Compost 1/15/10

Compost 1/15/10


Compost, the product of the transformation of organic matter into the something a bit magical that renews the world has always been of critical importance on the planet.  Humans have had a special interest in compost once they began practicing agriculture, and the communities that were  better able to  manage well the process of replenishing the soil were able to thrive better than those who watched their soil erode and fertility fade.

The hilly country of New England is a place that lost much of its top soil and fertility in its agricultural heyday. In the big oil age of agriculture Southern New England returned to forest and regained some fertility.  Now we reach the crossroads of climate change and other forms of ecological/economic collapse.  A place of great danger.  Could it be the time for us to stop wasting our organic matter and focus a bit more on the nearly miraculous substance that renews the planet, compost.

The Providence Urban Agriculture Task Force is centered by the Southside Community Land Trust, and as a small part of the overall project to increase the number of people growing food and the amount of food grown in our neighborhood, there is a partnership with the Environment Council of Rhode Island Education Fund to pursue the idea of turning all of the food waste in the community into compost so that it could be returned  to the soil and our neighborhood could grow more of its own food.  As an experienced gardener and composter who has seen how compost can transform soil, I sort of fell into the project.  With transport becoming more expensive, both monetarily and environmentally, with food deserts in low income neighborhoods becoming more of an issue, with nutritional problems and obesity getting more and more headlines, it is abundantly clear that growing more and more of our food right here in the community is going to become more and more important over the coming years. And is likely to be more and more important in our economy as well. Unfortunately it is going to be nearly impossible to grow more food without relatively inexpensive and abundant sources of compost produced locally from locally abundant materials.  Buying and transporting compost for community gardens is already getting to be a big chore and an increasingly expensive one.  Beyond just thinking about food, members of the Urban Agriculture Task force are community members and we think holistically about our community and how our work on urban agriculture fits into the larger picture.  Quickly it was apparent that our need for compost fits in quite well with the need to reduce waste going to the Central Landfill and the expansion of recycling efforts in communities throughout Rhode Island in recent years.

The initial strategy was to start a conversation about compost in the community beyond the usual suspects and to raise the idea that composting all of our compostables for return to the soil was doable and would benefit the community.  This work coincided with the ever deepening recession, a recession I believe is at least partly the result of ecological collapse, so while transitioning my focus more towards compost than other aspects of the Green economy  I was talking to people at organizations like the Small Business Administration about the economic problems and how compost/the revitalization of agriculture in our community might be a part of the solution. These discussions while I was transitioning from previous projects confirmed the view that this is an idea who’s time has come.  Often my conversation partners were not quite ready to commit to wholesale ecological restoration as the panacea for what ails us, but they could see real advantages if composting became part of the fabric of the community.  The question then become how, which is the topic we shall explore more deeply today.

The Urban Agriculture Task Force does not have the the ability to transform the management of waste in Rhode Island on its own.  The only way this transformation is possible is if all of the potential partners, all of the organizations that deal with our waste stream and our food stream, realize composting is in the best interest of the community and determine if it is economically feasible.  Therefore a key strategy of the project has been to build relationships and share the vision with those who actually collect, process, and manage waste as well as those who produce large amounts of compostables.

Early on conversation and research was focused on collection and separation issues.  A variety of communities around the country are collecting organic materials and composting,  and every day more communities are waking up to their need to compost rather than bury their organic materials.  Given our current state of affairs, our need to repair ecosystems and farmlands, to provide more of our own food as the climate changes, the need for compost is essentially infinite. I thought the most difficult issue might be collection, but within a few months it was obvious that collection could be managed, even if it presented logistical and economic challenges..  San Francisco and other large cities have instituted a mandatory 3 bin system for collection of trash, recyclables, and compostables.  We in Rhode island have the professionals and contractors who can do this as well.  Shake outs can be hard, but it only takes a few weeks for everyone to get with the program once a community institutes collecting in a new way.  Other communities are using bicycles with wagons to collect compost.  Providence will see a neighborhood bicycle compostable collection program in the West End in 2010 with the compostables being composted at a community garden.

It was clear from the beginning that the City of Providence and the RI Resource Recovery Corporation were going to be needed as allies if the effort to remove food waste from the waste stream and get it composted so it could be used to grow food was going to be successful.  And from the start the City of Providence and the RI Resource Recovery Corporation have been an important source of support.  I also learned that this issue extends beyond household compostables.   Conversations at the Farm Fresh RI conference got me thinking very hard about the role of institutions, restaurants, and other concentrated food sources in this overall system.  Based on this I held several meetings with food service and environmental staff from 4 of the colleges in the city and their support has been much appreciated. The colleges have a very large and concentrated food waste supply and they are under pressure from their students and from the cost of disposal to find new solutions to landfilling. A number of restaurants in Providence have expressed an interest as well.

Early on I became aware that Converted Organics was considering  expanding into Johnston RI with one of their commercial in vessel composting systems with a business model of focusing on commercial food waste streams.  I had some conversations with employees of the company and learned much that helped me appreciate more of the possibilities. Recently I saw confirmation that construction of their  facility in Johnston will begin in 2010 and I am glad they will be represented at the January 15 convening.

I began spending more time pondering the multi faceted nature of the system.  Clearly the institutional, commercial  and restaurant component of the food waste stream will require a somewhat different approach than the household waste stream, so I began thinking about projects like Converted Organics as pieces of the puzzle.  The City of Providence contracts for the collection of approximately 100,000 tons of solid waste each year, with Waste Management Incorporated doing the hauling.  I learned that about 10,000 tons of this is food waste.  As a general rule each person in the country generates about 1500 pounds of solid waste each year, with about 10% of that compostable.  In addition each person also generates on average compostable yard waste approximately equal to their compostable food waste by weight. With the recent roll out of mandatory recycling in Providence there are now two pickups each week at every house in Providence (and many other communities) with the separate collection of trash and recyclables.  In Providence there is also the seasonal collection of a third stream, leaves and yard waste.  I began dreaming of ways to expand that third collection to year round and to include food waste in that collection.  The Urban Agriculture Task Force is working with a few folks on potential household collection systems that would easily and sanitarily allow a household to accumulate its food waste for a week and then put it out for weekly collection.

I began spending  some time pondering what type of compost facility was most appropriate, ( with my limited typology consisting of long windrows of compostables such as is done at Earth Care Farm and In Vessel industrial style composting along the lines of Converted Organics). Then I progressed to what type of facilities would be most appropriate, and how would they best be scattered through the land if we were to create the most efficient system. I have no answer to this, nor can I answer it.  Only we can answer it, and it  is going to take some good data to determine what mix might be the most useful and cost effective.

Early in the fall Katherine Brown directed my attention to Bruce Fulford and BioEnergy Farms.  The combination of compost facility, methane collection system, electric power plant, and greenhouse or something like that seems to be a beacon for us, showing us a path to the possible if we can articulate all of the moving parts.  It seems to be another piece of the puzzle, one we might be able to fit into a densely populated urban core, the one of things we could build to fit different situations in our community.

Since then I have continued to explore, looking for pieces of the puzzle, looking at how things articulate.  The network has expanded and I began to ponder whether a regional approach, a joining of several communities in the metro area, might be a better approach to this than a strictly municipal approach.   To this end we are joined today by public officials from several RI communities as well as legislative staff.

Exploration has shown me that a compost system is possible, though it has not yet shown me exactly the right way to do it.  In fact there may not be just one thing to do, one right way to solve our problem.  So it seems like this is the time  to put our thoughts and resources together.  It is time to seriously collect data, crunch the numbers, and find a way to work together to produce something that will benefit our community economically and ecologically and help build our resilience for the changes ahead.  Will you be a part of it?

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