Breaking it Down: Takeaways from the Year's Largest Gathering of Composters

Breaking it Down: Takeaways from the Year's Largest Gathering of Composters

A Composter's Dream

Last week I travelled to Jacksonville, Florida for THE compost event of the year: the US Compost Council (USCC) National Conference. Every January for the last 26 years, composters from across the country have come together to compare notes and spill the dirt on what’s up with organic waste in their neck of the woods. I first attended the conference in 2014, when it was held in Oakland, California.
As a trade association, USCC has traditionally catered to large-scale industrial composting facilities & truck-based haulers, and that first year in Oakland I stood out like a sore thumb.  I spent the majority of my time at the conference explaining the concept of Community Composting and clarifying what the hell “bike-powered” even means.
Fast forward two years and things are completely different. Not only are there two days of programming dedicated to the burgeoning field of Community Composting, The Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR), in partnership with The 11th Hour Project , developed a grant of $40,000 to help bring local-scale composters from around the country together to discuss the future of the urban composting movement.
The scholarship brought together 55 Community Composters from 18 states, the District of Columbia, and Mexico, representing the largest gathering of local-scale composters in history. 
We kicked things off on Monday with a half-day workshop, where topics ranged from urban composting best practices and equipment demos, to business modeling.  I had the honor of presenting on bike composting, and was excited to find that bike hauling was one of the hot topics of conversation at the conference.
Tuesday held a full day of panel discussions, where we wrestled with the limitations and potential of urban composting networks. I spoke on a panel about what local governments can do to support Community Composting initiatives in their city, doing my best to fill the very large shoes (metaphorically speaking) of Bob Gedert, the Director of Austin Resource Recovery, who was unable to attend. 

Who's ​Who

Below are just a few of the over 50 Community Composters that were in attendance. You can find the full list of attendees here.

Lor Holmes presented on Cero, a Worker Cooperative based in Boston that hauls organics from restaurants, grocery stores, and institutional cafeterias. A Worker Coop is a business that is owned and controlled by the people who work in it. 
"We were interested in economic development before we were interested in compost, to be honest,” said Holmes.
Cero has an amazing story. In 2012 they hired Lor as their startup manager and built their business model. In 2013, they started shopping the business model out to banks looking for funding and, in Holmes' words, “got laughed at.”  They then turned around and raised $17,000 in a crowdfunding campaign follwed by issuing what’s called a Direct Public Offering (DPO), where unaccredited investors, ordinary people like you and me, could buy shares of their stock. By the end of it, they had raised roughly $350,000 through their DPO. 
In 2015, they diverted 400 tons from the landfill, and have plans to double that in 2016. 
Urban Farm Plans
Our nation’s capital is a hot bed for community composting, and Eriks Broils and his team at Urban Farm Plans are helping to fuel the movement with the right resources for urban composting. They design beautiful and functional equipment for the urban gardener. Their flagship compost system design, “Compost Knox” is about as rodent-proof as Fort Knox is robbery-proof. Well maybe not quite, but you get the idea. 
New York City Department of Sanitation (DSNY)
Did you know NYC has allocated over $4 million for Community Composting initiatives and has over 40 employees working on local-scale composting? DSNY takes a three tiered approach to addressing the problem of food waste: providing composting support at the city, community, and home scale.  New York's support of Community Composting was formalized way back in 1993, the year the NYC Compost Project (NYCCP) was established to support operations at the home and community levels.  
NYC is home to a staggering 225 registered community composting sites. As you can see in the photo to the right, these local-scale composting sites take a wide range of shapes and sizes. Most of these 225 compost sites are located on community gardens, non-profit land, or city land, but you can also find them on school campuses, nestled in apartment building grounds, and co-located on institution property.
The DSNY also coordinates 72 drop off sites across the city, such as farmers markets, where citizens can drop of their organics throughout the week. In 2014 NYCCP alone accepted and composted 1,784,012 pounds (892 tons) of residential organic waste.
Check out their 2014 Community Composting Report to learn more about the work being done in NYC. 
L.A. Compost
Michael Martinez established the non-profit L.A. Compost after his experience starting a garden at the school where he taught fifth grade and witnessing the impact it was having on his students. Now, LA Compost works to help more people facilitate their own green spaces, beginning with the key ingredient- healthy soil.  This is accomplished through programming that diverts food and yard waste from landfills to create compost, supports edible school gardens, and partners with communities to establish their own composting systems.
It was also great catching up with my compost comrades from Compost Now, Bike Compost, and Rust Belt Riders


A Couple Takeaways

  1. Every place is different, and thus requires different approaches and solutions. For example, the regulations on hauling and processing organics vary wildly from NYC to Austin, to L.A.. Each city faces a unique set of political, geographic, competitive, and environmental challenges. Much like water filling a glass, Community Composting comes in many different shapes, and that shape is context-specific. 
  1. There is a lot we can do to help each other. Sure we are all facing unique challenges, but we are bound together by a shared mission: to take organics out of landfills and use them to grow greener cities. By coming together, both physically and digitally, we can help each other along this path and accelerate the growth of the composting movement. 
Check out this recent story from Sharable to learn more about community composting and Austin’s place in it.
Are you a community composter? Connect with us!