You may have heard the term community composting lately. It’s becoming a bit of a buzzword as Austin moves towards a zero-waste future and implements exciting new policies for organic waste diversion and sustainable food production. In community composting, organic materials are generated and recycled without ever leaving a neighborhood or community. Community composting programs recognize organics as valuable assets that should be used for the benefit of the community in which they are created.
So what does community composting look like? It can take a variety of forms, including backyard compost piles, chicken coops, school gardens, community gardens, and commercial urban farms. The goal is to create and use compost as close to the source as possible, decreasing the need for fossil fuel-based transportation, fostering interpersonal connections, and creating healthier, more beautiful, and more sustainable neighborhoods. Community composting is an inclusive process with countless benefits to people and neighborhoods reaching far beyond simply diverting organic waste. In this article we will explore how community composting fits into Austin’s greater resource recovery plan, and we’ll dive into the many benefits that come with keeping our organic resources close to home.
Composting itself is an integral component of a sustainable city. It is essential to building a closed-loop food system and a well-rounded resource recovery program. In order to create such a program and close the loop, it’s essential to invest in multiple scales and types of composting. We all understand waste recovery, but what exactly does it mean to close the loop? In a closed-loop system, there is no “away”- food stays in the community, from the ground to the plate to the compost bin and back to the soil to help grow more food. Food is never wasted, and as much of it as possible is sourced locally.
The closed loop is the definition of sustainable- it has been working for all of human history and can continue to nourish people and the Earth for generations to come. It’s only in the last century or so that we’ve moved away from this type of system into a world where food travels thousands of miles to our plate and too much of it is dumped into methane-producing landfills. The Compost Pedallers, as well as our members, CompHosts, allies in the movement to end food waste, and even the City of Austin are working to close the loop again, bringing food closer to home and putting previously wasted organic resources to use in our city.
You may already know that Austin has rolled out a curbside organics collection pilot program for residents to compost at home. The city has also experimented with compost pilots for restaurants and other food services businesses, which will be required to create organics diversion plans by 2018, according to the Universal Recycling Ordinance. So you may be wondering- with the city’s composting infrastructure growing quickly, where will the community composters like the Compost Pedallers fit in?
The Compost Pedallers’ mission is pretty simple. We help close the loop by connecting homes and businesses to nearby green spaces. Sure, we are passionate about keeping every last scrap of organics out of our landfills, but we also believe that these materials should be seen as community assets, resources with the potential to grow a greener and more connected Austin. We go beyond simply ‘not wasting’ organics and are on a mission to reinvest them in our community so they can achieve their highest and best use. Along with this goal we strive to build community, creating real connections between our members, partners, and like-minded folks in Austin and around the world. We’re rooted in the neighborhoods we serve and therefore keep our operations as localized as possible. That’s what community composting is all about- small, self-sufficient districts where the path from plate to bin to garden is rarely more than a few blocks long. Community composting is a beautifully sustainable system that is great for the planet and, because it reduces the need for loud, dangerous trucks and increases both food production and green space, great for neighborhoods.
It’s clear that community composting will play a major role in Austin’s composting infrastructure as we move forward towards our city’s zero-waste goals. In fact, the city is already helping to promote community composting by offering financial incentives and resources for backyard composters, making the permitting process easier to navigate for urban growers who want to compost, and helping Austin schools broaden their gardening and composting programs. But with a population of over 885,000 people and a booming food service sector that’s home to approximately 6,000 restaurants, community composting won’t be enough to divert all of Austin’s waste. Can you imagine trying to pick up all that scrapple on bikes? Centralized industrial composting will have to be a part of the zero waste solution- and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. This process, in which organics are driven by truck to landfill-like industrial composting sites, still reduces methane emissions and creates valuable fertilizer. But because the soil built by industrial composting sites is sold rather than given back to local gardens, this form of composting doesn’t close the loop in the way community composting does.
With that being said, there’s no reason to think that industrial composting and community composting are at odds with one another. In fact, the two are complementary in the development of an effective citywide strategy for organic waste diversion. The Compost Pedallers- and the city, for that matter- envision a future in which as many people, institutions and businesses as possible engage in community composting, while centralized industrial composting fills in the gaps.
We know that the closed-loop practice of community composting is valuable for reasons beyond the fact that it gets food scraps out of the trash and can be integrated with centralized composting to form a robust, adaptable citywide system. This model of multiple scales of composting working together to divert waste has proven successful in other cities, notably New York City, and will soon be implemented more extensively across Austin. As composting infrastructure and access improve here in our city, why should we focus on not just keeping, but expanding our community composting networks? The following are 6 benefits of community composting that explain exactly why we’re working to make it a central component of waste diversion in Austin.
Community composting reduces waste and recovers resources
One of the coolest things about composting is the fact that, unlike other types of recycling, anyone can play an active role in the composting process, literally in your own backyard! It would be crazy to try and recycle Coke bottles behind your house, but organics are an entirely different story. With composting, anyone can be an actively engaged stakeholder in the process. And it’s important to remember just how much of an asset compost can be- and how food scraps hurt the planet when left to rot in a landfill. Since our first collection, the Compost Pedallers have diverted nearly 500,000 pounds of organics away from the landfills and into the soils of our community gardens and urban farms. One of our local garden partners, the Festival Beach Community Garden, turned 25 tons of organics from waste to compost just last year. And there are a wealth of other community members working to divert organic waste on a local scale- including the growing percentage of Austinites with backyard chickens capable of processing 2 million pounds of organics each year, the farmer’s markets that invite shoppers to drop off last week’s kitchen scraps while they browse for next week’s ingredients, and the backyard composters who let neighbors throw their scraps over the fence. With community composting, what could have been waste is turned into a valuable resource that never leaves the community. Furthermore, combining community composting with industrial composting gives residents more options. Community composters like the Pedallers can find custom solutions to capture resources from places like multifamily housing complexes and certain businesses that are difficult to access with a centralized model. And more options equal more capacity for collecting and processing compost. Just like the agricultural sector requires large, medium and small farms to feed our populations, citywide organics diversion will need composting facilities and programs at various scales to serve as many people as possible.
Community composting fights climate change and lessens our carbon footprint
Community composting can combat climate change because the distance between the sources of organic waste and their destinations is measured in blocks, not miles. In a centralized composting system, the actual composting facilities are generally located well outside of the city, creating long and energy-intensive compost commutes. Because of the localized nature of community composting, participants are able to viably utilize environmentally-friendly vehicles like cargo bikes, fuel-efficient or electric cars, or our own two feet! One of the coolest things that sets the Compost Pedallers apart from other waste hauling services is the fact that we run on fat, not fossil fuels. Due to our use of bikes, and the carbon-sequestering capacity of compost, we’re a negative-emissions business. This is only possible because of our community-based model. We choose CompHosts based largely on their proximity to our members and carefully plan our routes for minimum pedalling and maximum localizing. Plus, since the majority of our CompHosts are farms and gardens, any environmental impact associated with transferring finished compost from composting facility to field is eliminated. Keeping resources as close to where they are generated as possible, thereby reducing emissions associated with transportation, is a key characteristic of community composting. According to Austin Resource Recovery, “Collecting and landfilling organic materials is a fuel intensive process requiring a significant investment by the City in both equipment and labor.” While centralized composting programs recover organic resources from the sad fate of the landfill, they require a similarly energy intensive process that employs gas-guzzling trucks. In contrast, community composters can toss their organics in the backyard bin, walk them over to a neighbor’s chicken coop or nearby elementary school garden, or bring them along to the farmer’s market to drop off with a friendly local grower. Our bike-powered community composting model has saved about 25,000 gallons of diesel fuel- which is equivalent to about 560,00 lbs. of carbon dioxide emissions. Plus, fewer trucks mean less traffic, better air quality, and safer, quieter streets. And in some ways, community composting can be more cost-effective- The Austin Resource Recovery master plan states that “As fuel prices increase, price pressure on the cost of providing service will such as yard trimmings and food scraps can be addressed through a community-based composting program that couples centralized composting programs with on-site composting options.”
Community composting supports green infrastructure
Green infrastructure provides and protect key environmental resources for our city, including wildlife habitats, tree cover, agricultural area, water, and recreational spaces. These green resources are central to our identity as a city, and key to our future.Community composting enhances our network of green infrastructure- which includes parks, rooftop gardens, and even flower beds alongside roads and sidewalks- and makes Austin a greener, healthier, and more vibrant city. So far, we have seen how community composting programs succeed in saving organic resources from the landfill and eliminating the harmful impact of thousands of vehicle miles that would be otherwise required if these materials were trucked to a remote, centralized processing facility. Pretty great, huh? Well that’s just the beginning. The best part of community-based organics programs is that compost produced as a result of this local process is then readily available to be used for the benefit of the community.
As we know by now, compost is fantastic at helping things grow and managing our precious water resources. It really is a wonder-fertilizer, improving soil structure, replenishing nutrients, capturing water, storing atmospheric carbon, and adding beneficial soil microorganisms. In a community composting model, this black gold supports community gardens, school gardens and urban farms, many of which also serve as public green spaces in our neighborhoods. And in the future, compost generated through community composting could be used to build urban forests, green roofs, backyard gardens, rain gardens, and landscaping in public spaces. With recent severe weather events like the Memorial Day floods and long-running Texas drought, protecting our green spaces with healthy, weather-resistant soil is more important than ever. Although some of the compost generated by centralized composters may come back to the community, it is likely to be sold and used elsewhere- and since it’s being sold, not donated, small and volunteer-based community gardens may not be able to afford as much as they need and may resort to purchasing less effective and Earth-friendly chemical fertilizers.
Austin has a reputation for being a naturally beautiful place. Our city is home to more than 115 miles of trails (including 74 miles of hike-and-bike trails) and our park area has doubled in size over the past two decades. However, funding and maintenance have not kept pace with this growth. A robust community composting system can give our green spaces the extra support they desperately need- support we can’t afford not to provide. With a little help from community composting, we can continue to live up to (and exceed) our gorgeous green image. Because in short, a community with a robust community composting system is healthier, more beautiful, and more resilient.
Community composting increases food availability and security
Although it may surprise you, America’s next great food town has a major problem with food insecurity. Only about 1% of the food we eat in Austin is produced locally and about 18% of people in Travis County are considered food-insecure. Part of the solution to this serious problem is to increase local food production- and you certainly can’t have thriving urban agriculture without compost to feed and replenish the soil year after year! Compost can help remediate unhealthy soil, improve nutrient density in crops and help keep produce as nutritious and all-natural as possible by eliminating the need for chemical fertilizers. And compost also has the power to increase crop yields substantially. The St. David’s Foundation community garden in East Austin, for example, has seen its productivity double since the garden began composting with the Pedallers. With community composting, this resource never leaves the community. In 2010, the U.S. Presidential Cancer Panel released a report that found that food grown in the United States now contains, on average, only 40% of the nutrient density that it did a century ago. Adding organic matter to soil can help with this deficiency and allow growers to produce food that’s more nutritious- and that’s why compost is so valuable to our urban green spaces. By keeping compost in the community- especially if we can identify the areas that need it most- we can help make our families more food-secure at a minimal cost. Community composting supports initiatives like school farm stands and WIC or SNAP matching programs at farmer’s markets and allows community gardens to divert money that would have been spent on fertilizer to assistance for low-income gardeners or donation programs. Community composting helps to grow food that’s healthier, more affordable, and more accessible- something our community desperately needs.
Community composting creates opportunities for education and engagement
Community composting encourages participants to get their hands dirty. People can get involved with the system in so many ways- from composting at home to volunteering at a farm to maintaining a garden to raising chickens in the backyard- and see the entire process firsthand. The educational opportunities provided by community composting are unique, valuable, and capable of helping people understand the closed-loop system, thereby building respect for the Earth. Community composting is as much about forming interpersonal connections as it is about getting organics from source to pile. The Compost Pedallers, for example, are able to work closely with our members and CompHosts to ensure that the composting process goes as smoothly as possible and no questions are left unanswered. And the physical process of composting is engaging for folks from all walks of life- in fact, the Pedallers are constantly receiving inquiries from people who want to get into the nitty-gritty and learn about the composting process. According to our friends at Biocycle, “Composting is one of the few volunteer jobs that gets people directly involved in creating value with recyclables. And they become vigilant about contaminants because they are picking stuff out of tons of material with their own hands.” Whether people are out volunteering in green spaces or simply participating by offering up their organic resources, involvement in a community-based program connects people to their local food system in a tangible way and brings them closer to the natural cycle of life that has sustained life on this planet for billions of years.
In a centralized industrial system, tossing your compost is just like tossing your trash. In a community composting system, participants learn that organics are not waste- they are resources. Austin ISD is currently building a wonderful model of community composting that’s educating and engaging a new generation like never before. Schools are a big component of any community-based compost system, as school garden spaces are ideal locations for neighborhood-level composting sites. Reaching kids is one of the most effective form of education, because they take what they learn home with them and ask their parents why they aren’t composting like they do at school. AISD is on track to have industrial composting at all of it’s elementary, middle, and high schools in the next few years. This program will take the schools’ organic waste stream that is heavy in meats, dairy, and other materials, and thus unfit for a community-scale system, to industrial facilities that can handle those materials. While this composting program is undoubtedly a massive accomplishment for the district on the road to sustainability, it does not diminish the positive effects of maintaining a community-based program on campus. In fact, a local composting program on campus that turns some amount of the school and neighborhood organics into natural fertilizer has the benefits of connecting the school more closely to the community it serves, providing a valuable resource to support gardening and other green projects on campus, and, most importantly, providing an interactive educational opportunity for students to learn about environmental stewardship without leaving the campus. This is a good example of the necessary interplay between centralized and community-based composting as two parts of a comprehensive solution. The Compost Pedallers work with two AISD school gardens, Blackshear Elementary and Kealing Middle School, to support their educational initiatives and show kids just how exciting composting and growing food can be. The kids learn about organic waste diversion and recycling in class while working to maintain their piles and watching their food scraps turn into black gold out in the garden. It’s pretty amazing to see the kids become a part of a thriving community composting model and we hope to partner with other AISD schools to replicate these programs in the years to come.
In a highly urbanized corner of Brooklyn, New York, there’s a thriving urban green space called Red Hook Community Farm. Red Hook’s community composting system- the largest in the U.S. that runs entirely on renewable resources- process 125 tons of organic waste each year using only volunteer labor. Neighbors and local businesses are invited to drop off their kitchen scraps and stick around for a little compost talk. Many choose to lend a hand- in fact, Red Hook welcomes over 1,200 volunteers each year who want to learn more about composting and urban agriculture. Red Hook is one of the reasons why NYC’s composting system is such a shining example. Its success and impact on the city show us that community-based programs result in more engaged and better educated citizens.
Community composting creates green jobs
Austin’s a pretty great place for job-seekers, especially those looking for a career that’ll give back to the community. We’re known for our progressive environmental policy and active green scene, so it’s only fitting that the city should encourage job creation in sustainability-related fields. Community composting is one such field that’s ripe for growth. Run correctly, community-based composting programs can be run as self-sustaining business ventures that employ community members with green jobs. The Compost Pedallers are an example- we’re growing quickly and receiving more interest from potential members and partners every day. As more Austin homes and businesses begin composting, new opportunities will be created for community composting companies (and we’ll be hiring more staff!). As Austin Resource Recovery writes in its Master Plan, “The diversion of organic matter into local soils creates green jobs as well as local resiliency for both individual incomes and community economic development. Food organics and yard trimmings can be used to support local agricultural operations, including community gardens. The Department will work with area composting operations to encourage and support market growth and an efficient system for distribution of these resources.” Community composting keeps both resources and jobs right here in our neighborhoods. It also facilitates connections both personal and professional and shows the world just how much Austin cares about our natural environment. It’s an economic and moral win-win solution, and when combined with centralized composting, will make Austin a zero waste trailblazer and an all-around better place.
It’s clear that composting in Austin has a bright future. In the years to come, we’ll begin to see a multi-scale composting model take root, with many stakeholders and as many options as possible to fit every type of home, business, or other institution. Community composting will undoubtedly be a part of that model, with participants acting as key players in building better neighborhoods and a better city. Austin’s community composters can take pride in knowing that they’re reducing waste, nurturing our soil, helping our urban agriculture grow, fighting climate change, increasing food security, teaching people about both composting and the natural environment as a whole, creating jobs, and making our city greener and more gorgeous than ever- and it all starts with your kitchen scraps.
Lauren is the Compost Pedallers’ Communications Intern. She’s also a Geography student at the University of Texas who’s really into words, kind of obsessed with dogs, and seriously enthusiastic about coffee.