with local food production (e.g., recognizing that organic matter is the key to soil functionality, the long term health of plants and, thus, people, and that community-based composting program can enrich local soils for proper nutrition density, pages 107-108; quality end-use classifications for compost includes for sustainable organic food production, home-based food gardens and community gardens, and farm soil amendments for food production, page 114; and Sustainable Food Policy Board recommendations, page 121). This statement captures the essence: “In addition, decentralized composting processes can reduce the carbon footprint of collection and transportation while consuming organics in more localized situations that do not require large organized collection programs…The Department recognizes that, in addition to helping the City achieve its Zero Waste goals, composting also addresses the community’s interest in enriching the region’s soil, strengthening sustainable food production and completing the food cycle” (pages 105-106).
What do you wish you had done differently?
Brenda Platt, ILSR: Please see the report and each individual case study for Tips for Replication. Also see the Spotlight, Noteworthy Research and Program Evaluation, page 38, for examples of how some of our featured communities have improved their programs through program evaluation.
Ron Neumond, Austin Resource Recovery: Each year we review the program to evaluate current practices and use of resources. Therefore the program is not static and continuously evolves.
What percentage of the total organic waste stream can be handled by backyard composting?
Brenda Platt, ILSR: More studies are needed to address this important question. Data on diversion is available in our report on pages 10-11, 15, 18, 54, 63, and 66. Austin conducted a small study in 2013 to calculate the average diversion rate per voucher/rebate distributed, and asked for volunteers to track and report the quantity of materials diverted from their trash to the their backyard composting bin. Volunteers diverted 54%. Washington, DC, has been weighing food scraps collected through its drop-off program launched April 2017. Its data could illustrate how much material could potentially be home composted. The program accepts the same types of materials typically home composted, plus pasta, rice, and other grains. The average weight per drop was 8.27 pounds per week. Utilizing DPW data on total residential waste per household (2,777 pounds per week), each household home composting could potentially divert 15% of its household garbage through food scraps alone. It could be higher when accounting for leaves and other yard trim.
Carl referred to using social marketing techniques for strategic success. Can you offer one or two specific examples?
Carl Grimm, Oregon Metro: Community Based Social Marketing (CBSM) is an approach that draws on the social sciences and that has been developed and popularized by Doug McKenzie Mohr in is book Fostering Sustainable Behavior. Tools of Change also advances this method. Selecting an indivisible behavior like making compost, researching your audience to identify what barriers they experience to engaging in that behavior, piloting a program to both remove the barriers and motivate the behavior, then launching the program based on what you learn in the pilot are the the key steps. Using vivid, personal communications, soliciting public commitments and providing prompts are some of the key tools. In my experience, folks key barriers include not having a bin and not knowing how to compost. Purchasing a bin functions as a public commitment, and the bin itself functions as a prompt -reminding its owner to use it just by its presence in their yard. And clearly written instructions, clearly communicated in person training and phone support help people overcome their lack of knowledge, as do community train the trainer programs. Another example that we do here at Metro is to help people reduce pesticide use through educational programs and a pledge to stop using pesticides. Pledge makers then receive an attractive ladybug sign that says “Pesticide Free Zone” to prompt them and remind them of their pledge as well as stimulate conversations among them and their friends and neighbors. Check out our website at www.oregonmetro.gov/garden to see more on our pesticide free pledge or www.oregonmetro.gov/compost for more information on our composting program.
Will ILSR take a lead role in supporting contaminant potential impact on human health and particularly the recent PFAS family of chemicals that can come from all sorts of organics?
Brenda Platt, ILSR: In the past, we played a pivotal role in highlighting the problem with PFAs in compostable foodservice. ILSR was a facilitator of the now defunct Sustainable Biomaterials Collaborative and one of the key documents we produced is the BioSpecs Purchasing Specifications for Compostable Biobased Food Service Ware. That document, available here, required that products not contain fluorine or fluorinated compounds to be considered sustainable. In our compost trainings, we educate participants about PFAs on compostable foodservice ware (used as grease barriers). I don’t see us taking a lead role in this area but remain open to collaborating with others. Most recently, the Center for Environmental Health (CEH) has been leading work on this issue. See, for example, its webinar here (which references the BioSpecs we produced).
Have you evaluated the Earth Machine to find out to what extent residents are satisfied with it? For instance, have they had any rodent problems? Does it compost food waste fast enough for people to use the compost? Any problems with compost with viable weed or tomato seeds?
Carl Grimm, Oregon Metro: We have found the Earth Machine to rate well for user satisfaction and rodent resistance (assuming you have one with the floor and the 5 nuts and bolts to attach the floor). However, rats can chew through plastic so it is important to keep really attractive foods out and keep the compost well maintained to prevent rodents. One advantage the FreeGarden Earth bin has over the Earth Machine is that it does not split in half, which is a complaint that we hear from Earth Machine users sometimes (however, the splitting in half does make transport of the in easier). The speed of the process really depends on the time and effort you put in to it. If you chop things well, balance browns and greens and maintain moisture plus mix or turn it often, you could get compost in a month or two. The Earth Machine is not really set up for that kind of active fast hot composting, but it can be done in it. Weed seeds are pretty much always going to be present in the finished product to some degree or another – I would just not spread home compost on your lawn.