Community Composting

How does a Community Compost? It starts with one bin, some leaves and a motivation to take food scraps from many different people, while making change in the right direction. The best thing about composting is, with the right care, it can happen anywhere. Our operation sits in the middle of a dense neighborhood, in the backyard of Frey Florist and Greenhouse, in Providence, Rhode Island. Richard Espeut, owner of Frey Florist, was supportive of our idea to create a Community Compost Depot for the neighborhood and offered part of his backyard community garden to us.

Many community gardens have long had community composting, but traditionally limited what they would accept, their size, and closed late fall to mid spring. We spoke to our neighbors to ensure we knew what our community wanted. Our Compost Depot had to operate all year round, and accept all kinds of food scraps. Community access needed to be easy and any fees had to be reasonable. And all members receive a share of compost in return. We opted for a pay what you can at our Compost Depot drop-off site, and offer very reasonable pickup rates. Although not everyone in the neighborhood has joined the program, many have, and we continue to get requests each week. We are not the first, but our approach makes it easier and more available to all people in the area. Even the longstanding skeptics give a quiet nod to what we are doing.

Our program is young, and the practice of modern day community composting is still developing, but we’re surprised how often the subjects of Food Scraps and Composting enters into both conversations and routines of our day. When we overhear the discussion of leftovers in a cafe, or read another article about the amazing benefits of compost to grow tastier more nutritious vegetables, we know we’re taking on the right task. Recently, the conversation about food scraps and composting is going deeper into subjects like carbon sequestration, while helping to address food security.

Before feeling confident we had a solution, we pondered about to address three concerns; how to better manage food scraps discarded with waste, causing odors and releasing methane from landfills, the squandering of leaves to cover the stench at landfills, and the degrading soils in developed areas. For years our society has been reluctant to bring forward a community solution; in essence, we were all on our own with this one. And the laws worked against community composting. So food scraps went in the trash, and leaves went to sidewalk. But recently, in Rhode Island, good samaritan laws ease the liability of getting leftover food to people, and RI DEM regulations governing Composting created a three-tier system that accommodates Community Composting. The change has ignited a movement (two movements). People feel support and enthusiastically participate in waste reduction programs. Some capture food that gets to pantries, and shelters. Our program and others take the last stage, the leftovers, scraps, and discards. Whatever you call it, don’t call it waste.

For us it is about helping our community do the right thing, by putting the undervalued materials to good use. It’s not easy to see the benefits of saving food scraps and leaves for compost, but once you do it for a while, it begins to look obvious. And the results will be right out your window. When you experience all that compost does, like enliven soils, and increase vegetable nutrition, reduce stormwater runoff, and save on watering the lawn, and garden, make everything greener, it’s a no-brainer. Unfortunately, like forgetting to press play on the video recorder, the magic was almost lost to our eyes. Thankfully today, both motivation from the community, and creative people have revived a craft that puts to good use, our leftovers. No waste, no mess. Just clean sustainable recycling.

From the first day in October 2013, when we opened our depot for neighbors to drop off food scraps, we have sustained interest. People from all over the area have joined our program. And, as we learned to compost more food scraps, keep it hot all winter long, and produce a surplus of wonderful, rich, black gold, our reach has expanded. Today, our experience of neighbors extends to other parts of Providence, and other towns, to the many people who joined the program and now stop by the Community Compost Depot to drop off their food scraps each week. We even have welcomed travelers passing through the area, providing access to drop off their food scraps. It’s an amazing result of making one simple decision: to compost, locally for the community.