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Composting Local Food Scraps: Regenerating Soil, Supporting Jobs and Growing Food

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This article comes from the NOFA/Massachusetts 2013 December Issue Newsletter

By Everett Hoffman, Compost Counselor

There’s a reverberating buzz around composting in Boston! I jumped into my compost career after seeing an overwhelming desire for more composting at the Boston Urban Agriculture Kickoff and Visioning meeting in January 2012. With Article 89, Boston’s urban ag zoning codification, nearing implementation, the time for compost is now.
 
Last month I hosted a NOFA/Mass Compost Workshop at my home in Jamaica Plain. Here a group of passionate composters had an invigorating conversation about the issue of wasted food and the developing urban compost scene in Boston. Together we began to explore the role composting plays in creating urban closed loop systems and strengthening the urban-rural connection.
 
Food grown regionally, nationally and globally feeds Boston’s diverse population. As food is processed and consumed, some is inevitably deemed unwanted or unfit for eating. Instead of viewing these scraps as food waste to be sent to the landfill or incinerator, as composters we see them as organic resources for our sustainable growing systems.
 
To harness this resource, we must educate our community about the value of these scraps and model ways to divert them from landfills and incinerators. These scraps are separated from other trash, taken from the source to processing sites where they can be composted and then delivered to farms and gardens to enhance the soil. Food is then brought back to our community and turned into scraps once more, and so on, in a local closed loop system, sustainably replenishing our soils and ourselves.
 
While conceptually simple, it takes many hands, minds, and hearts to deal with the challenges and complexities of changing our wasteful system. On the education front, several local initiatives are testing and modeling what is possible. The Boston Natural Areas Network trains urban growers at community composting workshops. Greenovate Boston, the mayor’s office sustainability initiative, recently concluded a pilot program where individuals brought 6,000 lbs of scraps to farmers’ markets throughout the city, drawing a link between waste diversion and greenhouse gas reduction. Local restaurants, such as City Feed & Supply, Life Alive, and BoLoco, encourage customer behavior change with “front of the house” composting.
 
The Food Project, City Growers, Higher Ground Farm, and other urban farms demonstrate the role compost plays in replacing contaminated urban soils to grow food in Boston. The organics hauling sector is also thriving across Greater Boston. There are several large organics haulers, such as Save That Stuff, a local recycling company that diverts between 10 and 40 tons of organics a day from grocery stores, universities and dozens of restaurants. On the smaller scale, Bootstrap Compost collects two tons of scraps a week from over 630 households and dozens of offices and cafes. CERO, the Cooperative for Energy, Recycling and Organics, is a startup serving businesses in Mattapan, Dorchester and Roxbury. Renewable Waste Solutions collects scraps brought to the Greenovate Boston farmers’ market drop off program.
 
The last critical component of an urban closed loop system is scalable local composting. Backyard and garden composting is abundant in Boston. There is even a municipal composting site, managed by City Soil, which turns the city’s leaves into compost for community gardens. However, there is not a single compost site in Boston that can legally accept food scraps generated off site. Permitted urban compost sites enable us to process more separated organic resources closer to their point of generation and tighten the closed loop. Haulers and growers will be able to save money on transportation and reduce their carbon footprint. Composting creates meaningful green collar jobs and hands-on educational opportunities. Moreover, when we make composting local, it creates a powerful narrative. Urban compost sites in New York City have had tremendous success in engaging their community. When we can directly show people how the nutrients flow through the system, and how that affects our economy and our lives, the message becomes intimate and relevant.
 
While we develop ways to harness more organic resources locally, Boston generates far more scraps than we could ever process or use in our dense urban environment. Therefore an urban-rural connection is an essential link in our nested growing systems; urban environments concentrate organic resources and rural environments have the space to compost them to enhance regional agriculture. Haulers currently bring their organics to commercial composters such as Rocky Hill Farm in Saugus and Brick Ends Farm in Hamilton. Bootstrap Compost has partnerships with Buckle Farm in Dighton and Wright-Locke Farm in Winchester. Support for these partnerships is essential, especially as the 2014 Massachusetts Food Waste Ban comes into effect.
 
In cultivating nested urban and regional closed loop systems, we are able to grow new soil for Boston using our own organic resources-a story we can tell to everyone. Through composting, we can show each person who eats in Massachusetts the value of food scraps and their impact on our closed loop systems: regenerating local soil, supporting local jobs, and growing local food.
 
Everett Hoffman is a compost advocate working with City Soil and Bootstrap Compost. To learn more about his work developing a commercial food scrap compost site and compost heat capture projects in Boston, email Everett@citysoil.org
 
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