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Building Sustainable Neighborhoods Through Community Composting

By Jan Lee

Composting is almost as old as farming itself. While sprawling, state-of-the-art commercial composting facilities near metropolitan areas in California, Minnesota and New York state claim headlines for their ability to combat greenhouse gas production in landfills, the truth is that aerobic composting is anything but a new phenomena.

The Mesopotamians, the Greeks and the early tribes of Israel all used composting methods. Native Americans and European pioneers also knew that composting their biodegradable materials and tilling them back into the earth was vital to their success as farmers and, ultimately, as thriving communities.

For many of us that rich, loamy earth now comes in prepackaged bags. But some cities and towns are looking to reenergize the effort to redirect biodegradable materials away from landfills. This necessitates commercial partnerships with plants that can handle as much 1,000 tons of feedstock a day.

But avoiding such investments may prove even more costly. Communities that ship away their compostable materials (or don’t compost at all) are missing out on huge opportunities, Sarah Boltwala-Mesina told TriplePundit.

Boltwala-Mesina is the founder and executive director of Inika Small Earth, a San Diego-based company working to educate people about the benefits that local composting initiatives can bring to communities, big and small.

Present-day industrialized waste management is based on the idea that large, dedicated refuse facilities can get rid of a problem, rather than make use of a set of resources, Boltwala-Mesina said.

There is no "away"

"Most of the large-scale facilities are sited and planned on the concept that waste is something that needs to be sent away,” Boltwala-Mesina told us. That “away” concept is based on a time when societies struggled to find economic approaches to their waste problem.

“Thirty years ago, we needed economies of scale. We needed to consolidate stuff," she explained. "To make things pan out financially, we had to [build] these large facilities because there just wasn’t enough material in many cases to warrant decentralized systems,” like community composting initiatives.

Industrialized composting centers not only helped divert material away from landfills, but also made economical sense for large-scale waste movers that already had the land and facilities to address regional waste disposal needs. It also dovetailed nicely with conventional thinking that waste is something that needs to be dispensed with, not a resource that can be utilized.

Today, we realize that community-based composting initiatives lead to so much more than smaller (or empty) landfills and economical gardening resources. It leads to better food recovery, better recycling and reuse strategies, expanded educational opportunities for local school and yes, happier communities that often feel more engaged and connected through shared efforts.

And depending on how it’s structured, community composting can also be cost effective, noted Boltwala-Mesina, who admitted the cost of operating an industrialized composting facility can be considerable.

“Large-scale operations need to commit to a certain amount of feedstock” per day to operate, she told us. Many community initiatives benefit from volunteer labor and modest grants designed to support community improvement projects. Cities like Austin, Texas, defrayed their overall operating costs by investing in a community-driven composting program.

Community composting: It's time for regulations to catch up

But while support for community composting is on the rise, many of the regulatory processes that deal with waste management often are out of sync with those goals, Boltwala-Mesina said.

Critics say some state legislation, like California Assembly Bill 1103, unfairly favors large-scale industrial composting over community iniaitives. Food2Soil, a composting project started by Inika, opposed the California legislation, saying it overlooked the benefits that could come from community resource-driven programs. Much of that limitation was due to the way the legislation looked at what was termed as “waste."

“What is considered 'food waste' … could be second harvest, raw material for industrial application or animal feed by receiving entities," Boltwala-Mesina said.

"Many of these ‘receiving entities’ are micro-composting enterprises and community-based food recovery efforts already burdened by exclusive franchise hauling restrictions and similar other barriers that affect their ability to operate and fund themselves,” Food2Soil further noted in a May 20016 letter to the California Senate Environmental Quality Committee.

Under the legislation, some larger operators were excluded from having to track organic materials disposal and diversion, while smaller operators were not.

The bottom line: It's time to rethink waste

Concerns about bills like AB1103 underscore another misconception about waste, which is that food that is thrown away can’t, and shouldn’t, be diverted.

It’s an issue that has already been well studied by the Environmental Protection Agency and other organizations. Americans threw away 38 million tons of food in 2014 alone, with only 5 percent diverted to composting. The EPA’s increased effort to educate restaurant owners and the public about safe food diversion options is helping to reshape the image of “unwanted” or unused food.

Community composting and diversion programs can address many of these issues, Boltwala-Mesina insisted.  But the regulatory framework needs to be able to address non-commercial operations that benefit the community as a whole. And so far, that’s still a work in progress.

“So much of our focus really is on trying to find creative [answers] that allow us to operate,” said Boltwala-Mesina, who admitted that issues like zoning and franchise agreements designed to favor commercial operations often slow down community-based initiatives.

But the investment in time, she insisted, is often worth it. Access to local soil through community-based composting "allows us to grow food cheaper than we would according to a conventional model," she said. This makes it possible for communities to address one of the biggest challenges related to poverty and homelessness: food insecurity. In this sense, she concluded, community composting “is the linchpin to addressing many of those food access issues” that we face today.

Images: 1) Flickr/USDA NCRS and Analia Bertucci; 2) Flickr/LAGreenGrounds; 3) Flickr/ItzaFineDay

Jan Lee headshot

Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.

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