Best Practices for Community Composting

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Shannon Palermo, Executive Director of the Railyard Park Conservancy in Santa Fe is eager to expand their community compost program.

What is Community Composting?

Community composting is a way to collect food scraps and organic materials such as yard waste from community members to be composted. Community composting distinguishes itself from municipal or commercial composting by processing materials close to home, avoiding transport and associated emissions. The produced compost goes back into the community where it helps to build soil and grow healthy food. When communities start taking responsibility, waste turns into a resource that contributes to social justice and food sovereignty with ecology and systems thinking at its center. It is a simple and hands-on way to build and experience a circular economy, right at home.

The Institute for Local Self Reliance says: “Community-scale composters are located at schools, universities, community gardens, farms, and many other places – urban, rural, and suburban. Their distinguishing feature is keeping the process and product as local as possible while engaging the community through participation and education.”

Composting can be a lonely endeavor. Our society has an out-of-sight out-of-mind attitude when it comes to trash and so-called food waste. What we do with organic materials and food scraps is not usually shared and as a result, most organics end up in the trash where they contribute to greenhouse gas emissions from landfills. Composting –if it is done at all– mostly takes place on an individual level in a hidden corner of someone’s backyard.

Community composting makes this process visible and it also resolves many other barriers. Not everyone is equally enthusiastic about composting or has the space to do so –composting as a community allows those who are interested and good at it to take the lead to the benefit of all. It is a simple and immediate opportunity to reduce waste, improve local soil, grow nutritious food and fight climate change. Let’s get started!

Community composting bins at Los Ranchos Agri-Nature Center, located in the shade of a massive cottonwood tree.

How to run a successful Community Composting site?

Jamie Welles, Executive Director at the Rio Grande Community Farm (RGCF) in the Village of Los Ranchos de Albuquerque, shares about their successful community composting program and how to get started:

  • Think about who your customer is and work with motivated people. Anyone who wants to start a composting drop-off has to answer the question “Who am I targeting to compost?”, then find a way to reach that audience and make it as convenient as possible. Make it easy for people to do the right thing! Choose a location that is close to households in the neighborhood and easily accessible –for example adjacent to a parking lot in an apartment complex, so that residents can drop off food scrap on the way to their car. Working with community gardens is also a great option.
  • Outreach and education is ongoing. Advertise in local outlets to spread the word about the drop-off site. Connect composting to reducing greenhouse gas emissions from landfills in your messaging –a simple solution to climate change that everyone can contribute to. Offer regular workshops and demonstrations about composting, including for school groups and youth –there are so many teaching opportunities, e.g. microscopy and learning about soil organisms. Collaborate with Master Gardeners, Master Composters and other gardening groups.
  • Volunteers are essential to the success of a community compost program! At RGCF, one of the volunteers is dedicated to managing the composting site. All other volunteers are instructed to check on the compost pile every time they pass by. This way, the drop-off site has eyes on it every day, ensuring that it is not messy or smelly.
  • Develop catchy and clear signage. This is the best way to communicate what goes into the compost and what does not. In addition, every Saturday several volunteers offer demonstrations at RGCF.
  • Make sure the compost doesn’t look like a trash can. One of the biggest problems with accepting materials from the community is contamination with trash. At RGCF, volunteers are spending many hours sifting through materials to extract packaging, especially plastics. Despite good signage, trash is being thrown into the compost pile. To help alleviate this problem, position an actual trash can close to the compost pile to provide an alternative or situate bins that accept food scraps away from “cooking” piles.

  • Know your source materials. Determine what you want to have turned in at the compost site and make sure you post or communicate what it is you are taking. It’s important to always have a good supply of “brown” materials at hand to offset the “green” materials that are being dropped off. Strive for a ratio of three- or four-parts browns to one-part greens. Wood chips and yard clippings are usually easy to get as city workers or contractors are happy to drop these off. Getting decent manure can be a bit difficult. Ensure that there are no meat or dairy products in the compost as these materials can’t be composted in a community situation because they cause pest problems.
  • Keep the compost moist. In the high desert, it’s imperative to locate the compost in the shade and choose a bin design that keeps moisture in –here is a great bin design from the Bernalillo County Extension Office. Make sure there is access to water in the vicinity of the compost area. At RGCF, the volunteer compost manager waters when needed and stirs the piles weekly or bi-weekly.
  •  It takes time and patience… but the rewards are plentiful! Community composting gives people with a passion for the environment an outlet and creates feel-good vibes. Residents in Los Ranchos are proud of the village’s agricultural heritage and engage in composting as a way to invest in urban agriculture, local food security and a sense of community.

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