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Guest Host: Rebecca Roberts
Farmers and home gardeners have always known about the benefits of composting: converting left over food scraps and plant waste into nutrient-rich fertilizer. But a group of activists and social entrepreneurs says this ancient practice could also transform our urban and suburban environments, helping cut down on waste and strengthen urban agriculture. We explore the science of converting food scraps to fertilizer, and find out about an ambitious new program being rolled out in Howard County, Maryland.
- Evelyn Tomlin Chief of the Bureau of Environmental Services, Howard County (MD)
- Brenda Platt Co-Director, Institute for Local Self-Reliance; Co-Chair, Sustainable Biomaterials Collaborative; and Co-Chair, DC region Organics Task Force
- Jeremy Brosowsky Principal, Agricity LLC; and Founder, Compost Cab
MS. REBECCA ROBERTSFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your community with the world. I'm Rebecca Roberts, sitting in for Kojo. It's the art and science of turning old human food into new plant food. Farmers and home gardeners have long known about the benefits of composting. Transforming food scraps like onion skins and pizza crusts into fertilizer, perfect mix of nitrogen, carbon and oxygen.
MS. REBECCA ROBERTSNow, some say this very old practice could hold the key to solving a very modern problem, what to do with almost 250 million tons of garbage generated by American households every year. Food scraps make up roughly 14 percent of that refuse and more than 97 percent of that organic waste ends up in a landfill. But some activists and urban farmers think we can rewire our entire food to waste system.
MS. REBECCA ROBERTSIn this month, Howard County in Maryland became the first jurisdiction on the East Coast to test a large scale composting program. Joining us to discuss it, we have Evelyn Tomlin, she is chief of the Bureau of Environmental Services in Howard County. Brenda Platt is co-director of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, co-chair of the Sustainable Biomaterials Collaborative and co-chair of the D.C. regions Organics Task Force. And Jeremy Brosowsky, he is a principal at Agricity LLC and founder of the Compost Cab. Welcome all of you to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show."
MR. JEREMY BROSOWSKYThanks, Rebecca.
MS. BRENDA PLATTIt's a pleasure.
MS. EVELYN TOMLINThanks.
ROBERTSEvelyn, let's start with you. Tell us about the Howard County project and why now and why curbside composting?
TOMLINSure. Howard County is always looking for ways to reduce waste and increase recycling. And last year we did a small mini-pilot where we had about 34 homes and we found out that in Howard County our trash is made up of about 23 percent food scraps and so that's a pretty major component of our trash and a good way to reduce waste.
TOMLINWhat we'll be doing, if you'd like me to go into that, we have a cart that we're providing to the residents. It's a...
ROBERTSYou've got a little mini model of it here in the studio. It looks like your standard bin for recycling or garbage but it's green.
TOMLINIt's green, it has a lid, it's got wheels, it's easy to use and that's what we found out. Make it easy and people will use it, people will do it. It's curbside. It'll be once a week and they can put all of their fruits and vegetable leftovers and pizza boxes that are greasy, things they couldn't put in their normal recycling, like, their paper towels and paper napkins that are used, their coffee grounds and that sort of thing. So we're really looking forward to reducing waste.
ROBERTSAnd is it just reducing waste just sort of for the greater good of the planet or does that also mean you're paying less for the solid waste that you're putting in the landfill?
TOMLINExactly, we have a trash disposal cost and we have a composting cost. We currently are composting yard waste so these are residents that have yard waste collection. So the yard waste and food scraps will be added together and collected in the same truck and our compost costs are lower than our current trash disposal cost. And in 2013, our trash disposal prices will be going up so we'll be seeing savings from disposal and processing cost.
ROBERTSSo this is sort of a plan ahead before the disposal costs get jacked up at the renegotiation contract?
TOMLINExactly, it's green, both economically and environmentally.
ROBERTSWell, let's turn this out to our audience. Do you compost? If so, is it easy? What would make it easier for you? You can join us by calling 800-433-8850 or email us firstname.lastname@example.org. And I suppose, I actually should've started by defining our terms. Brenda, tell us what is composting?
PLATTGood question. Composting, essentially, is the aerobic decomposition of organic materials by micro organisms, under controlled conditions. And there's -- it's very basic, it's not hard for anybody to learn. You need to control your carbon nitrogen ratio, which a good way of thinking that, is carbon is your, kind of, browns like your wood waste and your leaves and your nitrogen is more your greens which would be your food scraps, like, Howard County's adding or grass clippings is high in nitrogen. And you want to balance, kind of, balance that, when in doubt add more carbon.
PLATTYou need to control moisture, if it's too dry, the micro organisms won't thrive. So you need your moisture around 50 to 60 percent. If it's too wet, then you're, kind of, going to drown them out. So -- and then you need oxygen. That's what makes it composting, it's aerobic, it needs oxygen. The micro organisms need the oxygen to thrive. If it's -- doesn't have enough oxygen, it actually goes anaerobic, which means, without oxygen and you produce methane.
PLATTAnd that becomes, kind of, icky and methane smells. Actually, one of the benefits of composting is that we're going to keep those banana peels out of our landfills and landfills are a top source of methane emissions and methane is a very potent greenhouse gas. So it's really important to keep putrescible materials, you know, out of the landfill and composting is just a great beneficial use.
ROBERTSSo if people are doing this at home, you can't just chuck stuff in a bin, you have to pay attention to it and monitor it?
PLATTA little bit, you know, you want to have the certain micro organisms thrive, you need to reach high temperatures. They're around 120 degrees to 140 degrees Fahrenheit. But if you're controlling the moisture, the carbon nitrogen, you also want to control the ph, if it's too acidic, you know, they won't thrive either. And typically, in a backyard bin, you need about a three feet by three feet by three feet, like, kind of, cube, so to speak, mass because otherwise the micro -- it's not going to heat up enough.
PLATTSo if you have a, kind of, a low pile, nothing's going to happen. So...
ROBERTSDo you need worms?
PLATTYou don't need worms. Worm composting is great and terrific and there's lots of people doing that, including in our area, but it's a different process then kind of the micro organisms is worth talking about in terms of composting. And what Howard County is doing is going to be sending it to commercial industrial facility that actually is not a worm composting, it's going to be a -- it is a composting facility that is reaching these high temperatures of 120 to 140 degrees and monitoring that and paying attention to this, kind of, carbon nitrogen, you know, feed stock mixing.
ROBERTSSo if that sounds too complicated and you don't live in Howard County, you can call Compost Cab, Jeremy Brosowsky.
BROSOWSKYHey, yeah, I'm glad -- I'm happy to jump in. One of the things that, I think, is challenging about composting is that it tends to have a bad name, for all of the reasons that, you know, people think about, especially in the city. If you're concerned about odors or you're concerned about rodents and in the city people are particularly -- seem particularly pressed for time. Composting is one of these things that just doesn't happen and when it does happen, it often goes awry and gives people a sense that it's a hard thing to do.
BROSOWSKYThe truth is, it's really, really easy, but it requires work. And most people don't want to do the work. You know, we're talking about all this detail that Brenda's discussing about the, you know, how compost actually happens. For the vast majority of people, we're talking 99.9 percent of Americans, it's meaningless because composting penetration in this country is, you know, less than two percent.
BROSOWSKYAnd so we are -- composting in this country is basically where the recycling industry was around 30 years ago. It's still the province of hippies and greenies and people who are way ahead of the curve. And when recycling took on -- the thing that's so interesting about it is if you look at what happened in this country 30 years ago, recycling took off, not because all of -- the environmental movement really got behind it.
BROSOWSKYThey laid the ground work but where it really tipped was when the landfill owners and the waste haulers figured out how to make an extra nickel per ton separating out paper and plastic. And then, all of a sudden, five year later everybody had a blue bin in front of their house because there was a profit motivate in it. And so we're just at that tipping point now with composting where we're seeing people figure out how to make money doing it.
BROSOWSKYWe're a really small example of that here in D.C. This is a for profit business that we've boot strapped from the ground up, that has been profitable from day one. It's teeny-tiny compared to, kind of, the volume that Howard County is going to be doing or the volume that a waste management could be doing, day to day, but this is how it starts. And we get two or three calls every week from around the country, people asking us, how can they start a Compost Cab in their city. And so we think we're at the very, very early part of the curve.
ROBERTSAnd how do you make money?
BROSOWSKYOh, we get paid to pick up.
BROSOWSKYAnd so we have a residential pick-up business that we started here in the city a year ago this week, actually. And we're up over 150 paid subscribers. We have more than a dozen big commercials subscribers. So we're picking up little five gallon bins from residences, apartments, houses, whatever. We're picking up from condo buildings, co-ops and then all the way up to hotels and, you know, restaurants.
ROBERTSSo you say, we're at the beginning of this curve, but if people are paying you to take away their composting scraps, do -- are you going to hit a limit of people who have sort of the green...
BROSOWSKYOh, for sure.
ROBERTS...heart to pay you...
ROBERTS...to take away their compost?
BROSOWSKYNo question about it, no question about it.
ROBERTSAnd -- yeah.
BROSOWSKYWhat we're doing is the province of early adopters. Our aim is to show that it can be done on a small scale so that we prove out another model that municipalities and large organizations can pursue, at a greater scale and we hope to be part of that.
ROBERTSLet's hear from George in Arlington. George, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show."
GEORGEThank you. Hey, I had a quick question. And I -- sorry if I jumped in and I don't understand the whole conversation but I was out in San Francisco, last year, and they were just beginning a program where, I think, it was mandatory. People had to, you know, like you would your trash, you had to sort and you had to put your compost out to be picked up. I wonder how that, kind of, large scale program was working, if it was actually worthwhile and how easy that would be? Not to pay individually, but to have a, you know, a comprehensive mandatory system for doing this sort of thing.
ROBERTSYeah, George, thanks for your call. And the San Francisco program is not new.
BROSOWSKYWell, not only is it...
ROBERTSBecause I lived there five year ago and we did it then.
BROSOWSKY...it's neither not new and -- it's neither new, nor free. One of the things that's interesting about San Francisco, from a policy perspective, is everybody there -- every resident there pays for residential garbage service and it costs a certain amount of money each month for the garbage to get picked up. Composting and recycling are free.
BROSOWSKYSo if you can get your -- if you get good enough at composting and recycling, which is not a hard thing to do, then you will turn around and be able to use a smaller trash bin. And for the smaller trash bin, San Francisco charges less. So they've created an economic incentive to get people composting and recycling that's proven to be very, very powerful.
ROBERTSAnd, Brenda Platt, is it working for them?
PLATTYeah, it's working. San Francisco, a city of 800,000 people, is diverting 77 percent of their municipal solid waste, that's residential and commercial, an institutional oystering. So it's -- and the composting is -- and they give it a very similar to what Howard is going to be doing, they -- everybody has a green wheel, tote or bin cart in which they put their yard trimmings and their food scraps. And so it's very convenient, it's picked up every week, recyclables go in the blue bin.
PLATTAnd they're not only doing it for single family households but multi-family and it's wide spread throughout the city. And the other thing that's interesting, that's made the program very successful, is that San Francisco has joined a growing number of communities that have banned non-compostable and non-recyclable food service products like Styrofoam take-out containers.
PLATTAnd they've moved toward compostable-ware and so it's, you know, the city is just a great example of not only providing the infrastructure to collect the food scraps and the convenience but they're also passing policies to, kind of, back up moving toward a zero waste economy. And the city actually does have a zero waste goal by the year 2020.
ROBERTSAnd, Evelyn Tomlin, is the San Francisco model one you've looked at in Howard County?
TOMLINWe've looked at that, we've looked at the Portland, Ore. one. Just to let you know, we are doing a pilot, it's open for 5,000 homes, right now. We've got 750 people that have signed up for it. And we're open for people in the -- in that small area to increase. So we've got 750 volunteers already, so we're excited about reducing it and it is a larger scale and we're going to learn from it and share our learning's and our information with other people.
ROBERTSBut it's a slightly different economy, right? It's the county that will save money by diverting the food scraps from the solid waste rather than the garbage person, the resident -- the person generating the...
BROSOWSKYThe waste producer?
ROBERTS...the waste producer.
TOMLINWell, actually, the waste producer does pay a fee in Howard County. It's not the same model that San Francisco had but they do pay a fee. So depending on what our costs are, then they pay more or pay less. So as they reduce waste, then there's lower costs.
ROBERTSJoining us on the line now is Heather Mizeur. She is a delegate to the Maryland General Assembly. And I understand you helped pass a composting bill in Maryland this session. Can you tell us about it?
MS. HEATHER MIZEURYes, thanks Rebecca. And I really appreciate the topic that you are focusing on on "The Kojo Show" today. And the bill that we passed in Maryland actually came about in large measure because of the help of Brenda Platt and Jeremy Brosowsky on your show. They both testified in favor of the bill and Brenda's actually a neighbor and a constituent of mine. And we had some talks about how I'm the composter in my house. My wife is the gardener and the herbalist and my job is to do the dishes and take out the composting. And it's something that's always been very interesting to me.
MS. HEATHER MIZEURAnd coming from Tacoma Park where we've had such a strong tradition in recycling, we really wanted to try to get not only our community, but the entire state wrapped around this new initiative as a way to get us to where we can really lower the amount of source reduction in our landfills. In Maryland we had about 12.5 million tons of waste. And if you look at our landfill capacity we have about 87 million tons right now. And so if we keep filling up our waste and our landfills at the current rate, in about 12 to 15 years we're going to run out of space.
MS. HEATHER MIZEURAnd so for all the reasons that your guests have pointed out already it's a win, win, win proposition. But when we took a look at what was going on in Maryland we found a lot of confusing regulations and laws and overlap among multiple state agencies that really kept us from being able to take this to the next level. So we pushed through a bill that Governor O'Malley was proud to sign and highlighted it as one of his environmental initiatives this year on getting our three agencies in the state that have overlapping influence on this to come together. And through the direction of this law making recommendations about a range of changes that will encourage and promote composting in Maryland.
ROBERTSHeather Mizeur, thank you so much for joining us and calling in. And, Brenda Platt, is Maryland a leader in this area?
PLATTNot yet is what I'd like to say. And thank you, Delegate Mizeur for pushing this bill through. You know, as Heather mentioned, you know, it's going to -- the state agency's going to have to report back to the general assembly and make recommendations to how to make composting a key facet of waste diversion. And the lucky thing for Maryland is that this is a really -- a huge opportunity for the state. There -- and it doesn't have to reinvent the wheel. There are lots of great state policies out there that it can piggyback on.
PLATTAnd one state that I like is Oregon and it just revised all of its rules. And it really has looked at how to make the rules more focused and more efficient in how to promote composting. But also, you know, making sure -- we want compost facilities that are regulated, that are permitted. Composting as, you know, we've already talked about, can generate odors but there are best practices to, you know, reduce odors or, for large measure, eliminate odors. So this is what -- this is the opportunity for Maryland is to revisit laws that have been on the books since the early '90s and become state of the art to promote a strong composting capacity in the state.
ROBERTSThat's Brenda Platt of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. We're also joined by Evelyn Tomlin from Howard County and Jeremy Brosowsky of Compost Cab. And we are talking about composting. We're going to take a quick break but when we come back more of your calls and emails. And we will talk about rats. 800-433-8850, or email email@example.com. I'm Rebecca Roberts sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi.
ROBERTSWelcome back. I'm Rebecca Roberts sitting in on "The Kojo Nnamdi Show. And my guests are Evelyn Tomlin, Chief of the Bureau of Environmental Services for Howard County. Brenda Platt, Co-Director of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, Co-Chair of Sustainable Biomaterials Collaborative and Co-Chair of the DC region Organics Task Force. And Jeremy Brosowsky, Principal at Agricity, LLC and Founder of Compost Cab. And we are talking about composting.
ROBERTSYou can join us if you're a composter, if you have had problems trying to get some composting going, if you have questions about how it works and what the benefits and disadvantages are, you can join us. 800-433-8850 or email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. And, Jeremy Brosowsky, you mentioned very briefly that people have concerns about rats. That has been borne out by a flood of rat concerned emails.
BROSOWSKYEverybody loves the rats.
ROBERTSNancy in Chevy Chase says "How can I compost fruits and veggie waste without attracting the county rats?" Sally in Silver Spring says, "I'd love to compost but here in the Silver Spring area we have lots of rats. I don't want to attract them in my yard by putting out scraps, even in a bin that would produce an odor that would attract rats. I hope Montgomery County will start this curbside composting program so that I can compost." What is your answer to the rat problem?
BROSOWSKYWork, diligence, time, effort. At the end of the day rats like to eat and when you're putting food scraps outside you're giving them something to eat, and not for nothing. They were here first. So it is a real issue that people need to deal with but diligence can get you there. If you're doing a backyard pile you can contain it.
BROSOWSKYThere's a very simple set up called a palate container where people -- if you want to go Google, you know, palate compost bin, any number of designs will come up where people can build a bin that they can put in their backyard that will be largely rat-proof. Making sure that your nitrogen waste, meaning your food scraps, your coffee grounds and the like, are covered with carbon, leaf mulch or woodchips or brush or whatever it might be. Newspaper even is another way to do it.
BROSOWSKYAnd then turning it frequently is another way to do it. And by turning it we're talking about actually flipping the pile that has a number of benefits. It aerates it which makes the -- which generally makes the decomposition go faster. It also disrupts the pile and dissuades rats from settling in and nesting, which is something that we all really loath to see.
BROSOWSKYBut, you know, frankly our whole business was born out of the fact that we couldn't compost in our own backyard. Like I live in Mount Pleasant, we, you know, live in an ally. The ally has a real rat problem. You know, Jim Graham, if you're listening, that's the ally between Harvard and Hobart Street off of 16th. And it -- we made a decision that it just wasn't realistic for us to compost.
BROSOWSKYAnd we built this setup for ourselves where we have a countertop container that gets emptied into an airtight bin that sits on the back porch or inside the kitchen that gets taken away once a week. We found that it worked extraordinarily well for us and then we started marketing it to other people because it's not necessarily easy to do it in your own backyard. It can be done but you've got to do the work.
ROBERTSEvelyn Tomlin, what are you doing in Howard County?
TOMLINWell, that's the same thing that we're -- why we're starting this curbside program. A lot of people, for different reasons, maybe not the rat issue as much as just time and convenience -- the carts. Again, it's an inside container then taken to the outside container which is sealed. We're suggesting to people to make it a cake -- a layered cake or pizza like where they put their greasy pizza boxes or paper -- wrap it in paper -- newspapers, etcetera, just to reduce the moisture and sort of make it a layer to help the odors and potential attraction of animals.
ROBERTSWe have an email from Mike in Baltimore who says he has "a black plastic compositor (sic) in my backyard so I can access it easily." He says, "Is there a simple way to remember the green to dried ratio of material added to the composter? How should homeowners hold on to the rotten green stuff which always seems to be more complicated than the dried compost material until it's needed?" Brenda Platt, do you have a resource for that?
PLATTYep, good question. Well, first of all I should say that there's lots of great resources on backyard home composting. And, you know, if you have access to a computer and the internet you can Google backyard composting and you'll find more than you need. But a general rule of thumb is, you know, one-quarter, one-third of the nitrogen or the green materials to, you know, three-quarters, you know, two-thirds of the carbon, leaf, woodchips material. And you should -- you know, and if it gets too smelly or you still smell, add more of the brown stuff, turn it. That's, you know, a good thing to do.
PLATTYou know, one thing about backyard composting is you can start small. You don't need to be doing the food scraps. You know, add your flower bouquets. You know, add your watermelon rinds. You know, do your backyard -- your yard trim and your brush clippings. And one thing that you do really, really want to avoid in your backyard is any kind of dairy or meat products to attract -- you know, that does attract rodents.
PLATTAnd one thing I'll just say that, you know, we're talking about backyard composting, then we're talking about these kinda municipal collection programs. And the collection programs have been shown to reduce some of the rodent problems. Even we have an example here in our area in Arlington County, there's an elementary school that has started doing food scrap collection. And they collect the food scraps in the separate bins that have lids. Before they had open dumpsters. So we're still generating the same amount of material -- you know, the food scraps that we're not separating isn't new. We generated -- instead of being an open dumpster that attracted rodents, it's now in an enclosed container with a lid and they've reduced their rat problem.
ROBERTSLet's take a call. This is David in Frederick. David, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show."
DAVIDHello. I wanted to I hope not rain on the parade here, but I find composting to be a lot easier to do than your guests have suggested so far about how complicated it is. And it might be because my standards are kinda low. I have the black compost thing in the backyard. The yard waste goes in. I save up all my leaves in the fall. I, you know, put in -- every week we put in the kitchen waste and cover it up with leaves from the yard waste bags. And I've never had a smell. I never have a big enough pile to get the heat up there.
DAVIDAnd really now I've got a two-container solution, so it takes two years. I never turn it so I never water it. But at the end of two years -- you know, one year I fill up one container and the next year I fill up the other container. At the end of all this I've got a thing full of compost and it's just as simple as can be.
PLATTYou know, thank you, Frederick (sic), for mentioning that. I mean, there are a variety of ways to compost and what you're doing is what we call passive static pile where you just kind of leave it and it does compost. And in two years you will have a good compost. You know, the more active composting is when you turn it, but you don't really need to. If you have the space and the land and the wherewithal you can do that.
BROSOWSKYI -- oh, go ahead, I'm sorry.
TOMLINI was just going to say and I compost at home. It's very easy. I think it's simple. I just have a container that tumbles and that's how I put it in. And so I do it very simply just mixing -- I just remember greens and browns and...
BROSOWSKYYeah, all of these things sound very simple if you have a yard. But, you know, there are literally hundreds and thousands of people just in the District of Columbia, let alone in Maryland and Virginia, and forget about around the country, who don't. They live in apartments, they live in townhouses, they live in very densely packed areas where neighbors might not necessarily jive with the idea of putting food out back for, you know, the local fauna.
BROSOWSKYAnd it's real -- and they just don't have the space and they often don't have the time either. And so while Dave in Frederick I'm sure has the ability to compost, which is awesome, and everybody who has a yard should be doing it. Like, this is not brain surgery. This is just layering different types of garbage on top of each other. Let's not pretend it's something it's not. But what you get is like magic and we're trying to make sure that that magic extends to people who live in apartments and people who live in cities.
ROBERTSWe have an email from Heather who says, "I work at Eco Products who makes compostable recyclable food service products. Eco Products is based in Boulder but I live in D.C. I have found it's sad how hard as an apartment dweller it is to compost."
BROSOWSKYHey, how about that.
ROBERTS"In Boulder apartments and houses have curbside composting. What can I do to help get curbside composting in my area?"
BROSOWSKYWell, you can go to www.compostcab.com, like beep-beep Compost Cab. And put your name on our list for starters. If you want to start today, you can obviously sign up for our service. We are happy to take new subscribers on. We do so every day. But just putting your name on a list, just signing up with saying, hey, we're interested in this, we're collecting addresses because people are counting noses. And the more people that express an interest in composting, the more likely it is we're going to be able to convince our elected officials and our municipal organizers how important this is and how easy it can be and how motivated people are.
TOMLINAnd at Howard County, you can go to howardcountyrecycles.org and find a link for our food scrap collection program, the curbside program. If you're not sure whether you're in the area, you can find out whether you're in the area. We also keep track of who in the county asked for it, who is interested. So we'll see who's interested where and we're looking forward to expanding it countywide depending on interest and depending on how the pilot goes.
ROBERTSAnd what was the impetus for the pilot? Was it community asking for it or was it the municipality suggesting it?
TOMLINIt was more the municipality. It was more us looking for ways of reducing waste and finding out that it was 23 percent. I asked the staff in the recycling division to find out more about food scrap recycling and they came up with a free mini pilot that we tried at 34 homes. And went out and weighed the trash and weighed the food scraps. It was a six-month program and we were very excited that the residents in Howard County were interested and excited about it and wanted to see it. And we're happy about all the interest nationally really.
BROSOWSKYYeah, I will say this. There's a Steve Jobs quote that's been out there a lot lately given that he just stepped down from Apple, that it's not the consumer's job to know what he or she wants. I think that's true with composting. People don't -- the vast majority of people and probably the listeners to this show excluded, don't know what composting is, they don't care what composting is, it's too hard for them, it's like this abstract concept. Our job, you know, all of us here I think, it's our job to make it as tangible and as easy as possible so that it becomes second nature.
BROSOWSKYYou know, if you have resources to expend on composting, spend them in the schools first. Train a generation of composters. Kids who compost at school bring it home.
ROBERTSWell, to that end, what do you do with the compost? I mean, it's great to reduce your waste but what's the finished product for?
BROSOWSKYWell, it is fundamentally you're creating new soil amendments. People like to get technical, but it's a lot easier for people to think of it as new dirt. Our focus, the way I got into this, into composting to begin with, is -- had nothing to do with the -- all the amazing environmental benefits of composting. My interests were in building -- helping build an infrastructure to support urban agriculture.
BROSOWSKYIf you are interested in sustainable cities and if you believe that urban agriculture is part of a solution to building a sustainable city then you have one of two choices. You can either invest significant capital in vertical greenhouses and get high technology solutions, aeroponics, aquaponics, whatever it might be that are capital intensive and require a certain kind of real estate and so forth. Or you can have really fertile soil which lets you grow your spinach 6" apart instead of 12" apart and helps you maximize your per-square-foot growth.
BROSOWSKYAnd so we set this business up to do two things. We set it up to serve people, to make it easier for individuals and organizations and households to compost in the city and to support urban agriculture, to work with urban farms and take this piece of their puzzle, soil fertility, and help them make it as easy as possible. So we work with Eco City Farm in Edmonson, Md. We work with the farm at Walker Jones which is connected to a D.C. public school less than a mile north of the capitol. We work with the Common Good City Farm which is right behind Howard University. And we help them compost and that relationship changes depending on what their needs are.
BROSOWSKYSome -- you know, Eco, for example, are passionate composters and very, very good at their jobs. And so what do they do? We drop off the food waste for them and they take care of the rest. But at the farm at Walker Jones they are a little bit less established. It's a little bit of a newer farm and so we are effectively running their whole composting program for them in partnership with Sarah Barnardi (sp?) , their farm manager.
BROSOWSKYThere are all sorts of different models out there, but fundamentally we believe that some piece -- municipal composting is coming. You know, make no mistake about it. It's not here today, it may not be here five years from now, but this is going to be best practices in standard fare 20 years down the road. My issue, and the thing that we're really focused on is making sure that is who benefits and that it's not just the land fillers and the waste haulers, but it's the community and the city and the people who live in it.
PLATTYeah, one really, I think, strong benefit of composting for communities is that it creates local jobs and supports regional enterprises. If you send 1,000 tons of food scraps to a landfill you create one job. But if you're composting it locally for that 10,000 tons, you're going to create four to eight times the number of jobs. So you can't -- we can't send our banana peels to China to be made back and imported. So it's going to go to local composters. And the good news is that the markets for compost are growing. It's not just for food production, as Jeremy mentioned, but it's growing for soil erosion, storm warning management through things like rain gardens, which are really expanding, wetlands creation, soil remediation. There's just a wide range of markets for composting.
ROBERTSAnd, Evelyn Tomlin, we have a Tweet from Photoprof (sp?), it says "here in MoCo," -- I'm assuming the character limitations of Twitter is what leads him to say MoCo instead of Montgomery County, 'cause we're going to get HoCo in a minute -- "MoCo bag leaves are collected each fall and sold back to public as leaf pro. Will HoCo, Howard County presumably, compost be available for sale, too?"
TOMLINIt currently is for sale. We are sending it to a processor, so it's -- it's not gonna be directly for sale to the Howard County residents. We are starting a compost -- on-site composter, which we also really strongly recommend to people that can do it. It's an onsite compost for a detention center. They have a garden that they produce and that they use the food, and their soil there is not very good, so they're gonna be really truly recycling.
TOMLINYou know, just the whole cycle of gardening, compost, eating the food that they're creating, and then the food that they have that's extra will then go to the food bank.
ROBERTSBrenda, it actually sounds that prisons have been early adopters on a lot of this.
PLATTAbsolutely. I mean, the -- you know, you mentioned your prison, but Arlington County recently started -- Arlington County prison system recently started source separating food scraps for composting. I don't believe they're doing it onsite, but that's really increased their waste diversion levels, and they're -- it's, you know, prisons around the country have been doing it for many years.
ROBERTSWe are talking about composting in all its forms here on "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," and we will talk more about it with Evelyn Tomlin, Brenda Platt, and Jeremy Brosowksy after this quick break, and take your calls, 800-433-8850, or email email@example.com. I'm Rebecca Roberts sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi.
ROBERTSWelcome back. I'm Rebecca Roberts sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi, and we are talking about composting with Evelyn Tomlin, chief of the Bureau of Environmental Services of Howard County, Md., Brenda Platt, co-director of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, and Jeremy Brosowksy who is the founder of Compost Cab. And we are taking your calls. Let's hear from Beth in Owings, Md. Beth, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show."
BETHHi, thanks for taking my call. I've been composting for my entire life, and I live in Calvert County. It's very easy out here because we have -- I have an acre and I can just make a pile on the edge of my woods, and I'm like the previous gentleman who said he doesn't do much, I just do my vegetable scraps and yard trimmings out there. But I bought a worm composter a year ago, and unfortunately put it in my house and it ended up with lots of fruit flies.
BETHSo I put it outside last winter thinking I would kill the worms, and much to my happy surprise, they were still alive this spring and composting, and I had beautiful worm castings in the bottom. But my question is, I always have a container on my counter for things, and in the fall especially I get terrible fruit flies. I've tried vinegar, I've tried cider vinegar and soap, I've tried organic things, and I wondering if your guests have any recommendation for the fruit flies?
PLATTWell, one thing, Beth, is, you know, if you're getting it on your counter, it could be that you're keeping the food scraps in your kitchen too long so, you know, frequently taking them outside is one obvious thing you can do. And keeping the bin covered, putting it maybe under the sink. A lot of people do that so it's not on top of the counter can really, really help.
ROBERTSJeremy, any other fruit fly tips? Take it out more.
BROSOWSKYWhen it doubt, cover it with carbon. That's my motto with pretty much everything. When you doubt, you want the brown stuff on top, not the green stuff.
ROBERTSLet's hear from Fern in Elk Ridge, Md. Fern, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show."
FERNHi. We are one of the -- well, we've always had a compost bin out back and treat it very passively, but just want to divert things out of the trash. But we are one of the 750 that signed up for the new compost bin in Howard County.
FERNYay. We're very excited. Every time I hear a big truck come down our court I think maybe that's the compost bin arriving, and we were wondering when the program was going to start.
TOMLINI'll be glad to tell you. We're gonna be starting delivering the carts in September 12, and we're glad you're excited. We know the county executive Ken Ulman are all excited about it. We are really looking forward to it. We're also talking about doing a competition, so keep your ears open, and we'll be sending you information and just trying to get everybody interested and fully involved in reducing the waste and recycling, and let us know what you find out and how you like it, and what tips you have for us. We're glad to have the pilot to see what works and what doesn't work, so thank you very much for volunteering.
ROBERTSWe've got many more emails than we could possibly get through, but let me try to run through a couple of these quick questions. One from Cara in Arlington says, "Does Compost Cab service Arlington, if not, when will it?"
BROSOWSKYThe short answer is no, and hopefully soon. We are working very hard to find a partner farm in northern Virginia that we can work with. What we don't want to be doing is collecting your material in Arlington and then schlepping across D.C. to drop it in Maryland or anything like that. And so we are looking for a partner farm. If you have any interest or can be helpful in that manner, please email us, info@compostcab. We are taking all suggestions, but hopefully sooner rather than later.
ROBERTSAnd Jonathan says, "Are there classes -- free classes being offered in neighborhoods? Why aren't churches and other local community organizations getting involved?"
TOMLINWe do here in Howard County. We have it at our landfill every other week. We work with our master gardeners. They're doing it around the parks. Again, go to howardcountyrecycles.org and look at our compost. You can see the different schedules. I know churches around the area are also doing compost as well as other master gardeners.
BROSOWSKYYeah. They are program in D.C. as well. I know that the Neighborhood Farm Initiative does some work on that. I think Arcadia Farms out in -- down near Mount Vernon does some. The Common Good, City Farm, Eco, Walker Jones, they all do composting programs at one point or another, some of them that we help them with.
ROBERTSAnd we have an email from J.M. in Baltimore County who says, "It's nearly" -- he's got a product that he's trying to market, but he says that he's -- "It's nearly impossible to get investors interested in composting. They love sustainable energy and technology investments, but composting is just not exciting to angel investors. Are there investment groups who really focus on this kind of green business?"
ROBERTSAnyone have an answer for J.M.?
BROSOWSKYYeah, there are. There are all sorts. There's the Slow Food Movement does this, there are more than a handful of angel funds and small venture capital firms that do kind of early investments in green technology. The concern that investors have is defensibility of the product. You know, you're not inventing this. George Washington was composting at Mount Vernon 200 plus years ago. This is not new stuff.
BROSOWSKYSo unless you have a protectable technology that can scale for doing anaerobic digestion or whatever it might be, it's a tough row to hoe, and so this is my third start up. The first two I raised money again, so this one I decided to bootstrap, in part because I didn't want to knock my head against that particular wall. I would encourage all entrepreneurs to try to prove out a concept out of their back pocket before they go looking for money.
BROSOWSKYBut if you're talking about building out a facility, these are capital intensive things, and you better be able to borrow against it, and you better be able to make sure that you have a steady stream of material that's deliverable. These are big business and capital-intensive to start.
ROBERTSWell, what about the sort of broader economics of it? You said that we're at the beginning of a point where people are gonna be figuring out how to make money on this.
ROBERTSAnd, you know, Howard County is figuring out how to save money on their waste disposal That's not necessarily, you know, big business getting involved. Is there a point where people figure out how monetize this on a large scale? Is it coming?
BROSOWSKYOh, yeah. I mean, I believe very, very firmly that Waste Management will not be a trash company 20 years from now, they'll an energy company, or a waste management consultancy of some sort. But the actually hauling of waste, that's a commodity business in so many ways. We made a decision with Compost Cab not to fleet up here in D.C. because there's so much capacity in the hauling system. Let's just turn it over and have it hauling elsewhere.
BROSOWSKYBut, you know, Waste Management who is the biggest player in this space just bought a significant piece of Peninsula Composting which is the largest composter on the East Coast. That's located in Wilmington, De. We would expect their investments and others, you know, from the large waste, you know, international waste companies to continue that path. But the models will differ from city to city, and we're still at a stage where we're figuring out what works best and what's most profitable. But I feel very, very strongly that as -- this is a question of when, not if. You know, composting's coming.
TOMLINYeah. And we're seeing it too. We're really looking to encourage investors or builders of these facilities, and to do it right, and the technology is there. There are certifications that they can make to make their profit -- excuse me, their product more profitable. It's more useable for agriculture and then for parks and, you know, just across the board as they get certified, and it is a big investment, but it's a worthwhile investment and I just -- from all the interest that we've seen, we know that it is gonna grow, and we do want facilities local and sustainable here in the counties.
BROSOWSKYYou know, I mean at the end of the day, people want to do the right thing. Municipalities want to do the right thing, but it requires all things being equal, and all things are seldom equal. It's either too expensive or too difficult, and so leveling that playing field, building a facility that's nearer in so that the transportation costs are lower, so that it's regulated properly so that people can rely on it and know what's coming down the pike, these are really important things and, you know, it's early yet.
ROBERTSLet's hear from Avery on Capitol Hill. Welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," Avery.
AVERYThank you so much for taking my call, and thank you for having this as a great topic for your show. I have a -- I began composting this past spring. My family had always done it, but they had six acres of land, they could just sort of dump the compost and leave it as you were talking about earlier. I have -- I live (unintelligible) on Capitol Hill and I have a small black cylinder on a stand that it rotates in my backyard, and I have been having some problems with the balance.
AVERYI know that I need to add more brown matter, listening to the early part of the show. But when I am ready to inspect the soil, how do I do it? Do I have to stop adding to it for awhile, and if so, how long?
PLATTExcellent, excellent question, Avery. You know, there is -- compost is ready when it's considered, quote "mature and stable," and that can take a -- that can take a while, so...
ROBERTSThat's true of all of us, right?
PLATTYes. Yes. We get better as we mature.
PLATTSo, you know, in, you know, in your backyard, you know, you should probably stop adding stuff probably, you know, a month or six weeks, you know, before when you want to use it.
PLATTIf you're having some problems with the enclosed, you know, those bins that rotate on a stand are enclosed, and one of the benefits of those is that rodents, you know, can't get in, but on the other hand, it's -- I find those are harder to get the oxygen, and to turn it, and so you may have more odor problems. So if you're having problems, you know, add more, you know, add more leaves, and also try to get more air in it, and turn it more.
AVERYOkay. Thanks so much.
ROBERTSAvery, thanks for your call. I think we have time for maybe one or two more calls here. Let's try Loretta in Washington. Loretta, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show."
LORETTAOh, thank you so much for taking my call. I'm a lifetime gardener, but when I was out on my own and living in D.C., I became a community gardener, and we compost everything from our garden, and that's just one suggestion for people looking for a place to compost. But more importantly, I wanted to tell you about a new public school in D.C., the Capitol Hill Montessori at Logan.
BROSOWSKYHey, we're composting them.
LORETTAIt's the first school in the city that composts all of its cafeteria scraps, and they're training the students to compost their scraps from their lunchboxes. So this is a great example of teaching young people about the -- about composting, and so that they will carry that forward in their lives. And also, over the summer the school planted seasonal perennial gardens and now the students have started planting fall gardens and they're using rain collection systems from downspouts and rain barrels.
LORETTASo it's all about teaching the kids, you know.
BROSOWSKYWell, this is -- what a great call. First of all, we're so proud to be composting the new Montessori School on Capitol Hill. When you get 'em young, you train 'em young, you brainwash them. It's awesome. I'm doing it with -- I've got a pilot program going in my own house with my four kids, and so they would never throw a banana peel in the garbage because -- they same way they wouldn't throw a glass jar in the garbage. You know, it's just not what you do.
BROSOWSKYAnd kids don't question it, they just get it. It makes total sense to them.
PLATTWe -- I co-lead a young activist club in a public school, elementary school, in Montgomery County, and the kids wanted to do a trash-free lunch day. So we arranged for composting, and the recycling rate from the one day went from 14 percent to 72 percent, mostly because we were composting food scraps and we also did away with those Styrofoam lunch trays for the day. We brought in durable trays and durable forks. Imagine that.
BROSOWSKYOne of the things that so amazing about composting is when you get people into the habit, like you don't need to make -- it doesn't need to be huge numbers to make a huge difference. So the average American family produces somewhere between 10 and 12 pounds of organic waste a week. Call it 10 pounds a week, call it 500 pounds a year to make the math easy. That means every four families that start composting is taking a ton of material out of the landfill and turning it into about half a ton of new soil. It's amazing. Four families, that's all it takes.
BROSOWSKYAnd so when you go into an elementary school, and you go into a grade and you do -- you put your presentation in front of a couple of hundred kids, if 10 percent of those take it home, if five percent of them take it home, if 10 kids go home, you're talking about taking -- and all of their families start composting, not a big number, not huge conversion rates. If you get them doing it, all of a sudden you're takings tons and tons of material out of landfill with a presentation at some kids' school.
TOMLINWell, good, I'm glad because we just got told about a book called "Compost Stew." Actually, my executive gave me the book and said, this is a good thing for you guys to expand your recycling training into that, and with numbers our six-month pilot of 33 people, we had 3.9 million tons taken out of the trash by that, so a lot of waste reduction. But yeah, 3.9 tons of trash that was food scraps.
ROBERTSAnd that was the little mini pilot.
TOMLINThat was the little mini pilot of about 34 people. But we do -- we are expanding our recycling training into composting because it really is full recycling.
ROBERTSAnd we had a question from Maggie in Leesburg who says, "Why don't grocery stores compost all the stuff they throw out every day and can't donate?"
BROSOWSKYSome do. The reason that most don't is because of cost. It is still in most cases, based on their existing contracts, cheaper for them to take it to landfill than it is to a composting facility. This goes back to all the policy and regulatory issues we've been talking about earlier in the hour, mostly due to location and proximity of a reliable facility that's large enough to take the quantity of material that's coming out a typical grocery store. But I know Whole Foods in the city is doing composting.
BROSOWSKYThe Yes Mom -- is it Mom's Organic Markets and Yes, I believe both compost. So there is -- there is an example of this, you know, moving forward. They will do it when it becomes economically viable for them, and that's coming.
ROBERTSAnd I'm afraid we are out of time, but I wanted to thank all of the callers and emailers we didn't get to, and say that a lot of the information went by pretty quickly. We will links to a lot of it on our website if you didn't get a chance to write it down, go to wamu.org, and we will have it on our website.
BROSOWSKYRebecca, can I just jump in one very, very quick thing, shout out to Alec in the truck, beep beep, having fun picking up today.
ROBERTSThere you go. Jeremy Brosowksy, he is the founder of Compost Cab and a principal at Agricity, LLC. We were also joined by Brenda Platt, co-director of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, co-chair of Sustainable Biomaterials Collaborative, and co-chair of the D.C. Region Organics Task Force. Thank you so much to you.
ROBERTSAnd Evelyn Tomlin, chief of the Bureau of Environmental Services at Howard County that is starting a curbside composting pilot program coming up just next week, right?
TOMLINSeptember 12, thank you very much. We look forward to sharing the information with you.
ROBERTSAnd I am Rebecca Roberts sitting in on "The Kojo Nnamdi Show." Thank you so much for listening.
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