This summer, the city of Richmond began rolling out bright purple and green bins at 20 locations in community gardens, libraries and more, thanks in part to a $90,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to pilot a new composting program.
Kate Rivara — the Richmond Community Garden Coordinator, who wrote the grant application — is a long-time composter.
She said she loves “being able to create that fertility in the ground, take those rotten, squishy, discarded things, and say, ‘Hey, you still have a purpose, you still have value, you’re still useful. ‘”
But Rivara said she couldn’t make enough compost in her garden to fertilize her own vegetable patch. So she started thinking about ways to collectivize the process and came up with the idea of applying for the USDA grant.
Composting has environmental benefits – it diverts food waste from landfills, which can reduce the methane emitted during decomposition. It also reduces the need for fertilizers that could harm nearby aquatic ecosystems.
Food waste is a major problem nationwide, with the USDA estimating that 30-40% of food is thrown away each year in the United States. Food accounted for around a quarter of the country’s total landfill waste in 2018.
With the $90,000, the city’s Department of Parks, Recreation and Community Facilities was able to purchase a fleet of compost bins, and it contracted with Real Roots Food Systems to do the actual composting.
Mark Davis, founder of Real Roots, said the organization is “built around creating opportunities for people to participate in the food system.” They grow food, compost, educate and offer volunteer programs.
Davis said people are disconnected from their food: they usually don’t know where it came from or who grew it and how they did it.
“When you reconnect to [food], you connect to a lot more things,” he said. “You are reconnected to nature, reconnected to the environment, to your health, to your family members, to community members.”
Composting is one way to make that connection, Davis said, and he hopes people will see it pay off soon. Some of the compost produced will return to community gardens where food waste was collected. Some will also go to city parks for greening projects.
He said the new bins have already received a lot of attention.
“We processed over 1,000 to 2,000 pounds of food scraps a week, even in the first few weeks,” Davis said.
Composting is not a perfect solution to food waste. Although it can reduce greenhouse gas emissions from organic matter as it decomposes, it does not always eliminate them entirely. And it doesn’t address the fundamental issues that lead to waste, like the lack of access to healthy food in some communities.
Additionally, most industrial scale composting programs (including those that can break down hard organic materials like bones) use fossil fuel generators to power the machines to heat and agitate the compost.
The program put in place by Real Roots is designed to be less energy intensive than that. It is a static pile system, which means no energy is used to agitate the compost. Real Roots is also using grant funds to set up a solar-powered wind tunnel system, which is used to speed up the process and reduce methane emissions.
Rivara described it as a mid-level operation — unable to handle really tough stuff, but capable of more than a backyard compost heap.
The pilot is funded through September 2023, but Rivara hopes there will be a large enough response to warrant long-term program funding and growth.
“At the end of the day, we want to go curbside or door-to-door,” Rivara said.
Expanding the program’s footprint would also lead to more compost production, potentially opening the door for redistribution for home use, Davis said.
The city accepts fruits and vegetables, kitchen scraps, eggshells, bread, compostable bags, coffee grounds, rice and pasta, as well as paper towels, napkins, plates and the bags.
Meat and dairy products, plastic, glass, Styrofoam, cooking oils and pet waste are some of the things the city will not accept.
The Department of Public Works empties the compost bins every Tuesday.