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Community Composting Grows from a Seed into a Movement

Three years ago, Dustin Fedako attended the US Composting Council’s annual conference. As founder of Compost Pedallers, a bike-powered compost recycling program in Austin, Texas, Fedako didn’t know what to expect from the conference, which is geared toward the industrial composting model. He just wanted to “sponge up as much as he could.” He learned a lot and he also spent a lot of time explaining what community composting is. As he puts it, people who were using dump trucks just didn’t know what to do with bike-powered haulers.

This week, at the same conference, not only is community composting a scheduled topic of conversation, but a $35,000 grant enabled 50 community composters to attend, there is a half-day workshop, hosted by the US Composting Council, about different types of community composting, and Fedako will present a session on bike composting and how to haul using human-powered vehicles.

Shareable spoke with Fedako about the community composting movement, the importance of both community and industrial composting, and the biggest challenges community composters face.

Shareable: For starters, what is community composting?

Dustin Fedako: Community composting is an interesting movement in that it’s embodied in a lot of ways, but has some central tenets to it. At the core of any community composting program is the principle of using previously wasted resources as community assets and reinvesting them back into the community that created them.

From social impact, for-profit businesses like compost pedallers, to nonprofits or volunteer organizations, to church or religious organizations, it takes a lot of forms, but what binds them all together is the use of organics to have a positive impact on the community where they’re created.

There’s not only a closed loop, but a tightly closed loop in that the materials are often composted a few miles or less from where they are created, at a community location like an urban farm or community garden.

Community composting has grown from a few projects into a movement. What do you see as this movement grows? Who’s getting involved and why?

There are a number of entrepreneurs starting businesses out of community composting. They see this problem in their community or neighborhood and they want to solve it, but also, they’re able to solve the problem without having to have a large financial investment to get started, because of their ability to work together with other community members to share the resources and pool the resources needed to run a composting service.

But that’s just one group. You see a lot of community gardens and urban farms getting involved strictly because they’re looking for organic material to feed their soil. Their alternative is to go out with their truck and pick up materials from restaurants, or go out and buy chemical fertilizers, or expensive organic fertilizers.

There’s a need from the local producers, the farmers and gardeners, for the material, and then there’s the growing consciousness around food waste. Lots of studies have been coming out recently showing how much of the food we grow gets wasted. And as people are starting to understand, more and more, the implications of climate change, they look for ways to live a more sustainable lifestyle and tell a better story with their waste. You hear it all the time, it’s not waste until you waste it.

You have this desire among community members to break the mold of wasting, and you have people in the community who can put those organics to good use. It becomes a natural connection. I always say that Compost Pedallers connects the dots. We connect people who are creating organic waste, which is pretty much everyone, and people who can put it to use in the community.

Community composting reinvests previously wasted materials back into the community as assets.

How is community composting different from other types of composting?

There’s community composting and then there’s industrialized composting, or centralized composting. In a program like that you have a better outcome than taking those materials to a landfill. In an industrial process, those materials are still getting composted and taken out of the waste stream. However, you're largely using the same mechanisms, the same transportation, the same energy demands in moving those materials to be recycled.

Whereas, if you look at community composting, because the distances are much shorter, the scale is very different. You don’t have the same energy demands. You can do things like take your compost with you on the way to church, or drop it off at the farmers market when you go to get food, or allow a bike powered program to come by and pick it up from your doorstep.

In industrial composting, to make the model work it’s required that the compost that is produced then be sold. So, a compost facility is bringing in the materials, breaking it down into a product, and then selling that product as part of its business model because it has large costs associated with it.

It’s important that people realize that not all composting is created equal. There’s a different energy requirement and environmental impact with centralized or industrial composting as opposed to community composting. And also, the outcome is very different. If you’re working with an industrial composter, you give them your waste, they break it down, and they sell it to whoever has a demand.

In an industrial process, you have a large truck, collecting tons of materials, exporting those resources, then breaking them down, then being sold, not necessarily back to that community. In a community composting model, the process sites are embedded right in that community. The materials are not being exported. Sometimes in community composting models, the compost is sold, oftentimes it’s donated to urban agriculture that benefits the neighborhood.

For this year’s US Composting Council’s annual conference, $35,000 in grants was made available to bring 50 community composters to the conference. That’s quite a change from three years ago, isn’t it?

It’s exciting. It’s a continuation of my initial ambition of trying to create some kind of system and standardizing this whole idea, by drawing from the knowledge base of industrial composters, because they know a lot and, so far, they have been very supportive while also sharing best practices with dozens and dozens of community composting people from around the world.

It’s a pretty collaborative global network. When Chris Cano of Gainesville Compost in Florida started four years ago, he had to make it up as he went along. When I got started, I got to watch what Chris was doing and talk with him. Now, between Chris and I, there’s seven years of experience, and tons of online resources. And there’s a community composting study, and a trade association that recognizes us as a demographic they want to help and support. We can lower the barrier of entry for someone else.

Compost Pedallers connects the dots between people who create organic waste and people who need it.

What’s the level of municipal, state, or federal involvement in community composting programs, and what do you think it should be?

I don’t hold my breath too much for federal. On the municipal and state level, you can look at what New York City has done. They’re a great example of a city that has municipal composting that follows the industrial model. It also has invested, as a city, over a million dollars in supporting community composting efforts: funding community composting programs, finding land to operate, doing public outreach, making a website that makes it easy for citizens to see where to drop off compost and what resources are available.

People jump to the conclusion that community composting and industrial composting are at odds. My belief is that they are complementary and both necessary for a comprehensive waste management plan. We can play to the strengths of each one. For us, we play to the fact that we’re agile in our ability to collect from lots of locations that might be hard to reach, like downtown businesses that you can’t reach with a big truck.

We see our role as being an aggregator of materials and are looking at ways we can partner with industrial programs and other haulers for us to be able to aggregate those materials, reducing the time that a truck has to be out on the road. We’ll still support local community composting programs as much as possible, but realize that there’s a saturation point where a garden can’t take any more organics. For us, we don’t want to just stop collecting when we hit that ceiling.

What are the biggest challenges to the community composting movement, and what are the best ways to address them?

One of the big ones is scalability: can a community-based program continue to scale and collect the organics that are being created every day and every month. To bridge that gap is partnerships and thinking more creatively about a comprehensive approach.

We started with sustainability in the forefront of our mind and always reminded each other not to let the great get in the way of the good. Ideally, we’d love to be able to serve the entire community by bike, but that’s just not within the scope of reality, so let’s figure out how to remain sustainable and grow while not sacrificing our values.

Another challenge was choosing partners. In the early years, we would partner with anyone. We realized that, for something like this to work, you’ve got to have dedicated and committed partners that intrinsically want to make the compost. For us, we’re the dot connectors. Our business is sustained by the hauling fees we charge. Even though we would love to come in and help everybody improve their compost, and turn their compost, and learn how to do that better, that’s just not an area where we were making any money and we were spending an incredible amount of energy just educating people about how to.

We found the answer there is partnerships. Not with other haulers, per say, the operative word is community, which is an aggregation of diverse stakeholders that all have a common interest.

What’s your big picture vision for community composting? What would you most like to see?

I’d like to see more of a methodology and standard practices. I see that as being essential to lower the barrier of entry and make it easier for someone to start a program, or for an existing program to improve or grow.

Part of my big picture vision is working out those kinks, answering some of those questions, understanding what that recipe of partnerships is. It’s going to be iterative, but it’s one that is collaborative and one that just adds to the knowledge base that makes it easier. My big picture vision is an environment where somebody is able to see the problem and address it effectively in their community.

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All photos: Compost Pedallers. Follow @CatJohnson on Twitter

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