Winning Hearts And Minds: Outreach Strategies for Curbside Organics Collection: NYC Case Study


This episode corresponds to Lesson 3 and Lesson 4 of our online course.

We join Director of Recycling Bridget Anderson to discuss the DSNY’s extensive outreach and education strategy for their curbside organics collection pilot program in New York City. We explore how they dealt with the different demographics in the city, how they used online social media and traditional media, the importance of face-to-face communication, the reasons why people don’t participate, and much more.

Thanks to If You Care for making this episode possible.

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Picture courtesy of DSNY.





Breaking down the OUTREACH STRATEGY


Q: You touched on some of your strategies in the last episode, but I’d like to really understand the whole process. Can you tell me how the DSNY went about planning and implementing these strategies?

BA: Entering into a pilot program for New York City is a big challenge, because you have so many different types of communities and people with so many different experiences living in different types of housing structures. So we really approached this pilot from the perspective of what’s been successful in other cities? Most other cities have lower housing density – in New York City sixty percent of our population live in high-rise apartment buildings.

So we started focusing on the lower density areas of the city. In those low density areas, we reached out to the elected officials and the local community organisations to get feedback. Part of the strategy was to look within at sanitation and our sanitation workers know best what is happening on the ground – what neighbourhoods tend to be good recyclers already, and what neighbourhoods they think would be more amenable to doing a pilot program. Based on that, we chose a few committees; we reached out to elected officials; we talked to the local community organisations; and we tried to identify those “informal mayors” of neighbourhoods that might have their finger on the pulse of the community, to get feedback on if they think it would be successful in that neighbourhood and where the challenges might be.

Based on all of this information, we finalised our initial list of pilot areas, and then we sent a mailer to the households in the neighbourhoods about a month before the program was to start. Then we followed that up with a door-to-door door hanger that explained the program and that in a week they were to receive a brown organics bin, a kitchen container and information about the program. And then, when we do the bin deliveries – the organics bin, kitchen container and information packet – we have outreach people there during bin deliveries to talk to people on the ground; if somebody comes out and they have a question, we answer it. During those periods, we’ve encountered people who are just so excited about the program, and we’ve also encountered people who say “this really isn’t for me”. So we really try to change hearts and minds, and having people on the ground, and face-to-face communication, has been critical to getting people to even try the program.

We say that it’s a voluntary program, that you won’t get fined for not participating, but we encourage you to participate, and this is why: your going to help reduce the materials that we send to landfills that potentially could save taxpayer money, you could reduce incidences of rodents in the neighbourhood; it creates a cleaner waste stream for you, because you’re separating out the stinky stuff from the rest of your garbage. So, that on the ground, face-to-face, has been critical. It’s resource intensive, but it really has been extremely helpful to get the program off the ground in the beginning.

We also try to get articles in local newspapers – like the Daily News, New York Post, New York Times, if they’re interested – and then we have the local neighbourhood newspapers, and those have also been really helpful to explain that the scheme is coming to this neighbourhood, and that this is what it looks like, this is where you go for questions, this is our website… So they’ve been really helpful to get the message out.

Q: This strategy mirrors the strategy we lay out in Lesson 4 of our online course when we speak about outreach – that you need to let them know about the program initially around a month beforehand, and then have people going door-to-door to answer questions when the bins are delivered. And that’s exactly what you did, so it’s a very extensive campaign.

BA: Yeah, we’ve built email lists and newsletters, and any opportunity we can find the get the information to the local community, we use it.





Q: Since there are so many different demographics in New York City, did you have different approaches that you used for the different groups of people?

BA: We had our standard approach, but in certain neighbourhoods, we had people on the ground who spoke the language. We had a Spanish speaker, a Chinese speaker, we also had a few neighbourhoods where Russian was an important language. So we had people on the ground so they’d have that specific face-to-face opportunity to speak with somebody in their own language. We also translated some of our materials – the most critical pieces of information – into multiple languages, and you can translate our website, so that’ been very useful as well.

One thing we have discovered is that, especially if you’re in an area that has a lot of retired people, we can’t rely on the web or social media as our only information portal. So, we have a hotline and utilise the city’s 311 program, and we have a lot of soft responses to the most common questions that we get. So we’re able to utilise phone calls as well as an opportunity.



Getting RESIDENTS started and using COMPOSTABLE plastic bags


Q: What were the most common questions that you got, or the most common issues that people had?

BA: We get a lot of questions like “is this mandatory, do I have to do it?” Because I think some people get the mailer and, even though it says it’s a voluntary program, they assume that because it’s a notification from the Sanitation Department, they have to participate. We encourage people by saying “it’s not mandatory, but we encourage you to try, because this is a new strategy and we’re trying to see if we can make it work in New York City”. One of the strategies that we’ve recommended to people that using certified compostable bags is one way to collect the material inside your home and get it out to the brown bin in a way that’s more similar to maybe what you used to do if you used plastic bags for garbage.

The availability of those compostable bags has been a problem. It’s taken us a while to get the bags into retail stores – there are also online outlets for the bags. The price of the bags has been a problem; some people say the bags are to expensive and they won’t use them, or that they would participate in the program if they could use the bags, but the bags are too expensive – that’s an example of something that’s been a challenge. We do say that you don’t have to use compostable bags: you can use paper bags, and you don’t even have to line your kitchen container at all if you don’t want to, it just means you have to rinse it out. And with the brown bin, you don’t have to line the bin if you have a way to rinse it out, or you can use paper bags or certified compostable bags. And this spring we’ve added that people can line their brown bin with a clear recycling bag. It’s not our preference to do this, but to encourage participation and because the compostable bags are not yet available everywhere, we are allowing people to do this to get people used to the program.

Our hope is that eventually the compostable bags will maybe become cheaper and be more available, and then we can switch out the regular plastic bags. One of the challenges with the plastic is that it doesn’t break down in the composting facility, so it adds to the contamination rate, but at this point we do think that it does encourage more participation because it’s more similar to our other recycling programs. In our recycling programs, you can use clear plastic bags, or you can put things directly in the bin, so it’s more parallel right now to those programs.

Q: So you’re thinking is that it’s more important to just get them on board and into the habit and then it’s easier to change…

BA: Right. There’s the challenge of the front end, which is participation, and then there’s the back end, which is trying to do something useful with the material. And we’re trying to balance those two things right now.





Q: And in terms of strategy, would say that the face-to-face communication is the most important aspect?

BA: I don’t know if it’s the most important, but it’s a critical piece. I think getting articles in the media and generating a buzz…and we’ve been very lucky where the local television news media has picked up the program, the local neighbourhood newspapers have picked up the program; the city-wide newspapers have picked up the program and we’ve had radio shows pick up the program too. Having people hear repeatedly about the program has been absolutely critical.

Then, once an area becomes a pilot area where people are receiving the program itself, the on the ground outreach has been extremely useful. Not everybody reads the mailers: if you receive a mailing from the city, it might end up directly in your recycling bin – hopefully your recycling bin! And so, having people out there on the ground during bin deliveries to really make sure people understand the program is important. The elected officials and community boards have also often hosted meetings where people can come and ask questions.

I think what’s critical is that you try to hit every outreach opportunity that you can, because you never know who might be listening in which venue. And the bigger the program goes, the more difficult it will be, because of the more neighbourhoods we’ll have, and we’ll have to be really efficient in how we implement the process, because we won’t necessarily have an army to be in every neighbourhood all the time.

Q: And since you are planning to expand, is there anything you’re gearing up for, or planning, in terms of outreach campaigns for when the program does go city-wide?

BA: So this year, we’re working through the analysis to figure out if we are able to expand this program, and really think about it as a program that we’re going to expand city-wide – we’re working on this right now. So, we have plans to further expand in the spring to another, approximately, forty-thousand households. And this fall, we’re aggressively trying to recruit more multi-unit buildings to really understand the challenges to making this work in multi-unit buildings.

Then, next summer of 2015, we will start writing up our analysis and provide the city-wide expansion plan. In the end, when we expanded recycling, we started recycling in portions of the city and then expanded city-wide, we took a geographic strategy, where we said “now we know we’re going to go city-wide, let’s phase in each area of the city”. It is likely that that would be a useful tactic also for this type of a program once we expand it city-wide. But we haven’t yet crunched all the numbers to understand exactly how quickly it would happen and who would start first – those types of things.



The TROUBLE with high-rises


Q: Since you brought up high rises, I want to ask, what was your experience in dealing with the building owners and supers – were they on board right away, or was it hard to convince them to change?

BA: We’ve been lucky at this point because we’re recruiting buildings, and they are voluntarily saying to us that they would like to join this program. I would say one of the most interesting things to date is that it’s the co-ops and the condos – the buildings where people own their units – that tend to be much more interested in the program than the building management companies for rental buildings.

Where you have a co-op board, the co-op board president is perhaps the champion of the program, they’ve really been successful in getting buildings on board and participating, and committing to manage the program in their building. Where we have a resident of a rental building contact us, we then contact the building management company, and more often than not, the building management company says “I know this resident is interested in the program, but I don’t think I have the resources to manage it”. So we’re really working this fall to see if we can get more rental buildings on board to understand what the constraints are for a rental building as opposed to an owner building.



Residents reaction to the collection program


Q: In general now, how has the reaction been from the participants of the scheme so far, has it been mostly positive, or have there been any comments on it?

BA: It’s mixed. I would say you have the core group of residents that are really into the program; they’ve jumped on board and have given us feedback like, “I have no trash left!” and things like that. You do have, I would say, a significant set of residents who’ve chosen not to participate, and that’s the group that we’re really trying to recruit now. So we’re going back into the pilot areas and saying “you know, this really is beneficial and will make your trash management cleaner”, and things like that.

But we really have a mix. The people who participate are gung-ho about participating and enthusiastic, and then you have folks who are really choosing not to. It’s interesting when you look at the numbers; we have RFID tags attached to the brown bins, so when we go and collect, we’re able to see how many bins are placed out on each collection route and are able to get a sense of participation, which is really helpful for the pilot program. And what we’re finding is that there are some people who started in the program, and then they dropped out, or they dropped out in the winter and they came back again in the spring – and so you can see patterns there.

You also see, surprisingly, bins that had never been placed out for collection for three or four months, and then all of a sudden you see them being placed out for collection. So maybe that’s somebody who really wasn’t interested in the program and then saw their neighbours do it long enough that they said, “maybe I’ll five this a try”, or maybe they have a lot of yard waste and thought, “maybe I’ll use this for yard waste”.

So we’re trying to understand the patterns of behaviour. How do people behave with the program? Is there consistency with participation? It’s a pretty interesting analysis to understand people’s behaviour. And it’s a different thing from recycling – recycling is dry goods, so that “ick” factor doesn’t exist, whereas with organics it’s a little bit different. Yard waste is less scary than the food waste portion of course. But we have really great testimonials of people who say, “I really don’t have much garbage left, once I recycle and do the organics”.

Q: I often wonder about the people who start and drop out – what their reasons where. And it’s probably more difficult to get them back into the program again after that too.

BA: Yeah. And our feedback is that some people say “I had a free sample of compostable bags, and once those bags ran out, I tried to buy them and I couldn’t find them”, or, “they were too expensive.” So for those people, we tell them that they don’t have to use those bags, and list the other strategies we encourage them to try. There are some people then – it was a particularly tough winter last winter – and they said, “you know, I just didn’t want to do the program over the winter, but now that spring has arrived, I’m coming back.” It really is varying reasons.


Wise words of advice.


Q: And finally, do you have any advice on planning and implementing an outreach program, for those listening in who might be starting their own? Any pitfalls you want to warn against, or tips to share?

BA: If you have ideas of which communities you think you would like to start the program in, I would recommend having conversations with those local communities pretty early on. Give yourself at least a few months before the program starts to really start talking to that community, explain the “why” of the program: why are we doing this, and explaining how it would work. The more they feel a part of the development of the process, the better the response. I the very pilot area, we had a situation where certain people were told that this was going to be the pilot area before they were notified on a local level, and they felt a little bit slighted. So it was important for us, moving forward, to really get into those local communities. These are our candidate pilot areas: let’s get in there and talk to them and make sure they understand the program that’s coming. And then, when it comes, they’re not surprised. So having that up-front communication before the program starts would be an important piece.

I also think providing the tools – providing the bins and the kitchen containers – has been helpful. Giving them the tools so they didn’t have to go buy things right away was really helpful. In the initial pilot areas we had sample supplies of compostable bags so they could at least get themselves started, and that was also helpful.



Megacities Special #1: Rolling Out A Residential Organics Collection Program In NYC


This episode corresponds to Lesson 4 and Lesson 5 of our online course.

In this episode we take an in depth look into the expanding organics collection and composting program in New York City. We speak with Bridget Anderson, director of the Recycling Unit of the DSNY’s Bureau of Waste Prevention, in order to understand the unique situation that a megacity faces when rolling out such a program, the logistics and strategies for setting up the scheme, challenges in dealing with different building types, managing the collected organic material, and the vision they have for the future.

Thank you to IPL for making this episode possible

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Picture curtesy of DSNY.



The Story So Far


Q: Can you tell me how the program got started?

BA: Organics collection was a pilot that actually started in the schools, in the 2012-2013 school year. We started on a select number of schools and focused on school cafeterias and school kitchens; and it was really an effort that was spearheaded by a number of parent-teacher organisations. They did a great job and Sanitation saw what they did and decided that we would try in on a slightly larger scale.

Then there was momentum to try this in residences also – in homes. And we’re in all five boroughs: we have pilot areas in the Bronx, in Queens, Brooklyn and Staten Island – and then in Manhattan, which is a very dense area with lots of high-rise apartment buildings, we actually have selected apartment buildings that have volunteered to participate in the program. One of the challenges is to figure out how to do this in high rise buildings.

Q: How does the pilot program operate today? It is a voluntary program at the moment, correct?

BA: Yes, the pilot is voluntary. We chose the pilot areas in a combination of where, collection-wise, we thought it would work well operationally, and where there was interest among residents and among elected officials. We also looked for those low-density areas. So, it was voluntary and not everybody in the pilot areas chooses to participate, but everyone is given the opportunity.

We deliver a brown bin, which is what you set out curbside, and then in addition we deliver a kitchen container for each household, so that you have something you can use in the kitchen to collect the material. And then we provide a lot of education and outreach, and brochures…

What we do is we send a mailer to everyone in the pilot area, saying “this program is coming, this is what it is and you can expect to receive your brown bin”. Then about a week before the brown bin arrives, we do a door hanger. We go door-to-door and hang a door hanger and say “Your brown bag is arriving this week. As a reminder this is the program, it’s voluntary, we hope you participate, and this is how it works”. And then when the brown bin arrives, in that brown bin is the kitchen container and the brochure that gives details about what can and can’t be put in the bin – best practices for how to manage the material.

Q: I also saw just the other day that the Mayor of New York and his family made an ad using the brown bin…

BA: Yeah, it’s interesting, they approached us. One of the pilot areas is where the mayor’s home is – this is the mayor’s home before he moved to Gracie Mansion, which is the official Mayor home. He actually approached Sanitation and said “I would love to do a video. My daughter Chiara is very interested in this program”. And so, we developed a script for them, which they took and then tweaked, and they created the video. And the video turned out beautifully – I thought it was a great video. And now they’ve moved to Gracie Mansion, and we had the organics collection program in Gracie Mansion with Mayor Bloomberg, and now we’re continuing it with Mayor de Blasio, so we’re very excited about that.



LOGISTICS of COLLECTING organic waste in New York City


Q: I want to ask you about the expansion on the program to high-rise buildings, because as you said earlier they can be quite a challenge. How did the DSNY decide to deal with all the different types of buildings?

BA: There are other cities in the United States that already do this organics collection program – cities like Seattle, San Francisco, and Toronto in Canada – and we looked at what they were doing, where they found success. Most of those cities are lower density and don’t have as many high-rise buildings. Toronto is maybe the closest to New York City in comparison to a place that already does organics collection. And we thought, let’s try this program in the lower density areas of the city – because that’s where there’s been a precedence set to have a successful program in other cities. So, we looked for parts of the city where we would focus on single family homes and small apartment buildings that are up to nine units – little town houses, brownstones, and then small apartment buildings. The pilot areas are primarily that size of building.

Then we said, if we’re going to make this a viable program, we have to tackle high-rise apartment buildings, because a significant portion of New York City’s recycling, you have to come up with an internal recycling program that then allows the building to manage the waste and get it out on the curb for Sanitation to collect. We have to do the same thing for organic material. So, we actually work with the building management and the co-op board, if it’s a co-op building, and come up with a system for how they’ll manage the organic waste inside the building to then get it out on the curb for us to collect

Q: And how many high-rises are you working with at the moment?

BA: We have over a hundred high-rises at this point.

Q: That’s quite a few. And what has been the DSNY’s strategy in dealing with the various building types? Do you have separate systems, depending on the high rise, or is there a single system that works across the board?

BA: I would say we service a different range of types of buildings – we have old, old buildings, we have brand new Leed certified buildings…a lot of it depends on the infrastructure of the building, where there’s space to put the bins. It’s very similar to recycling – where is there space to place the bins, either on each floor or in some sort of centralised area, where people can then bring their material to drop it off. And then the building staff brings it out to the curb.

So we have a few different strategies that are the most common. One is, if our large buildings tend to have chute where people will take their trash, and it foes down to the basement. In a lot of buildings there’s a little chute room where the chute exists. And if there’s space on each floor, and the building management are willing to provide the service, we recommend that both the recycling and the organics containers are put in those shoot rooms on every floor. It’s the most convenient for the residents.

That doesn’t exist in all buildings, so what’s also quite common is a centrallsed location on the first floor, possibly the basement or in the area nearby where there’s parking, where the recycling and organics bins are placed. And that’s more of a centralised area. It’s less work for the Super to service, because it’s only location – but it’s potentially a little bit less convenient for the residents because they have to go downstairs. We find with both recycling and organics collection, convenience begets participation. So if it’s easy and convenient, people will participate. The people who want to do it are going to do it no matter where you place your collection location; the people who are saying “well I’ll do it if it’s convenient.” If it’s easy for me to just throw it down the chute on my floor that to bring the organic material or recycling downstairs, then you may lose a few people in participation.

So, we have a lot of signage – signage is absolutely key to let people know on every floor where the collection location is in the building. And keeping the collection well lit, safe, secure is also key to having people comfortable with using those locations in the building.

Q: Another crucial part in organics collection programs is the collection times. How did you decide on collection times and are they different from place to place?

BA: We have a few different strategies. About fifty-thousand of the households are being offered twice a week collection, and that’s the same frequency as refuse collection. The idea is you just set out your material on collection day, but you separate the organic material from the waste and recycling. In the other half of the homes, we’re testing once a week collection. Basically, the way things work is that here you have twice a week collection of trash, once a week collection of recycling in most parts of the city, and so we’re either offering twice a week collection on the same frequency as trash collection, and the other half od the pilot, we’re offering once a week collection on recycling day. So, it’s essentially just another recycling stream to set out on your recycling day.

Q: Do you know which one is more successful, or which you’re going to pick in the long-run?

BA: We have one area of Brooklyn, where we started them in the Fall with once a week collection and switched them to twice a week collection in May, so we’re going to be studying that one. We don’t have any results yet, but we’re hopeful that that little neighbourhood – it’s called Windsor Terrace – will actually help inform us what the effect is of twice a week versus once a week.

Q: Was it difficult, in a city the size of New York, to plan collection routes and to cooperate with the haulers?

BA: So in New York City, the city actually has a municipal hauling workforce and we collect material from residences, agencies and institutions. And so, it was simply a matter of making the case to add some to add trucks in the budget to service the same routes. And we chose the pilot areas so they were co-terminus: they were the same areas as the regular routes, so there was no issue there. People were very positive about piloting the program.

Q: The ultimate goal is to make this a mandatory, city-wise curbside composting program. How are you planning to get there?

BA: The city council passed a law for us to conduct this pilot program, and the our mandate is a two-year program. And in the October of 2015, we will have to present a report to city council and say, this is how the pilot went, these are our recommendations moving forward. And so far we feel pretty positive about the participation, about people’s understanding of the program. We’re working right now to evaluate the pilot to understand what the best practices, what are the best collection frequency, what are the other aspects of the program that we’d want to take and scale up.

Scaling up city-wide is going to take quite a while. It’s not going to happen overnight; it will have to be a phase-in process. And part of it too is that what happens is if you separate the organic material and recycling fully, you don’t have as much refuse left. So, one of the big pieces is understanding how we reconfigure our routine and our truck routes so that we manage the material differently. So, maybe we don’t need as many refuse routes because there’s not as much refuse being set out as we add the organics routes.

So there’s a lot of operation pieces that we have to put into play. There’s also the aspect of geography – do we roll out district by district, which is maybe what happens. So, we’re basically in the planning process right now as we roll out the pilot, to figure out how we would do this city-wise, and I would say that it’s going to take ten years to probably get to the entire city.

Q: We tackle this whole aspect of organics collection programs in Lesson 4 of our online course on Compostory.org, so those of you listening, can go straight to the course on our site and take a deeper look at.



COMMUNITY COMPOSTING – A Critical Piece to the Puzzle


And now, I’d like to touch on the topic of community composting, because in our last episode, we were taking a look at the community composting movement in New York and we know that the DSNY has been quite involved in supporting this as well. Can you tell me a little about how you work with community composters in the city?

BA: Yes, we have a longstanding relationship – over twenty years – working with community composters. The New York City Compost Project is a group that we run and fund, and we have non-profit partners throughout the city where we provide education services – helping people to understand how to compost in your backyard, if you want to take your yard waste or your food scraps and do it yourself. We work with community gardens, and we provide finished compost from the material that they city collects and manages, and we provide tools and equipment, and technical advice for how to set up composting in community gardens.

We also work to provide drop-off programs. We have food scrap drop off programs throughout the city – we’ve about seventy in operation right now. And those drop-off programs are critical, because they get people in the mindset of “oh! this is what this is…I take my food scraps and I can bring them somewhere else and recycle it – have it be composted.” So, we see the community composters as absolutely critical to helping people understand the concepts of organic separation, what happens to it, what are the benefits to it – it’s an absolutely critical piece to the puzzle.

Q: So you agree with David Buckle, who we interviewed last week, that community composting is an essential part of creating a successful organics recycling system?

BA: Both programs are very important, yes.

Q: When speaking to David, it was clear that he had concerns about a lack of vision from policy makers in the city, that might not understand the importance of local collection and composting and wouldn’t necessarily prioritize community composting over other collection systems. What’s your take on this statement – have you seen this yourself?

BA: I actually have not seen that. We’re trying to position the city, in terms of organics waste collection, to fulfill a number of goals, and community composting plays an extremely important role in terms of introducing the community to organics and composting and the concept that you can recycle this other part of the waste stream, and to showing what actually happens to your organic waste, how it turns into compost; and creating a valuable product for the local communities.

The capacity for local, small-scale community composting is too small to handle the vast hundred and thousands of tons of material that we’re looking to divert through organics recycling. So, we as a city also have a parallel mission to find how we bring composting to scale and actually move major tonnage of material to recycling, to composting and to renewable energy. So, for us we see both as extremely important, because the local community composting creates beneficial use for the city. They have been critical to introduce the concept that this is a useful strategy but it’s not going to help us divert all of the waste. There’s so much waste in New York City, that we don’t think we’d be able to handle it through community composting. You have to have large, permitted facilities to really handle that quantity of material.

But there’s plenty of material to go around, and absolutely – this is why we fund local community composting operations – we see it as a critical piece to the pie, a piece to the puzzle.

We’re really focusing on [understanding] how we create this as a cooperative program. But it’s really tough, I mean, you have people who’ve been in the trenches for two decades working on local community composting, and I understand that maybe there’s a fear that if the city takes over this program that there won’t be a place for local community composting, and we do not at all see that as the case. They are both critical to achieving the city’s overall goal, which is diverting major tonnage of material, and creating beneficial use for local communities.



Compost Use & Compost Markets


Q: If the program is rolled out city-wide, you will have a lot of compost on your hands. What are you planning to do with the compost and what are you currently doing with it?

BA: We take the material from the pilot to local and regional compost facilities. With the material that’s taken to the regional facilities, we don’t actually take back the compost at this point. There may be a situation moving forward where we develop a relationship where we would have a certain percentage of the compost come back. With the material that’s processed locally, we turn it into compost and use it in street trees, we use it in parks, we use it in gardens. We have give-back programs for non-profits, schools and community groups, to use the compost for their greening projects. We also create a mulch product in addition to compost. And most of the material that we’re currently compost locally is yard waste, and that creates a beautiful mulch product as well as the compost. We also sell the compost to landscapers, so we do have a small revenue stream there.

Q: Are you involved in creating markets for compost, or encouraging market growth for compost?

BA: For the material we compost locally, we’ve worked on this landscaper market, and it’s really a bulk purchase type of situation. We have not gotten into the business of creating a retail market for the material – it just hasn’t been necessary to date, because we’re handling and selling all the material with the landscapers and with our give-back programs. With the regional composting facilities that are taking the material during the pilot period, we have not been involved in how they’re marketing the material, although we are evaluating with them the quality of the material we’re giving them, and the quality of the material that comes out, so we understand better what it is we can create from the material that would come out of a New York City stream.

Q: What is the quality like, and what contamination rate are you experiencing?

BA: The quality is quite good. In the residential program, our contamination rate is very, very low. It’s well below five percent. So we feel very good about that. It is a voluntary program, so the people who participate want to participate and try to do it right. That may change obviously when you make it mandatory.

Q: Is creating a market for compost something you’re looking at doing in the future?

BA: It would definitely be part of our larger plan. We want to ensure that the material is going to beneficial use – and is not just composting; we’re also looking into anaerobic digestion so we can create energy from the material. But creating a viable program, if there’s a way to generate revenue from it, that’s obviously a huge benefit, so it’s definitely something we’ll be looking into.

Q: Yes indeed, and we just released a new lesson – Lesson 5 – of our course were we take a detailed look at market creation for compost as well. And in terms of your aims or objectives with the organic material – as you said, diverting materials from landfill and supporting communities are on your list. But what about the organic material itself and what it’s used for? Are you focused solely on creating revenue streams, with waste-to-energy for example, or are you more concerned with creating quality compost to help replenish the soil?

BA: One of our biggest objectives is to find ways to reduce the material going to landfill, and the parallel objective is to create beneficial use. And obviously as a city we are concerned about being cost-effective in what we do, so any opportunities we have to market material and gain revenue streams is important. We are focused primarily at this point on the composting, because that’s a proven technology; we know there are existing facilities, we know that a useful product can be created and marketed.

Anaerobic digestion is a little bit newer of a technology for us in the North-East. There are wastewater treatment plants that have been using anaerobic digestion for a long time, and the question is: how viable is it to utilise AD for a municipal organics program? What we’ve learned is that the challenges are when you co-mingle food waste and yard waste, and food soiled paper, that can cause problems with anaerobic digestion, and so we’re trying to figure out if those energy conversion technologies (such as anaerobic digestion), could be viable with our waste stream. We won’t be able to collect yard waste separately from food waste, we really need the efficiency of collection to collect it all together , and so the question is: is there an option to utilise anaerobic digestion with that type of material streams.

On the commercial side, with businesses, we expect it’ll be food waste. So we think that there’s quite a good opportunity there for turning food into renewable energy through anaerobic digestion. But on the residential side, we think it may be more difficult.

Q: So you’re going to stick with composting, which is probably the most ideal option on many fronts.

BA: Yes. The challenges there of course is that you need a lot of space for composting – there are siting issues. For New York City, siting any new facility is expensive and difficult. There’s permitting processes, and because we’re right the confluence of three different states, each state has their own permitting requirements and procedures.



Closing the Loop


Q: And for our listeners who are rolling out similar programs, we strongly recommend fully integrating the multiple benefits of compost use in the program vision. Keeping organics out of a landfill and managing the waste streams is important – and it’s usually the main argument to be had in large cities – but then programs need to take into account all the benefits of compost use as well when developing operations. We’re finding out that many programs need to put more focus on end-product quality. So there’s a whole ecosystem involved here and it goes beyond just the ‘waste management’ side of things, so it’s very important to include that in the program vision.

And so Bridget, in terms of closing the loop as much as possible do you travel far to the composting sites you use, or?

BA: We have one composting facility on Staten Island, and that’s a great system. So, all the material that we collect on Staten Island, stays on Staten Island, so that’s a very closed-loop and successful system. For the other material that we have, everything is within a hundred miles of the city, but we do have to truck it outside the city. And so, we basically say it’s regional capacity. And we’re hopeful that once we position ourselves to go to scale, that we will be able to work with companies who will local themselves closer to New York City.



Organic Waste COLLECTION in A MEGACITY: Successes and Advice


Q: The project has been a great success so far and it’ll be exciting to see how it progresses, but already you’ve gained a lot of experience and tackled a host of issues. I’d love to know more about the pitfalls and successes you’ve experienced on your journey so far. How has it been?

BA: Yeah, so one of the best things that has happened is that we found these local resident champions of the program, and they are the best sales people. Having peer-to-peer interactions where people are explaining to their neighbours how great the program is, how little trash they have left, and how easy it is, has been incredibly helpful. And we found that it takes a lot of work, but the in-person interactions that we have as a program with the residents is really the most effective way to get people who may be a little bit shy, nervous or intimidated on board.

We get a lot of questions and concerns about rodents and pests, and they say it’ll be more work. Well, we say it’s the same amount of waste that you’re throwing out now, you’re just putting it in a separate bin. And the bin that we have has a lid and a latch, and so we’re able to explain to people that it actually reduces the potential for pest issues because you’re containing that waste. Right now New York City has primarily a bag program, so material is placed out at the curb in bags, and when you have a plastic bag, it’s much easier for a rat to chomp into the back and access the food. If the food is in a container, it’s much more difficult for them to access that meal. So we’re working with the Department of Health to study how the rodent populations are affected by the program.

We’ve also had some people say there’s been fruit flies and maggots, and those sorts of things. And it’s amazing because we use social media a lot in the program, and we often have residents providing best practices and tips to the people who have concerns about fruit flies and maggots before we even get to them. So, we have a list of best practices and tips, but we really do rely also on that peer-to-peer education.

Q: And finally, for our audience who might be wondering how to start a similar program in other large cities around the world, what advice would you give for rolling out a system like this in a large city?

BA: I would say that you need to have a plan for where you’re going to take the material. Don’t set up the front-end without the back-end in place – that’s critical. I would say the best way to roll-out the program is to do it so it follows the existing collection schedules and the existing behaviour patterns of people – so we said “add this to the recycling bay, they’re already setting out recycling” or “have them set it out on the same days as trash”. That way the behaviour is sort of the same, it’s just that you’re separating out the material.

The stakeholder engagement has been critical, so speaking with the elected officials and getting them on board – they can be your best advocates in their districts. We found that not only the elected officials, but the local civic organisations have been critical. You have these informal mayors of neighbourhoods that really understand the neighbourhood and understand what messaging will work in that neighbourhood; is this a neighbourhood that will respond better to the fact that we’re trying to save taxpayer money? Is this a neighbourhood that will respond better to the environmental message? That’s been critical for us to target our education and our messaging.


In Focus: The City To Soil Composting Process


This episode corresponds to Lesson 6 of our online course.

In this twelfth episode, we speak with Organics Recovery Specialist Gerry Gillespie about the City to Soil organics collection program, and their unique composting process using minimal machinery or manpower; ideal for remote locations and small farms.

Thank you to Polytex for making this episode possible. 

At the cutting edge of the Poly Textile fabrication industry, Polytex is a reliable supplier of quality products, servicing a wide range of customers from industry, agriculture, construction, commercial spaces, and mining in Australia and overseas. Polytex designs, manufactures and services the right product at a competitive price. You can deal confidently with Polytex. For more information, visit www.polytex.net.au.


EM: So Gerry, would you mind just giving us a little background information on City to Soil and give us some background information on how it all got started?

GG: We commenced using City to Soil as a program in 2003/4 in a little town called Queanbeyan, which is next to our national capital. What we were trying to do at the time was demonstrate that we could collect clean, source separated organic waste, turn it into a high quality compost, and get it into agriculture for much cheaper than we could put it into landfill.

And we demonstrated that we could actually do that. We could collect it, process it, carry it two hundred kilometers, and put it at a farm gate for about fifty dollars a tonne, including profit when the disposal fee to landfill was seventy-five dollars a tonne.

The thing that really surprised us was the very, very low levels of contamination. The entire focus right through the City to Soil program has been on the idea that this material is going into agriculture to produce food, so it must be clean. And we’ve found that that message absolutely resonates with people.

EM: Mh-hm.

GG: Anyway, after the first very successful trial, we were given a two million dollar grant to run the program in four areas of New South Wales – four council areas. One of those areas is four and a half hours away from where we are here. If you use the normal method of composting, it would have meant that we would have been loading machinery onto trucks and carrying it from one place to another – we would have used up our two million dollars in a very short space of time. So it was clearly necessary to find a new way of composting.

EM: Yeah – and what was that new way of composting, then, that you developed.

GG: So we really…we developed this process of covering the material and using an inoculant, and it’s been very, very successful. It’s more or less, if you look back at the history of composting, it’s a combination of what the Japanese community call “Bokashi”, which uses effective microorganisms. These inoculants speed up the process, but more importantly they change the biological nature of the compost pile.

These sorts of processes have been used – there’s a very good description if anybody has the old book by Sir Albert Howard called “An Agricultural Testament”, pages forty-eight and forty-nine are almost this process absolutely described, so it’s very much like the original biodynamic composting process as well.

EM: Okay, and maybe you can give us a talk through the actual process? How do you go about it?

GG: So, the composting process that we use for City to Soil, is basically that we’ve asked people to give us clean, source separated product because we’re putting it back into the soil to grow their food. And people really seem to understand that, because our contamination rates are very, very low. We bring the material into the composting site, and we spread it out on the ground. We take out any obvious contamination – and there are things you miss in that first step. And we don’t shred: that’s very, very important. The argument is because we collect our food waste and the garden waste in one two-hundred-and- forty liter wheel bin, all of that material, pretty well most of it will be no longer than you arm and no thicker than your thumb. So most of that material will break down without shredding. If you do shred in that first stage and there’s a bottle that you’ve missed, what happens is you end up with glass, or plastic, all the way through your compost.

EM: Mh-hm.

GG: And then we get it very, very wet; so somewhere between forty percent and sixty percent moisture. Then we inoculate it with the inoculants that we’ve prepared previously. Then we push it up into a pile, we put a cover over the compost pile, and we put an indentation. And what normally happens then is that green waste in that circumstance will go up to about seventy degrees Celsius, so it gets very hot. That heat drives the moisture out of the pile, onto the inside of the cover, if you’ve got a cover on, and all the water runs off because it’s a slope. If you have an indentation in the top, then what it causes is: the two sides of the compost pile will push the water up toward the top, but most of it will drip into the bit that’s indented and fall back into the pile. That actually means that in most instances – not all, but in most instances we don’t have to apply any more water after that first stage. Although sometimes we put more water on in the middle stage, about six weeks into the process.

But then, after the compost goes through the seventy degrees Celsius, the family population – that’s the first stage, aerobic stage of composting, is totally an oxidation process. Once it gets to that peak, all those families change, and they collapse back into the pile and the process becomes fermentative. So it’s a fermentation process, much the same way as you’d make…as a farmer might make silage, or the Germans might make sour kraut, it uses lactobacillus as the principal biological agent. But those biological processes can change quite dramatically in the compost pile.

So then we just leave it for another six weeks. We leave it for six weeks in the first stage, we take the cover off and check the moisture and everything is breaking down quite well, and we may put a bit more inoculant on or we may put more moisture on, and we put the covers back on. We sometimes turn it at that stage, put the covers back on and then leave it for another six weeks – or another twelve weeks if possible, because in that secondary stage the humus in the pile is actually building quite dramatically. We’ve found with our compost process…at the end of this process we’ve had thirty to fourty percent more compost than you’d normally have if you have a totally aerobic process.

EM: Amazing.

GG: In this compost process, what we’re trying to do is make something. Most waste management processes are trying to reduce something – they’re trying to get rid of something. Which is how the oxidation process in compost is quite often looked at from a waste manager’s perspective. What we’re doing is: we are not trying to solve a problem; we are trying to develop an opportunity. It’s a totally different focus; we’re trying to make something beneficial out of something, and we want to return it back to the soil to give an even bigger impact biologically into the soil.

Interestingly, the council in Armidale, one of the five councils where we’re using the process now (they’ve been using our inoculants strictly now for about eight or nine months): the Environment Protection Authority has just given them an extended license to process fifty thousand tonnes a year on their site -which is large for a regional center in Australia – but they’ve made it a condition of the license that they have to use our process. Which I think is wonderful.

EM: Yeah, it really is. It’s a testament to the success of the process then.

GG: Absolutely, yeah.

EM: And so let me go back a bit now and ask you a few more details – can you tell me what kind of covers you use for the compost?

GG: The thing that we found to be best of all is what in Australia we call grain covers. They’re very heavy-duty, – they’re generally used to cover large outdoor piles of rice and wheat in Australia – they’re very durable which means that we can have the same cover for a long time without it deteriorating because of the ultraviolet light. So, it’s important to get something of good value. If you’re going to invest in something, you’re better off spending a couple of hundred dollars on something, because it’ll last years. Sure, you can go out and buy plastic, or you can go and buy a cheap cover, but, you know, it’s gone in six months. So yes, we try to rely on quality.

EM: Mh-hm. And they’re not breathable covers, are they?

GG: No, they’re solid, yeah. They’re actually, you don’t let any air – they entire idea is to contain the microbial processes. You’re trying to create a circumstance where they’ve got a food supply, and they’ve got enormous family members there together. While the food supply and the family members and the right conditions are there with moisture, then they’ll breed up. And in breeding up, they’re creating more humus, they’re pulling more things in from the atmosphere, and they’re creating beneficial outcomes.

EM: Excellent, and how much machinery, then, would it take to run a program like this?

GG: Very, very, little. Our entire objective in designing the process was to have something that really used minimal machinery. I’ve tried to get farmers to use the process because the only thing they need is their tractor. And most tractors have a bucket on the front so they can move manure and things around their farm. So the only things you need, basically, are the tractor and some supply of organic material, and just a simple cover. So, not a complex process.

And the inoculants: if you look up lactobacillus on the internet, you’ll find the start of those processes. Or even better still, go to your locate effective microorganism supplier and buy some of their product.

EM: And you can make the inoculant yourself?

GG: Yeah, I…we made it in a hotel room in Egypt. So, basically the process is: half a cup of rice in a small jar – a honey jar – with water. And you leave that sit for three or four days. It pulls the lactobacillus in from the atmosphere. With a loose-fitting lid: the lid has to be on, you don’t want little animals getting in there because they carry other types of biology, but the air contains the lactobacillus.

So, rice in water, for four days in a dark cupboard. And then you take that water, pour it off into two litres of normal milk – or skimmed, I’ve used skimmed milk, tinned milk, powdered milk, all sorts of treated milk. After about another four days, all the solids in that milk will form a cheese on top, which is about two centimetres thick, or an inch thick, on top. You take off the cheese and feed it to the chickens, or the dogs. Animals love it. It’s beautiful; it’s quite edible stuff, actually.

And then the serum, which is underneath: you dilute that one hundred percent with rainwater, because you don’t want any chlorine in there. If you do use tap water, let it sit for an hour. But dilute it one hundred percent with water, add a cup of molasses, and that’s the basic product. It will stay in that form for about three years without – and quite stable.

And then we take that product, and we extend it again. We turn it into a more extensive product; it can be used as a fertiliser or a compost inoculant or…. The secret to the whole thing, to my mind, is introducing a process that enables the biology to be as diverse as possible. The more diverse the biology in the compost heap, the better outcome you’re going to get in the longer run.

EM: Mh-hm. And the quality of your compost, then, is quite good?

GG: Brilliant! It matches the best of any compost I’ve ever seen anywhere. We have local people here – there’s a company called Ylad, west of us, who sell their compost for about one-hundred-and-twenty-five dollars a tonne, whereas commercial compost in this area, in bulk, would normally sell for about forty dollars a tonne.

The end objective of what we do is to have a product that is biologically active, has high levels of humus, and it uses the compost material simply as a substrate – as a vehicle to carry the biology back out into agriculture.

EM: Excellent, and so because of the nutrient value, you can sell it at a very high price. And can you tell us a little bit about the feedstock now. I know that this process can operate with variable feedstocks – so what kind of materials can you use?

GG: There are a whole lot of different feedstocks that we’ve used in the process so far. Normally in a composting process you have to have a ratio of about twenty-to-one carbon to nitrogen, up to about sixty-to-one carbon to nitrogen.

Using this process, we’ve composted Australian native sawdust, which has a carbon to nitrogen ratio of about one-hundred-fifty-to-one, on its own. Now, the reason for this, and the reason why variability of feedstocks does not matter all that much, is that this process pulls its nitrogen base from the atmosphere.

So after it goes through the first phase, or while it’s going through the first phase, the aerobic composting will normally blow off a lot of nitrogen, but the fermentative stage seems to build a whole lot of things back into the process. So yes, the mix of the materials is not really all that crucial. We’ve done it with pure food in New Town in Wales in 2007 and it worked perfectly, or we’ve done it with Australian native sawdust at the other extreme.

EM: That’s really good – it’s a really good advantage. And now Gerry, can you tell us in what contexts would this process be ideal for, do you think?

GG: Well, in terms of using the process, I think the biggest advantage is that it’s excellent for remote locations. We’ve never, ever said that this process is so unique, you know, it’s better than any other compost process in the world. Composting processes have been around since the dawn of time, and nature is very good at doing it in all sorts of different ways. But what we’ve tried to do is come up with a process that can be used in remote locations, or by farmers, to get a very, very good product.

The process is not that different to biodynamic composting, except biodynamic composting is not generally covered. And this is absolutely simple. If you’re a farmer and you don’t have time – you can set up the compost pile, put the cover on, and just go away for six months.

EM: That’s incredible, so it really requires very little. And the odour issues either, isn’t there not?

GG: Not at all. No odour…no shredding, no turning, no odour.

EM: That’s amazing.

GG: Yeah.

EM: And we know that in order to make good quality compost, you need a very clean source of organics – and you mentioned before that you’d had great success with the City to Soil program – can you give us an idea as to why that is?

GG: The thing, I suppose, that’s really unique about – well, I don’t “suppose”. It is. The thing that’s absolutely really unique about City to Soil is the community engagement process. I think people have got to a stage with recycling programs where they see that when they’re putting their newspaper into bin, or their aluminium (or aluminum, as the Americans would say) into a recycling bin, they’re giving that material away. They pay for the service to have the material collected, and in most instances it goes off to some re-processor somewhere, so they’re giving Rupert Murdoch his newspaper back at a discount price. Or they’re giving aluminium away to Comalco or one of these larger companies. Where…if you put organic material into a bin and it’s being made into compost and it’s going back into soil to produce food – the people see that it’s a very real connection.

I think that what we’ve done inadvertently, and in some ways intentionally – we obviously expected to get very clean material from it – what we’ve done is we’ve hit a button in people that really resonates with them.

We’re operating now in five council areas with City to Soil, and our contamination rate seems to get lower and lower, not worse and worse. Most contamination rates around the world in organics recycling, people think they’re doing really well if they only have five percent contamination. Our contamination has never gone above point-four of one percent. The lowest council – we just started at a place called Palerang. Their contamination level is currently running at point-zero-six of one percent.

So, in a small town of about four hundred people, we collected one-and-a-half tonnes of material and the total contamination were two soft drink cans and one plastic pot. That’s absolutely nothing.

EM: That is really incredible. And for our final question now, because we’re running out of time: can you tell us how you get such low contamination rates? What do you do?

GG: What we collect is garden waste and food scraps together. Now, that’s unusual, but in Australia, our circumstances are relatively unusual. We have four hundred and fifty-five million hectares of land under agriculture. Seventy-five percent of that land has got less than one percent organic material in it, so our soils are very low in organic material.

We have about forty-five million tonnes of waste a year, and about sixty percent of that is organic. So it’s an absolute no-brainer that the thing we should be clean product, and getting it back into our soils.

So to make that as easy as possible for people, we use a two hundred and forty liter wheel bin – a cart for the Americans – into which…we give people a compostable bag which sits on their kitchen bench. Because the compostable bag breathes, it allows water to go out of it, and allows the material to lose a lot of its moisture, but it won’t smell. People then tie up that bag and they put that in with their green waste in a two hundred and forty liter wheel bin.

The difference with our bags, is that when we give a household a roll of one hundred and fifty bags, they all have a number on them. So we can, theoretically, if we’ve registered the number against the street address of the house that we gave it to – we know where that bag came from. But we don’t use it negatively; what we generally do is we’ll wait until we get bags back at the composting site, we’ll pull two of those bags out of the compost pile and if there is no metal, glass or plastic in those bags when we open them, that household wins a one hundred dollar hamper of fruit and vegetables.

We’re trying to make people think about where their food comes from. But, more importantly the fundamental thing about City to Soil is trying to connect the urban population back to the rural population. And that whole link is to try to get people to think about the farmer as their food supplier. Because regardless of a farmer’s religious, political or social beliefs, you need to have a relationship with them because they’re growing your food. And they need security and you need security of supply.

So food is very, very important to us. We say to people all the time: if you eat, you’re involved, you know? It’s a process you can’t avoid. And so…and we think this message can transfer quite comfortably into any language, because it’s a very simple message. It’s just simply saying: clean material goes into your food supply.

EM: Amazing, that’s a great message. Well, congratulations on the success of the program, and Gerry, that’s all we have time for today so…

GG: Alright.

EM: Thanks a million for coming on the show.

GG: Okay, talk to you soon!


Organics Recycling in University Curriculums: A Growing Trend


In this eleventh episode, we speak with Director of the College of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Sciences at Cal Poly University, Hunter Francis, and Adjunct Professor at University of Illinois Springfield, Wynne Coplea, about the state of organics recycling, composting, and anaerobic digestion education in North America, and about the advantages of introducing composting into University curriculums.

Thank you to ecovio® from BASF for making this episode possible.

ecovio® is a high-quality and versatile bioplastic of BASF. It is certified compostable and contains biobased content. The main areas of use are plastic films such as organic waste bags, dual-use bags or agricultural films. Furthermore, compostable packaging solutions such as paper-coating and injection molding products can be produced with ecovio®. To find more information, visit our website.


EM: So Hunter, as director of the College of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Sciences at Cal Poly – can you tell us a little bit about the situation at Cal Poly regarding composting and training?

HF: Yeah, we have a large agricultural college; it’s the second largest campus in California. We have about six thousand acres here in San Luis Obispo, and an additional three thousand acres in Santa Cruz County. And so…and we have one of the country’s largest agricultural colleges, which means we have a lot of animal units; we have quite a bit of beef cattle, we have a large dairy and we have chickens and horses and so. And because of that we have a lot of manure, and we have developed a compost operation that handles all of our manure and our green waste, and so it’s a good site to do all our trainings in composting, because we have all of the equipment, and so on.

EM: That’s excellent. And your course is taking place very soon isn’t it? When is it starting?

HF: The 24th. It’s the whole week: march 24th through 28th.

EM: Right, okay. And have you been running this training very long?

HF: Well, it’s the second time that we’ve offered it. So, this is a week-long professional development compost training, and as I said, this is the second time we’ll be offering it. We did a week training two years ago in 2012, and it looks like at this point it’ll be an offering that we do every two years or so.

EM: And is your target audience the industry people that are actually working at composting operations?

HF: Yes, or agriculturalists. We have a lot of vineyards in our area, and we have…we are pretty rural, so you’re correct: the target is more people working in industry or in agriculture, or waste management, who are looking for skills either to improve their composting knowledge, or to start new facilities, so. We do have a couple student volunteers who help with it, but as it stands we do not have a composting course in the normal curriculum. So that’s something we’re hoping to develop. The one course that’s in the process of being initiated is a compost and soil-testing course, which is going to be offered through the Soil Science Department, that would focus more on the laboratory techniques for testing compost.

So, that’s exciting. We do have a pretty strong soils department, and as you can imagine, soils is a good way to connect with a lot of the processes involved in compost. And my understanding is that that’s probably about as close as you can get to actual, you know, established academic degree programs that would be focused on composting would be some of the soil science programs around the country. Because as far as I know, no one’s offering a degree in composting per-se.

EM: Right. Well, that’s great though that Cal Poly is starting to bring composting education to the fore in various ways, that’s very promising. And a question to both now: who do you are the key groups that need composting education today?

WC: I believe each sector in our culture and our economy does have a need for some form of composting education. But at this time, the particularly important target audiences for composting education in my mind, would be ag professionals and growers, the agricultural community; some of the more traditional farmers have maintained a form of composting, many of them certainly still do land application of manure and animal bedding, and things like that, but not a lot of them do actual blending and composting and use the compost. With the upsurge of interest in local foods, organic growing, specialty foods and so forth – they’re a prime target audience. As well as, I think, local government officials, because that’s where the policy rubber meets the road. And local government officials can do an awful lot, just with their own contracts for services, their own direct services that they provide.

The third prime group I think would be current waste management professionals. Absolutely, I think those are our target audiences right now. But really, the answer could be everyone; anyone.

HF: Yeah, I would agree with that. I think that was well put. I think on the state level too, in terms of policy makers, there should be more education. Particularly when it comes to aligning some of the overall goals of these different agencies. In California we definitely struggle from the fact that there are a number of environmental regulatory agencies sometimes that don’t…it almost seems as if the policies are not well aligned. So, you know, here the big challenge is the fact that the air quality boards are creating restrictions in terms of monitoring VOC’s, and so forth, that are making permitting of composting facilities difficult in some areas, so at the policy level I think there’s some need for education as well.

EM: Excellent points. And like with Cal Poly, we see more and more universities including organics recycling and composting as part of their curriculums and daily activities as well. Can I ask you both, then, for your clear take on widely including organics recycling in university curriculums especially, possibly even as a stand-alone course. Is it a good idea?

HF: Yeah, I think it would be. I think it would tie into student interests, especially, you know, there is a fairly strong contingent of students who are interested in environmental studies and in recycling, and so on, and…. The other thing that I was thinking about is the fact that a lot of academia across the country, and probably across the world, is paying a lot of lip service to this idea of interdisciplinary studies, and breaking down silos, and, you know, having offerings across departments – and composting is really ideal for that type of education because it draws on a lot of the different disciplines; so everything from soils, to environment, to biology, agronomy, engineering, even marketing, or energy use. It can all be tied into these types of curriculums. So, I think it offers a lot of potential for meeting that student demand and for, you know, engaging the different disciplines. And it also could be a response to a lot of overall social goals too, which is namely to get organics out of the waste stream.

EM: Wynne, do you want to weigh-in on that?

WC: I definitely think that there is a need, and it would be welcomed for colleges and universities to begin to create and teach, and keep on-going formal curriculum built around composting. At this point, I would agree there’s not a lot of formal curriculum and/or even stand-alone certificates or degree programs out there. The non-formal education community has actually done a better job of pulling together the players. And it was already noted that extension is one of key players – certainly here in Illinois, UOI has a strong extension presence and they have a good composting instructional setup and resources online. And there are places like Cornell’s Waste Management Institute that has done a lot of research; I believe that that institute is set up more for research and hands-on involvement for the students in research.

EM: They have a composting site as well, and the campus also has a lot of sustainability and recycling initiatives going on too around the campus. So, you know, that’s really great – they’re at the forefront of sustainability education as well at the moment.

WC: Oh yes, uh-huh.

HF: Yeah.

WC: University of Georgia also has some research going on in vermicomposting at one point, as does SIU Carbondale here in Southern Illinois – they have a major vermicomposting program; they utilise…they grind all of the food scraps from the cafeterias on campus, feed it to worms in an – at least – thousand square foot building, and then take the vermicastings and utilise that on campus. So, it’s a hands-on opportunity for the student workers to be involved, and to learn about it. It’s also that some of the professors there are conducting research and involving students –

EM: Yeah, and another example off the top of my head as well would be the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, which does a lot of work with renewable energy – they’ve installed a biogas facility at the university, that’s totally run by the students and provides great training for anaerobic digestion and biogas production – so there’s that as well.

But as you say, there doesn’t seem to be a formal, stand-alone university course or curriculum based around compost – how far away do you think we are from Universities offering these kinds of courses?

WC: There is a change on the horizon, and groups like Compostory.org are helping to usher in that change. I do believe universities and colleges are waking up to the value of multi-disciplinary approaches. The students want it. Hands-on experience is so valuable, along with the research aspect and the higher-order thinking and writing skills. The hands-on stuff and service goes right along with it. And industry, I think, is arriving at the same point as education is, where we see a need for some change, and more collaboration.

EM: And you’re developing a curriculum for Kankakee Community College as well. I was wondering what role do community colleges play in composting education today in the US?

WC: Community colleges have served more-or-less as the “in-between” the universities and industry and trade associations that are providing very specific, very targeted short-term training, you know, for a specific topic. Community colleges can help take that and put that within a context of industry, but also giving academic credit, which then can be build upon for these further certifications, degrees, and so forth. I think that all three levels need to begin to work more closely together, and it is beginning to happen.

The National Recycling Coalition, along with RONA (the former recycling organisation of north America) – in which there are many movers and shakers out there in California, Hunter – put together three years ago a national committee for sustainable resource management learning standards; and from a variety of sectors: business people, processors, academic folks, non-profits…this committee agreed and put together twenty-five standards for learning, which any state recycling organisation, trade association, or college, really, could or should be using if they want to formalise and teach some standardised sustainable resource management – it’s not just recycling coordination anymore.

And they’re brand new, I mean literally hot off the presses. They just were announced and, kind of, finalised late in 2012. There are several state recycling organisations that are considering implementing them, or being more-or-less, quote-on-quote certified to teach sustainable resource management. And again, I’m Vice President of IRA here in Illinois, I am chair of the Certification Committee here; we have a hope and desire of taking these two classes: one is currently being taught through Kankakee Community College online, completely online. The second course will be available this summer. And then the students in that course will be offered the opportunity to test for certification to become a nationally certified sustainable resource manager through IRA – through the Illinois Recycling Association – because we’re using these new learning standards.

Now, I’m kind of putting the cart before the horse because we haven’t formally been accepted yet, but I’m pretty sure we will be. We’re excited about it, we’d like to see it grow and again, in my mind, this collaboration – academically, but also with industry driven, up-to-date, cutting-edge information on best management practices, on current best technology…. That stuff comes from industry, you know? And where industry can collaborate and advise, and – whatever – help provide and create this kind of curriculum, there you will have very valuable curriculum.

EM: Yeah. That’s really great points there, actually. And what would be the outcomes, then, of having such widespread composting education do you think?

WC: The ultimate outcomes? I guess the ideal would be that composting begins to be accepted as an integral part of a sustainability curriculum, as well as any sustainability goals at any local government or community program, any organisation program. That there would be a greater number of jobs specific to composting in the economy as a result of professionalising it academically and, you know, through the trade associations.

And just that…you know, there’s going to be more of a cultural buzz as time goes on. There’s definitely a paradigm shift, a sea change occurring. There is a greater push for sustainable practices that capture and manage natural processes, as part of every day business and as part of our learning and education. So, I just see…including composting education and training at any level – formal or non-formal – that’s the way we’re moving.

EM: Yeah, definitely. And last question now – Wynne, you’re involved in course development – what needs to be done, and what types of support is needed in order to develop such a curriculum?

WC: Well, federal dollars, grant dollars, private foundation dollars; to help a college or a professional trade association…you know, it takes time. I mean, a college course – a university course – the general rule of thumb is that it takes twenty-five weeks full-time to develop a new course from scratch. Two courses – you’re talking a full year just to develop two new courses, and that would include researching all the existing stuff that’s out there right now. That’s a chunk of someone’s time. So that’s valuable, you know? And the knowledge of how to pool all those resources together, and…. So anyway, what’s needed is support for the college or the trade association to be able to do that.

HF: Yeah, and that’s actually how we got our compost training that we’re doing here next week. Originally the first year’s offering was funded by a grant from the USDA SARE program – which is the US Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education – they funded the first training in 2012. And then, this current training, we have also received some funding from a local charitable foundation, the Miossi Foundation, so…

WC: Yeah. So there are often grants available through federal agencies, through colleges, to help with something like that. Honestly, unless trade associations have a 501 C3 designation, I doubt that they would, many of them would be eligible for a lot of the larger foundation grants. But small grants, even, can help. So, getting a little bit of funding together to begin with is a key start.

But beyond: assuming you have somebody that’s going to drive the bus and dedicate a significant amount of time to it, then begin researching. You would have to begin researching the curriculum that’s already out there, the industry and trade association-type trainings that’s already out there. I already researched – I don’t believe there are learning standards out there, but that would be a great thing to begin to pull together. You know: what would be the learning outcomes of such a training. I.D. the proponents in your area: those that are interested for environmental reasons, as well as those who are interested because it could be a value-added operation for their existing business. Fill in the blanks; bring them to the table and fill in the blanks. Decide what training is already available, where we need to go, and then fill in the blanks in-between; what the students should know, and how to get it to them.

And I’m a firm believer, as Hunter is, that a blend of formal resources and some classroom learning, with the science behind it…. Compost is perfectly suited for STEM: for science, technology, engineering and math – all of those skills can easily be applied when studying and/or implementing composting. So: bring everybody to the table, come up with a good product, with very specifically identified learning outcomes…someone is going to pick it up somewhere along the line. That would be my advice.

EM: It’s great advice. And that’s all we have time for today now, so I want to thank you both for coming on the show to talk to us.

WC & HF: Thank you.

EM: Okay all the best now, bye!


Toxic Dump Transformation: A Story from India


This episode corresponds to Lesson 1 of our online course.

In this tenth episode, Master Composter Peter Ash tells us how he helped transform a hospital dump in Kerala, India, from a toxic wasteland into a lush environment – with a dramatic drop in heavy metal quantities in the soil – by using recycling and vermicomposting techniques.

Thank you to the BioCycle for making this episode possible.

BioCycle, the Organics Recycling Authority, is the leading magazine and website on composting, food waste management, anaerobic digestion and renewable energy from organics recycling. Subscribe to BioCycle and get access to every article published over the last 10 years, and sign up for @BioCycle, our free biweekly e-bulletin. For more, visit www.biocycle.net.



EM: Just to set the scene a bit, Peter, can you tell us a bit about the AIMS hospital and where it’s situated?

PA: The hospital, AIMS: Amrita Institute of Medical Sciences and Research Centre, they call it AIMS for short. And that, it was really a trip, because this had been a twelve-bed hospital about twenty years ago. And it turned, it grew up, like: everything that…where Amma goes, wherever she has a school or any kind of centre, it just goes from zero to a hundred miles an hour in no time.

So this hospital went from a twelve bed hospital to now a fifteen hundred bed, state of the art hospital and research centre, Med school, dental college, nursing college, school of pharmacology, you know, the whole thing. And with Amma, if you can pay, you pay. And if you can’t, you come and you get served, and you bring your family, and the family stays in the guest house while the patient’s being, you know, treated in the hospital, and everybody eats for super-cheap, and you stay until, you know, everything’s fine, and then you go home.

And so, there’s probably seven to ten thousand students that serve over, probably, twelve hundred patients every day. There’s thousands of employees. And it’s all coastal, tropical wetlands environment. And the hospital, it’s about 7 kilometers inland from the Arabian Sea. The city of Kochi, it’s a huge metropolitan area, you know, India is so densely populated. So there’s Edappally and Ernakulam, all these communities that just all run together – it’s just huge and it’s all interconnected with these waterways.

EM: Okay right, so it’s a densely populated area, and a massive hospital.

PA: Mh-hm.

EM:  And often hospitals use incinerators to burn the medical waste – but you were telling me that this one didn’t have an incinerator the first few years, and they were just dumping the medical waste onto the island itself. So, what did the dumping ground look like when you got there – and what did you do?

PA:  Basically, when I got to AIMS, the first thing I did was a big waste audit and a site assessment. And they took me around and showed me different properties, and the property I picked was right across this backwater channel connected to the Arabian Sea, to this big island that’s just, not even a meter above sea level. You know, it’s mushy in places. But, where they had been boating the waste, and the food waste – they were just dumping it in the backwaters – but all the other waste, if they couldn’t just easily recycle it, they were taking it over to the island and they were dumping it in pools of water or burning –

EM: And this was from the hospital?

PA: Yes. And for years before they got the incinerator, they had just been taking the hospital waste over to the island and burning it – right on the surface of the island. They took, like, metal rods, stuck them in the ground and made, kind of a rack so they could get some air in it, and they just put the bags…. I’ve got pictures of when I first arrived on the island where they had red hospital waste, you know, medical waste on this rack where they were burning. And the island, right there where they were dumping and burning was so dead that there was no insects, there was no birds, you know, it was just completely dead. And I said, “okay, this is the spot. This is where we’re going to do it. We’re going to have to build a big roof, so we can compost during monsoon season…”.

So, they said, “Well, what do you need?”

“Yeah, well I need this roof…”

“How big?”

“Well, like, by this, by that”


So, they laid it out and they started digging holes to pour concrete to hold up the pillars to hold this roof up. And then all the dumping and stuff that I’d seen, I said “Well” you know, “no more dumping, no more burning. We’re going to sort through this, we’re going to do better recycling. If it’s recyclable and it’s already over here now, we’re going to wash it and send it back to be recycled. If it can’t be recycling, then we’ll bag it up and we’ll send it to the proper incinerator, but no more dumping, no more burning”.

But when they started digging these holes for the footings, they’re like a meter wide, and they’d dig down so they can pour concrete and get…because it’s like the roof…like almost…our initial roof was almost the size of, like, a football field, because we had to build these big windrows of compost. Here we’re talking each day we were going to be composting six to eight metric tons of material a day. So, we’re building these long windrows, you know. We build a pile and then we’d add onto it the next day and add onto it the next day, until we run out of space. So when they start digging these holes, all this stuff starts coming out of the black mud. Syringes, blood vials – with blood still in them – catheters, IV bags, medicine packets…I mean, it was just, it was nasty. It was terrible. And I’m going, “Oh my God”. And they had told me the reason that Amma wanted me to come back was to start composting because they were under a lot of pressure from the State Pollution Control Board. And when I saw what was coming out of the mud, then I understood that, okay, this is not about composting the food waste, this is about the hospital’s impact on the environment.

EM: Hmm, I see…

PA: And Kerala has laws, I mean, they’ve got an environmental policy, they’ve got laws – state laws, federal laws. It’s just that, enforcing laws – they don’t, like, fine you. What they do is, they tell you “Okay, you can’t build anymore”. And with Amma, everything is growing, you know: more students, more patients, more technology, you know. So everything’s got to keep…they’ve got to keep building. And so, we couldn’t hold still. So we had to show them we were getting better.

And we actually, we cleaned up everything we could off the surface, and if it was recyclable, we washed it and bagged it up and sent it back to be recycled. If it couldn’t be recycled, we sent it back to go into the incinerator. What was buried in the mud we couldn’t do anything about because they hole fills up with water, you know. And this was really black, nasty, dangerous toxic mud, you know, with needles and…so we had to be careful.

So what we did was: once we cleaned the surface up, then we just, we took, like, palm fronds and, you know, things that were growing along the water edge. And we laid them out over the surface of the spongy soil, just so we wouldn’t sink into the mud, and we built our compost windrow on top of that, and then we build another one next to it. In two or three days we’d have a whole row of compost.  And in the island there was a little channel, where they had been boating with the waste and they’d been dumping on either side. And so, on either side of this little channel, we had a plot where we were making compost. And as soon as we’d turned and spread out the compost on one spot, we’d go right back in there and start composting again. And then we’d be turning and spreading on the other side, and we just kept going back and forth, and we did that for six months waiting for the roof to be finished and the floor to be compacted so that we could get a piece of equipment to turn our windrows by equipment.

EM: Okay.

PA: So, in the six months we’d built about eighteen inches of finished compost on top of the black toxic mud.

EM: Mh-hm…

PA: And before we got too far along, I went and I took a soil sample of the mud – about the upper four to eight inches of mud in this one area. And I had it tested for heavy metals. And I asked them to test for every metal you can test for, and there was only one metal that was not found: antimony. But mercury, lead, selenium, you know, arsenic, it was all in there. And it was way over limits. And we knew that was what it was going to be.

I also took a sample of the river sediment because we’re not the only polluters, you know: all that huge metropolitan area – there’s chemicals, and open sewer lines, and you name it, and the rains are running off, you know. But we did find that, there where I sampled where the dumping and burning had been going on, it was more toxic there than in the river, especially for certain metals.

EM: Mh-hm, okay…

PA: And, but anyway, so then, after six months of composting out in the open, we saw that now there’s all kinds of insects and stuff, you know, in the compost and birds are coming, you know, so it’s, like, coming alive – and then there’s seeds sprouting out of the compost. So we just come out and looked at each other and we go, “Hey, that’s pretty cool. Let’s bring in some clean soil now and mix it, and we’ll start planting stuff, you know, and we’ll restore the habitat here.

EM: That’s incredible. And what else were you doing? You were vermicomposting as well, right?

PA: Yeah. And I’d done some research, you know, like, how people were composting with worms in India, and so we build our own, kind of, open tank system: it’s just basically you build walls about waist-high on a cement floor, you put a roof over it, you put netting between the wall that’s about a meter high or less, up to the rood so it’s shaded and so birds can’t get in. And you have a little drainage on the floor so if there’s any liquid leaching out of the vermicompost pile, then you can capture that because it’s got nutrients in it. And so we started a lot of vermicomposting.

And then when we started planting plants, we used a lot of the fresh vermicompost to plant the plants with. So we knew we were inoculating the soil with earthworms, you know: there’s going to be some babies, there’s going to be some hatching eggs. And I knew that, from research that I’d done, that worms actually extract heavy metals out of the food that they’re eating. So getting earthworms into this new ecosystem that we’re building is going to be a good thing.

EM: Yeah, and we’ll talk a bit about what happened with the soil in a minute. Just before that though, can you give me a little bit more information on the logistics of the whole thing, and equipment you were using? How did you…?

PA: You know, everything gets boated over to the island – everything. You know, all the construction materials, all the cement blocks, the sand, the roofing materials, and then, you know, all of our plants for gardening and you know. And then all the food waste and the woodchips and…and then, we found this manufacturer in India that made this agricultural shredder, and then we bought this shredding machine to shred palm fronds and…. But we needed to shred a lot of wet materials too, like fresh coconut and green coconut palm fronds, and that wet stuff tends to clog up a lot of material. And so we found that this shredder machine – we bought a little one and we tested it, and then we had our own mechanics and fabricators and engineers look at it, and we told them what we needed and so we made some modifications to it. And then we took it back to the manufacturer and we said, “Look: we want to buy the big model, in fact we want to buy a couple of them, but we need these modifications build into it, because we’ve got to run a lot of wet stuff through it, and the way it’s designed right now, it clogs up. So we worked with the manufacturer and they built us, you know, the one that we needed.

But then we also needed some compost turning equipment, but nobody in India really makes composting equipment, you know: commercial scale composting equipment – there’s no compost turners, there’s no big filtering machines for compost. So, you know, I found a YouTube video of a farmer in Northern California that built his own compost windrow turner by taking the rear axle out of a heavy truck and just done a bunch of modifications: he welded this big tube onto the wheel hub, and he connected the differential onto the tractor on the power take off, you know, the tractor, to drive this differential.

Then he had this big tube with these paddles welded on it, so that you could lower it down next to the compost pile and you could drive the tractor beside the pile, and this tube with these paddles on it is now going to turn – and the thing is, this tractor is going forward, but this tube, this big metal pipe with these paddles on it, has got to turn the opposite direction; it’s got to be going, like, in reverse, as opposed…you know, so it can lift up the pile with, you know, these paddles welded to it: lift it up and throw it up into the air to get it aerated. And at the same time, we spiraled them around the tubes, so that it would actually throw the edges of the pile towards the middle, and the middle of the pile to the outside. Because that’s what we want: we want the middle of the pile on the outside, and we want the outside of the pile moved to the inside. So, we bought a tractor, and we built the compost windrow turner to put on it.

EM: That’s brilliant. And going back to the soil now – what was it like after all the work you were doing?

PA:  Yeah, so I’ll tell you what, here’s what happened was: last April, I went to the very same site that I took the original sample. And I dug down below the compost and the imported soil, down into the same black mud that I took the original sample from. And so I went and I did the same thing, in the same area, in the same soil layer, and I took that sample in. And it turned out that, like, in the upper eight to ten inches of that same original layer, we reduced three of the metals to non-detectible levels. Two others, we reduced them so that they’re still detectable, but they’re within safe limits for food consumption. There’s still three metals that we’ve reduced by at least fifty percent, but are still too high for human consumption.

EM: That’s still incredible, though, isn’t it?

PA: It is, especially when you consider that so much of the food in India is grown with overdoses of toxic chemical pesticides and fertilisers and stuff, that if that food was tested compared to the plants that are being grown on the island, they probably wouldn’t be much different.

EM: Okay, interesting…

PA: And we did, in just over three years, what we did on that island – reducing the metals the way we did – that’s unheard of! It’s unheard of. You know, and, so we’ve written some papers and I’ve presented this to different conferences…I presented this last fall to the Global Humanitarian Technology Conference in San José, California. We had another presentation at a conference held in India, also late last summer.

EM: Okay cool, so you’ve been busy trying to get the word out about this. And how do you explain to people what happened with the soil – do you know how exactly the results came about?

PA: Yeah, so what we’re finding is, like, there are a lot of different things that are happening, and we don’t know all the answers, you know, that how this could happen so quickly. We know that the earthworms are playing a part; we know that some of the plants are accumulators, or hyper-accumulators or metals. So we can plant certain plants that will pull metals out of the soil. And then, what do you do with the plant, you know? Can you compost it? Can you keylate it? Can you change the form of the metal? And then the earthworms, you know, pulling metals out: what happens when the earthworm fills up with all these metals and then it dies? Well, another earthworm eats it, so it keeps it tied up.

And then there’s some keylation that takes place, and it’s some kind of an ion exchange, especially with carbon molecules, apparently, and where there’s active fungi in the soil. You know, and one of the things we did too was we took a biological testing of the soil. Normally, farmers and gardeners to a chemical soil test, you know, they look for NPK, pH and EC – they look at the nitrogen, the potassium, the phosphorous, you know, that kind of thing. And then they want to know, like, how the chlorides – how salty is the soil. So that kind of a typical chemical test – but that’s just really supporting the chemical companies, because then they want to sell you more nitrogen, or more phosphorous, or something to condition the soil with. But if you just make compost, and you get the organic material, and you get all the microorganisms in the soil, then everything takes care of itself. The soil pH neutralises, and then these metals start to get tied up. They get keylated – they pick up or they lose an ion, and now it’s still lead or mercury, or whatever, but it’s no longer in a toxic form that enters into the food chain.

EM: Yeah, exactly. And it’s amazing to see it actually happening!

PA: Absolutely.

EM: And before we go now – because we don’t have much time – is there anything else you’d like to add, or some advice you’d like to give to people listening in?

PA: Well, you know: whether it’s composting or habitat restoration, or reforestation, or just permaculture design, or even just backyard gardening, you know, the key that I see is that: we just need to look at natural ecosystems – how is nature doing this? You know? What we need to do is mimic nature. Assist nature. As gardeners and farmers, when we see pests or we see weeds, we often ask the wrong questions. We go, “What fertiliser do I need?” or “What pesticide do I need”, you know? And that’s the wrong question. Those are all wrong questions.

We need to look at what’s out of balance in the soil, in the ecosystem. What’s out of balance so that these pests are coming? Why are the pests there, why are the weeds there? These are nature’s cleanup crew. The plant diseases and the insect pests are nature coming in and taking out a plant that can’t live there because something’s missing. And what’s missing is the microbiology. If all the microbiology is in place, then the plant will feed itself and be happy and healthy.

EM: That’s great advice, Peter. But that’s all we have time for now. Thank you very much for coming on the show to speak with us.

PA: My pleasure.

EM: All right, okay thanks.

PA: Thank you.

EM: Bye.

PA: Bye.


Food Recovery & Onsite Composting in Schools & Institutions


This episode corresponds to Lesson 3 of our online course.

In this ninth episode, we examine a food recovery school program in Oakland, USA, with program director Kelly Ernstfriedman and an onsite composting program in Ioannina University, Greece, with Prof. Georgios Pilidis, in order to get a vision of how a 360 solution can work in schools and other institutions.

Thank you to Big Hanna Composter for making this episode possible.

The original since 1991, and now installed in more than 25 countries, Big Hanna’s five standard models of on-site in-vessel composters range from 75 to 2400 kg of food waste per week, for housing areas, prison, schools, canteens and restaurants. For more information, visit www.bighanna.com




Kelly ErnstFriedman:

EM: Let’s just start I suppose with a little background information – you started the Food for Kids program back in May 2013, yeah?

KE: We did, we did. We were approached by Nancy Deming, who works for – she’s a consultant for the Oakland Unified School District, and she works for a program called Green Gloves, which is all about greening the Oakland school system. And she had been seeing a lot of the waste that’s been going on – she works on various initiatives in the schools, including a sorting program, which is the basis for our food donation program. Instead of everything going to the landfill, she’s working on getting the schools to sort their trash at lunch. And then they have something called a Food Share, which is basically, the kids – especially at the elementary and middle-school age, where their bellies are a little smaller and they’re required to take a certain amount of food and they often don’t eat it. So the Food Share bin gives them a chance to put that in there and if someone else decides “hey, I want another milk” then they can take that during the cafeteria period. But then after that cafeteria period, that food goes into the landfill, or the compost.

And so Nancy really wanted to connect with someone who could take that food and then donate it. Thanks to the Bill Emerson Food Recovery Act, which was passed in the U.S. In 1996, organisations are encouraged to donate food. It’s sort of a liability coverage that says that unless there’s gross negligence, non-profits can take this food, or businesses can donate this food and get it out to people that are hungry. So, we kind of had the legislation there behind us, we just needed to figure out a system that worked for Oakland. And we started our pilot in May 2013 with two schools – two elementary schools – and we recovered over three thousand pounds of food, and worked with about thirty families just in about six weeks.

EM: That’s great. And how much would you recover now per month, say?

KE: We…total, we’ve gotten about, I think forty-five hundred pounds of food in the last six months. And we average probably thirty to fifty pounds a week. One of the schools that we’re going to be starting in the next couple of weeks – we did a survey and they had fifty-five pounds of food from one day of lunch.

EM: That’s a lot of food.

KE: It is. It is (laughs).

EM: And does it all get distributed then?

KE: Yeah, all of the poundage that we note – all of that gets distributed.

EM: That’s very good. And to touch on the regulations again, is it primarily the regulations that are preventing schools and other public places from distributing food?

KE: It is, it is. Because the food comes from the Government, there’s very strict rules on what can and can’t go back to the kitchen, and that’s been another part of the program as well, sort of educating the kitchen managers and staff about what can be returned. So for example, if they have apples or pears that go out and go into the Food Share; if those are in pretty good shape, and the kitchen manager has the opportunity to make the call and say “you know what, I think I can use these again tomorrow, or the next day, they’re going to hold up”, they can take those back into the kitchen, clean them off and re-serve them. Anything that hasn’t had a, kind of, heat differential, that can go back in and be re-used.

But anything that has had some kind of temperature change – we see a lot of cartons of milk, for example – some of our schools are satellite cooking kitchens, which means packaged food comes in that gets heated up, so they’ll have a plastic wrapped piece of pizza, or a burrito, or a baked potato with cheese and broccoli – anything like that would have to go into the trash before we came along. But now that we’re here, then immediately after the period, that goes back into refrigeration or the freezer, depending on the site – and then that is distributed either to the students and their families during a distribution period at the school, or it’s connected with a community partner: a soup kitchen, a church – some organisation doing food assistance – and is given back to the community.

EM: Right, okay. And do the schools that you work with compost their waste already, or is that something that hasn’t been done yet?

KE: Yes. That’s actually a great first step to setting up a type of food recovery program, because you want to make sure you’re getting the food – you don’t want to have to actually, you know, go through the bin and do a dumpster dive type exercise where you’re cleaning things off. So having a sorting system that includes compost and includes a food share is absolutely essential. And that’s the first step in how we choose the schools that we’re expanding to is do they already have a Green Gloves in place, or can we get a sorting system up and moving relatively quickly so we can begin the food recovery.

Because that’s just…that takes a little bit of onus off the process when that’s already done, and you can say “okay, here’s the box of food that gets donated – great, that’s done, that’s neatly packaged – let’s hand that off to the parents,” or “let’s hand that off to the community organisation”. So definitely, I think composting and sorting is vital.

EM: Excellent, so they work well together side-by-side?

KE: Yeah.

EM: And would you say that composting and the food recovery program are a good educational tool for students as well?

KE: We hope so. That’s actually, sort of, the next phase that we would like to work on is getting the education component in there, because we have hand outs and, you know, we talk to the parents and the kids. And that’s one of the feedback from one of our pilot schools, Brookfield, saying “this is really important, this is the message that we want to be sending our kids, is that food…you know, food is a resource, food isn’t something you take a bite of and you throw away and you really have to think about that”.

Thankfully, you know, because of Nancy’s work with the Green Gloves program and the sorting, the kids are already getting a sense of that. One thing that’s really fun to see when we do site visits is; we go in at lunch and you see these kids, especially the youngsters that come over, and they’re really looking at the bins and saying “okay, is this landfill? Is this compost? Is this food share?” And you just, kind of, see them working it out, and then they put something in the food share bin and we say thank you, and they just get this big smile on their faces. So, you know, it’s definitely a group effort and all of these different things working together – the teachers as well have been very supportive of the program, and you know, they want to see the kids getting more nutrition and understanding about food and the food system, so

EM: Yeah, well that’s never a bad thing. And I know you’ve been running this in schools, but could you see this type of program running well in a university, say, or other types of spaces, like maybe restaurants, for example?

KE: I think that, not necessarily this program, but there is potential for other programs to work. In the United States, we have a lot of really exciting initiatives going on: there’s the Food Recovery Network, and Food Recovery Network is all about creating student-run food recovery networks in universities. And they have, I want to say over twenty or thirty schools that are participating, and then they had another sixty requests from students that want to start a program. There’s also really great restaurant initiatives that are going on. Out of Austin Texas there is Go Halfsies, which is a group that’s working with restaurants to help them offer smaller portion sizes. So they would have a meal, it would be half the size and the difference in price would be donated towards a hunger relief organisation. You know, there’s all different kinds of ways that businesses can get involved, really specific to what their business is. Restaurants have a great opportunity to donate food and to create compost programs. Schools, especially, you know, large universities with multiple cafeterias – there’s a huge opportunity there to divert waste, and also to get students involved in the process, which I think is really important as well.

EM: Yes, definitely. And for those listening in who might be interested in setting up a similar initiative – could you maybe give a bit of general advice or share some insights into how best to go about setting up a program like this?

KE: I think the biggest thing, you know, regardless of what country or what school district you’re in, is really working with the school and working with the parents and the staff. Because with any new program, to make it work you have to make sure it works with what’s already going on. Particularly with a resource-strapped staff, you don’t want to come in and say “here, we’re going to give you a whole bunch of new tasks”, you know. So, talking with them about the problem of food waste, and then figuring out a way that’s going to work best for them. Some schools are going to need to do distribution twice a week, some are going to need to do daily. You know, looking at the amount of surplus you have is a great way to start: doing some kind of survey with the kitchen management – just to look at okay, “how much milk are we getting in? How much extra food do we have?” And really working with each site and making it very site-specific. There’s not, sort of, a once-size-fits-all. There’s definitely steps you want to take in terms of talking with the schools and finding parent volunteers, or if you don’t have a strong parent volunteer group, which several of our schools don’t, you can partner with another community organisation. We have several schools that are going to start – they’re going to be working with community partners (churches and soup kitchens) that are going to come and pick up that food every day. So, it’s a much smaller ask for the community, but we’re still recovering that food, we’re still getting that food to people that are in need.

EM: Yeah, which is the most important thing. And what’s the future vision for food shift then?

KE: The large vision for Food Shift is that we can create a fee-for-service food recovery network. We believe that food recovery should be compensated in the same way that waste management is. In the same way that we pay for people to pick up our trash, our recycling, food recovery should be valued in the same way. It’s difficult with school districts because they’re so resource-strapped, but what we see, sort of the larger vision, would be policy changes around food recovery. So, you know, cities and municipalities, and maybe even the federal government would eventually put money behind this and say “yes, this is important, we’re going to pay for this service”. So not necessarily the schools themselves, and it’s not going to be, you know, it’s not a get rich quick kind of thing, but ideally yes, that that would be compensated. But that’s a much further down the line vision.


EM: That was Kelly Ernstfriedman, program director of the Food for Kids program, with some great insights and advice on running a food recovery program in a school setting. We go into detail about potential models for edible food recovery in lesson 3 of our online course, and list the key steps on how to get started.

And while our next guest doesn’t work directly with a food recovery program, he does have great experience with onsite composting in a University campus. Professor George Pilidis is a member of the Biological Applications and Technology department of the Ionannina University in Greece. Ioannina University is the first to start composting its waste in Greece and Prof Pilidis has been monitoring the composting program’s performance very carefully, so we’ll get into a little bit of detail on how it all works, and any issues they had along the way.


Prof. Georgios Pilidis:

EM: So Georgios, Ioannina is the fourth biggest university in Greece, I’ve heard you started recycling back in 2008, but when did you start composting organics?

GP: So I have to say, we have started earlier. Fifteen years ago, we had started to recycle our laboratory waste. This was the first step, and a very important one, because we were the first university [to do it] in Greece. We have started for the management of the solid waste in 2009, and the composting system was part of the solid waste management within the university campus; where we have approximately twelve thousand students – undergraduate students – plus two thousand post graduate students, so in total, fifteen-thousand people are living in this area.

EM: Okay, you must have quite a few restaurants and canteens then?

GP: We have two restaurants and we have fourteen canteens.

EM: So yeah, that’s quite a lot.

GP: Yes. (laughs).

EM: I imagine that’s lot of food waste too, then?

GP: Yes, we have approximately one hundred kilograms food waste per day.

EM: Right and how much compost does that make in the end?

GP:  So, according to our studies, fifty percent of the carbon is released in form of carbon dioxide, while the other fifty percent is being converted into a first-class compost. This means we have approximately fifty kilograms of compost per day.

EM: Okay, and how do you manage the compost then, do you sell it?

GP: So, this compost is used mainly by the gardeners of the university, and for this reason we do not have any chemical fertilisers within the campus. As well as, it’s used by people which are working in the university.

EM: Well, that’s a great use of compost.

GP: Yes.

EM: And you were the first university in Greece to start composting?

GP: Mh-hm, exactly.

EM: Yeah, how did the students react, did you have a lot of education to do beforehand?

GP: Yes, the students reacted very positively. We have located this composter directly under the student restaurant, in the basement – it’s an open-air basement of course – and we have also bought an air filter, therefore we do not have any bad smell. The only smell which is coming out is during the maturation process, which is taking place outside of the composter. And we use this composting unit also for didactical issues: many schools are coming here and visiting this composting unit, children, and….this educational process is excellent.

EM: That’s great. Yeah, the educational opportunity, I guess, is a good reason to have a composting unit in a school and university…

GP: Yes.

EM: And can you tell us a little bit about the composter itself?

GP: The composter is a big one – a closed system – the dimensions are approximately five meters long, and two meters in the height, and capacity is four cubic meters, the cylindrical capacity, and this composter is able to treat between four hundred kilograms and one thousand, two hundred kilograms food waste per week. We have approximately six hundred to seven hundred, so we manage this very well.

EM: That’s great. And it’s important to pick the right equipment for your specific needs – what was important in your decision, then, when it came to choosing a unit?

GP: The first and important thing is the material where this composting unit is made. The stainless steel, for example, the quality of the stainless steel is very, very important. And also, of course, the mechanical part, because our composter unit has temperature sensors automatically we have also aeration, and rotation of the drum [it all works] automatically, and this electronics should work very well. But the most important for me is the frame of the composting unit, and the material which is used.

EM: Right, and how do you handle contamination in the input stream of your composting unit?

GP: We are very happy because only one person is responsible for that from the university restaurant. And this person collects the waste, and we made recommendations to him, what kind of food waste he should [put] in the composting unit, and he’s very careful of course. The input is very important: you should avoid to have foreign subjects, for example glass or plastics or stones, or something like that.

EM: Yeah, it sounds like it’s a well controlled system – and this composting program was a pilot program to see if it could work elsewhere, is that correct?

GP: Mh-hm. The pilot program works very well, and Greece as [a] country is really far away from a good system for solid waste management. It’s the biggest environmental problem in Greece at the moment, and we thought that the university should play a pioneering work on that, and we made this, I think, [unclear] with success, due to the fact that we are going in many symposiums and national conferences, and we are presenting this…I think we’re well-known, at least in Greece at the moment.

And at the moment, as far as I know, the municipality of Ioannina is going to buy also such types of composters in order to place them in different places of the city: Ioannina is the seventh-biggest city in Greece with approximately one-hundred and twenty thousand inhabitants. And they’re going to place five or six such composters in places close to restaurants. I do not know exactly the plan, but they’re going to buy five or six composters like this.

EM: That’s great to see it expanding. And permits and regulations apply in most countries and can be quite strict – what’s the situation in Greece and did you have any issues?

GP: No, the Greek government has not any regulations on the quality of compost or the operation of composting units, but there is the European Compost Net, and they set some quality criteria. But according to my opinion, this criteria should be expanded also to organic compounds, not only to heavy metals and xenobiotics or foreign subjects etcetera, or microorganisms, they should also focus on organic compounds and this has been not done. And in order to be a member of this Compost Net, you have to produce a compost which has the regulation which was set up by this Compost Net. But these regulations, according to my opinion [are] very high – for example if you say, for lead for example, it’s approximately one hundred milligrams per kilogram and this is too much.

EM: That’s too much?

GP: Yes, it’s too much for me, or for nickel, it’s twenty-five milligrams per kilogram, this is also too much. They should be more stronger.

EM: Okay interesting, and compost quality standards is an important and quite serious subject that unfortunately we don’t have time to get into right now since we’re running out of time, but George just to finish up – do you have any final words on the success of the composting program or?

GP: No no, we’re very happy to have this composting unit here. We’re very happy that we’re the first university which is using this solid waste management system within the campus. And, of course, many people are coming and visiting us, and I’m going everywhere and giving lectures on that, and I’m very happy.

EM: Well that’s great, that’s great news. Thanks for talking to us today, Georgios.

GP: Okay, thank you very much.

EM: Okay all the best.

GP: Okay, bye.


Recycling Heroes: The Zabbaleen of Cairo


This episode corresponds to Lesson 4 of our online course.

In this eighth episode, we talk to Malcolm Williams about his recent trip to Egypt to meet the Zabbaleen community, who are now recognised as the official waste collectors of Cairo. The Zabbaleen have been recycling for over sixty years, and Malcolm gives us an insight into the incredible workflow of the Zabbaleen, the hardships they’ve endured, and the reasons for their success in maintaining such a great recycling system.

Thank you to Zero Waste Europe for making this episode possible.

Zero Waste Europe is an European initiative bringing together 20 organisations and 300 municipalities committed to work to eliminate waste in Europe. Zero Waste Europe proposes to re-design our society in a way that all superfluous waste is eliminated and everything that is produced can be re-used, repaired, composted or recycled back into the system.



EM: Just for a little background information, the Zabbaleen were originally pig farmers who went to Cairo to collect food waste – food scraps – for their pigs way back in the 1940s is that correct?

MW: Yep, the Zabbaleen are absolutely – if I’d known this I’d probably taken a plaque or a Nobel prize or something or other because they are THE recyclers; the recyclers of my dreams. In about 1944-ish, so the story goes, some of the Zabbaleen, who were pig farmers in the south of Egypt, were suffering some minor droughts and having some problems with their farming, so they moved up to the outskirts of Cairo and started collecting food waste from people by knocking on their doors and saying “can we have your food waste, please” – you know, that’s not unreasonable is it? Anyway, they did that and for five or six years they were setting up their pig farms on the outskirts of Cairo and all the rest of it.

And then in 1949, there was a severe drought in that part of Egypt and the rest of the Zabbaleen moved up to Cairo in numbers – I’m not quite sure what numbers – but they now number a hundred and seventy-five thousand or thereabouts. And whereas they were in the outskirts of Cairo when they first moved up in 1949, and knocking on doors, now they’re sort of more integral because Cairo has grown two, three, four times the size as it was in those days, so they’re in…well I wouldn’t call it the centre of the city, but sort of, certainly inside the ring-road so to speak.

EM: And they were primarily pig farmers up until recently – I know that during the swine flu epidemic all of their pigs were culled?

MW: Yes, this is…more than a sad tale. They came up and they were collecting mostly food waste to start with, as I said, but as time went on, and in the eighties – seventies/eighties – they started collecting other stuff, paper…and started selling that. In other words they became what we now know as dry recyclet collectors as well as collecting the organic, but the important thing is that they collected the organics first. And the other important thing is that they had a deal with the householder – not the local authorities, not with the government or anything – it was just: somebody came and collected your food waste every day at a certain time and they knocked on the door to get it. Because, if they hadn’t knocked on the door to get it – if, like we have here, the dry recyclet was put outside the door – then somebody else would take it, because it’s valuable.

So, that’s the situation and then when the pigs were killed three or four years back by the Mubarak government – without any compensation, you know, the government didn’t say “right, three hundred thousand pigs at so-many dollars a pig, distribute this amongst yourselves”, they just killed the pigs. And they more than halved the income of the Zabbaleen. We had various reports, up to ninety percent of incomes being lost. Because they used to actually eat about twenty percent, and then they would sell the other eighty percent into market.

EM: That’s absolutely horrendous treatment, and they…what are they doing now, are they still recycling?

MW: Yeah, it’s been a bit of a problem for the last three or four years, which is one of the reasons why I think anybody who lives in Cairo will say the situation is getting worse and worse, because since the pigs were slaughtered – before the pigs were slaughtered actually, the Cairo authorities actually called in some big, sort of, international waste companies to do the (inverted commas) “waste contract”. And those big companies, basically, found that they couldn’t actually access the fourteen thousand tonnes of material that arise in Cairo every day because the Zabbaleen have got it, they collected it. From five o’clock in the morning they’re out there until about midday collecting the stuff, and bringing it back to their homes where they sort it out, reprocess it, bulk it and sell it.

So, the figures vary a little bit, but before the pigs were slaughtered they were actually eleven of the fourteen thousand tonnes that were arising, and all of that was actually recycled or reprocessed because the pigs were eating all the food waste. And so that was eighty – that’s an eighty percent recycling rate going back three or four years. Now, that would have put them in the lead in the world as far as recycling rates were concerned. And they did it because they knocked on doors to get it, you know? So it’s the ultimate kerbside, you know, collection system with a sorting at the door, sort of thing.

EM: That’s amazing, and they’re not getting paid for their service at all?

MW: The stories vary slightly. It’s quite interesting when you talk to them. In some places, there is another process where the householder pays so much per month – it varied in our discussions between five and twelve Egyptian pounds (which is about one pound twenty in UK terms, what’s that…just a bit more than a dollar) a month, yeah – through their electricity bills. And the proceeds for that are paid to the municipalities to actually organise the collections – or the government collects that in some sort of way. And, I don’t know whether they use that to pay the big waste companies and also the middle men who actually sort of organise…almost organise the Zabbaleen into, sort of, districts. Middlemen seem to feature a lot in the conversations and we weren’t quite sure how they figured in terms of how they got paid. But they did definitely got paid, so I suspect they get paid a lot from those electricity bill profits. And anyway, the Zabbaleen, basically, get only the proceeds from the dry recyclet, and they’re starting to reintroduce ideas about using the organics.

EM: Right, so that’s what they get, and the government and the middlemen who organise them get the proceeds from the electricity bills?

MW: Yeah.

EM: Right okay. And I’ll like to move on a little bit now and talk about the Zabbaleen’s process – how do they go about recycling at all?

MW: Yeah, I mean, it was really interesting from my point of view, because really from the outside I’d seen from the films, you know, from Garbage Dreams and a few clips on YouTube, that they were reprocessing in pretty, sort of, strange circumstances. And I was sort of a little bit nervous about going, I think, you know, “God this is going to be, you know, a bit like wandering a landfill site”. It wasn’t smelly – it wasn’t brilliant, I’ve got to say. And health and safety certainly is probably not an issue for them: they’re survivors, they’re living of scraps, you know.

But the amazing thing is that after all that sort of manic chaos of very small scale workshops that are no bigger than, sort of, twice the size of your living room kind of thing, they end up producing pretty high-grade recyclet. The cardboard is cardboard, the paper is paper, the cans are cans and the plastics are plastics, sorted into all the grains.

And there’s some really, sort of, interesting technologies being used there. They make their own shredders and chippers and they actually go as far as extruding plastic into pellet, selling it onto the market at a very high price, so…. And yeah, again, the health and safety is not particularly good and the air conditioning and all the rest of it is not…it’s pretty, well, basic if at all. We are talking about what other people might call slum dwelling, and then there’s a lot of stuff, there’s a lot of product all over the place. But it all gets bailed up for market in a way in which I think UK reprocessors would be quite delighted to receive, they’d pay a good price for it. It’s a higher quality than we produce here in some of our “so-called” highly technological collection systems, especially using MRFs.

EM: Yeah, so they go out every day to collect it door-to-door?

MW: Yes. The men go out and collect it in the morning and bring it back, and then everybody scrambles over it and sorts it out, making it ready for market. There are four and a half million hereditaments – households, flats condominiums – all in, mostly, sort of, tower blocks and various…. And those houses are visited by the Zabbaleen collectors – four and a half million to five million estimate – at the very least every other day. In the posh areas they’re visited every single day. Every single day somebody knocks on your door and says “can I have your waste please”. I mean that’s just incredible! That’s just absolutely unbelievable. You know, I think you know – I didn’t know that. So for me they’re heroes – they’re total bloody heroes and they’re getting, I mean, they’re not getting paid much for what they’re doing.

EM: No, they really aren’t. And what are they doing now with the organic material?

MW: Yeah well we asked that question, we got some very sort of shifty looks and shaky eyes you know? Because, I think in reading between the lines that they do collect the organics but they realise that the most important thing for them is to keep that collection service going, they know that that’s their stake in society, if you like. So they keep that going absolutely. But what happens to the organics now varies. Now, it might be that it goes to their chickens and their goats and all the rest of it, but there’s a lot of organics lying around. So you rather suspect that – rather than pay two hundred Egyptian pounds to put it on a truck and send it up thirty-five kilometers to the landfill site, and then pay to have it put in there – then I rather suspect that what they do (and this is how they answered our questions on this one) is they said they put it into the government, in the contractors skips that were lying around the place. They’re not very good skips by the way, and they’re not very, they’re not emptied particularly well. So you get a lot of detritus around the skips, and there’s a lot of evidence of fly-tipping, burning rubbish everywhere. Which is one of the reasons why the government wanted Laila I think, to be the environment minister to actually sort out the “waste” problem – inverted commas – in and around Cairo.

EM: So really if the city just invested in the Zabbaleen, there wouldn’t be such a waste problem?

MW: Well yeah, I mean it stands out like a sore thumb, doesn’t it? If you actually paid the people to do the work, that’s a good idea for a start isn’t it? I mean I’m not, I don’t want to get involved in sort of guessing what the politics are, but you have to remember that the Zabbaleen are one hundred and seventy-five thousand Coptic Christians – and bearing in mind that Egypt used to be a Christian country before, not so long ago – and the predominant culture in Cairo at the moment is Muslim. So, I mean I don’t suppose having districts where there are people raising pigs and being a bit smelly and a bit slummy within your suburbs is actually, you know, good neighbour stuff, but if they had got paid properly for doing it, they could have invested and maybe moved out of the city, you know? They could have actually, you know, moved into the farming areas, which is what they as being – they started as pig farmers.

And when you ask them questions about what they wanted, they said two things: trucks – that was the interesting one, always something plus trucks, right? But the other things they said were: “well we want to be respected, we don’t want to be looked down on. We want to actually have a normal life as human beings in Cairo.” You know, it’s the old thing, isn’t it: what’s more valuable, a doctor or a waste collector? You know, it’s the old Marxist dilemma. And, I can tell you that if they stopped work tomorrow – which they will never do – if they stopped work tomorrow, it wouldn’t take…it would be a matter of days before Cairo would feel the pinch on that one.

EM: Yeah, definitely. And what did you and Gerry do over there to help them out?

MW: Well that was interesting because obviously we were – I mean, I said up front, Gerry and I both sent messages into Laila saying that the last thing we want to do is just be another two white guys coming from, you know, where we come from, you know, telling these guys what to do. I mean, these are the – they’re the experts I learned a hell of a lot more from them then they ever learnt from me in terms of recycling. They’ve been doing it for sixty years, you know? So it was humbling in that sense.

But on the other hand, by coincidence – and Gerry and I sort of came to this conclusion fairly quickly, really, within a couple of days – actually, we could actually help. That we had a bit of technology that I don’t thing they’d have heard of, or if they had, they hadn’t utilised, which would actually help them to actually make some use of that organic material. In other words, the Groundswell process, you know: no shred, no turned…basic equipment; it’s letting nature take its course, really. Basically – using inoculants to (muffled). So, we came to the conclusion fairly quickly that we could help them by asking them if they could use this system, which we then did and they said they could, and we did some workshops showing them how to make the stuff that they were going to use to inoculate their compost piles with.

Laila’s got some plans for doing some pilot trials in six districts – five or six districts – in Cairo. And before we’d got there, I mean, they’d already decided that they wanted to shake themselves up – I think they would call it formalisation. And they’ve some money from the Gates foundation to help them formalise their organisations into what other people would call recognisable companies, to actually be able to – within a few years – have a chance at being able to sign some contracts for delivering services into Cairo.

At the moment, they do it anyway. It’s an informal contract they’ve got with the householder. Nobody recognises that contract, except them. And I’m not sure that even they do, actually, that’s just something they’ve always done. But, I mean, that’s the best contract to have, when you actually think about, because the resources are in the hands of the householder. If the householder doesn’t make those resources available, as we have always said, you don’t get recycling done.

And, so they’ve got that. So I think, I’m quite optimistic that we planted a seed of technology, if you like, and you don’t get change without change in technology, really. But in addition to that, we wrote a report, which we thought Laila might be able to use in persuading her colleagues in the department of finance, or whatever, to think closely about the contractual arrangements in Cairo and to actually recognise the Zabbaleen a bit more. And it would actually make sense if they did that, because at the moment the government are in denial – they’re just denying that these guys do this stuff, you know? And the only people that know full well that they do it are: A. the householders – and that includes the people in the government of course, because they’re all householders presumably – and also the waste companies who just can’t get access to the stuff, so they have to pretend. They don’t mind pretending because they get paid zillions to do it! You know? I mean, it is topsy-turvy.

So I think it’s one of those rather, sort of, strange problems that could unravel itself, especially in the circumstances that Egypt now finds itself in, with its changes of governments and all the rest of it, and, you know, the calling for change is there. Everybody wants that change.

EM: That’s great to hear, and finally Mal, do you have any last words?

MW: Oh, I can’t actually let this opportunity pass: last night – I mean, Laila’s in London at the moment, and we’re meeting her on Thursday for a little bit of a celebration because her grandson Alexander was born last evening. And mother and child are doing well, but grandma is doing even better  (laughs).

EM: (Laughs) Well that’s lovely that’s wonderful news, that’s lovely!

MW: Yeah.

EM: But unfortunately, Mal, that’s all we have time for today. Thanks for joining us though!

MW: Okay! Bye now.


Composting in the Biotech Industry: Case Study


This episode corresponds to Lesson 6 of our online course.

In this sixth episode, Head of Composting at Novozymes Frank Franciosi gives us an in-depth view of the operations at his compost production facility in North Carolina (USA). He shares with us his thoughts on marketing compost correctly and his strategies for setting up a successful facility. 

Interview by Eleen Murphy

Thank you to Green White Space for making this possible.

Green White Space is a not-for-profit enterprise specialising in media and social innovation. Find out more on their website.



EM: So Frank, could you tell

FF: Yeah, I actually got into this business, didn’t know anything about composting, and had answered an ad in a paper to manage a composting facility in North Carolina. At the time I knew nothing about what composting was all about, other than the normal, basic biology and science behind it. And I got involved with the US Composting Council, which was a good resource for me: I met a lot of people, visited some sites, and really learned how to do it on a commercial scale.

And I started this facility, then got out of that facility – worked there for about four or five years – and started another facility, which is working with Novozymes. At the time, they were looking for alternatives for their residuals coming out of that plant. It was an alternative for them. Traditionally I lot of the biotech industries do a lot of land application of their residuals and put it on to farm land – which is, you know, the cheapest way to do it. However, what has happened is a lot of the area is starting to get more urban, so we’re losing that farmland; so this was another way of actually looking at more of a sustainable approach for the residuals long-term.

EM: And how much residuals do you take from Novozymes itself?

FF: we take about thirty-five to fourty percent of the residuals coming out of the process – the plant in Franklington which is just North of Raleigh, North Carolina.

EM: Right, and how much do you produce then?

FF: We produce about thirty-five thousand cubic yards a year of finished product.

EM: Right, and how much is that in tonnes?

FF: It’s roughly about half, because it weighs about a thousand pounds per cubic yard – a thousand pounds a cubic yard is kind of the number that we always use.

EM: Cool and tell me a little bit about the facility itself: the location, the size…that kind of thing.

FF: Yeah, the facility itself sits on an eight-acre site. We have about five hundred acres and we’re smack in the middle of that parcel so we’re surrounded by wooded area. It’s very much a rural area, so we don’t have issues with, you know, neighbourhoods encroaching on us because we own the land all round it (laughs).

EM: Sounds ideal for what you’re doing then.

FF: Yeah.

EM: Could you talk us through, then, the general process of composting at your site and the equipment that you use?

FF: We have, you know, we start off with the front-end loaders. They’re our measuring cups (laughs), okay. And then we have a big mixer just like you mix when you’re baking a cake. It is a Kuhn Knight – it holds about thirty-five cubic yards. It’s a commercial, industrial mixer so this is a rotating reel and it’s got augers in it that are against it, so… And then there’s a conveyor belt that comes off that mixer. We have a truck that parks underneath they conveyor belt, and the conveyor belt conveys the mixed material into the back of the dump truck and then he takes it out to form the windrow.

And then the windrow, you know, they’re about twelve feet wide and about six feet high. The turner – it’s a Backhus, a German turner – and we turn based on meeting our pathogen reduction: basically one time a week, or once every five days. And then taking temperature measurements every seventy-five feet, and we do that with a manual probe. And we use a compost manager system that’s developed from Green Mountain Technologies so we can datalog that back into our PC, so we can track the temperatures.

So after sixty/sixty-five days we’ll pull that windrow up and we’ll feed it to a screener. We have a Backers star screen, it’s a rubber star screen, so all the fine material falls in between the stars, and all the large runs up. The oversize, as we call it, we take that and it goes back into the front-end of the process. And then the fines, we can screen to whatever particle size we want based on our sales demands and what our inventory is. And then we’ll stockpile that material and we’ll let it cure for another sixty days. So most of our materials are at least one hundred and twenty days old before we sell it, depending on the season: our Spring – we have a big Spring sale season which starts in March and May and then it dies down in the middle of the summer months as it gets really hot here – then it picks up again in the Fall. So we have, like, pretty much a six-month sale season, that’s pretty robust.

EM: That’s great.

FF: Yeah.

EM: So, is most of the materials you take from Novozymes or is there any other places you take them from?

FF: There’s a wood-moulding manufacturer that we take the sawdust from. And then there’s five different municipalities in the area and they bring us yard waste. And so, we have to grind that, some of it comes in pre-ground and some of it we have to grind, so we have a horizontal Rotochopper grinder and we’ll grind that down into three inch minus material. And we sell everything bulk, we don’t bag anything. So everything goes out in large tractor-trailer loads.

EM: Cool, and to give us an idea of how it sells – what are the markets that you sell to, are there many?

FF: So, you know, the traditional markets that we sell into are the landscape construction, or landscape installation, markets. We also sell it to the nursery market, and we do sell it to some golf – the golf industry. And then the new area that we’re in is…it’s called Green Infrastructure, I don’t know if you’ve…it’s also called Low Impact Development, and there’s some new rules and regulations that, you know, if you build a building now you have to estimate how much storm water flow you’re going to have – and you have to catch that one-inch rain event. So we’re starting to sell compost into those markets, because compost is very…it has a high absorption rate, it’ll hold a lot of water, it’s basically a natural fertiliser and it’s a great growing media. So there are several areas where compost is being used – green roofs is one of them. You’ve heard of rain gardens or bioretention basins, green swells…. And these are all different applications within that Green Infrastructure category. So that’s happening here in the US.

And then, more and more we’re seeing compost being incorporated into the soil, so there’s a better percolation, a better infiltration rate into the soil – and that’s a whole new market, we’re just kind of scratching the surface. And then another market is erosion control: which is preventing the sediment from running off on construction sites, and that has been a huge market for us just in the recent years.

We’re just starting to sell a little more into agriculture; agriculture believe it or not is not a big market for us, but more and more people are seeing the value of using compost. And then there’s a big push here in the US to grow local, buy local. So we’re seeing more smaller farms, and people are now more interested in keeping their farms, but growing organic and being able to provide that to a farmer’s market rather than a grocery store.

EM: That’s amazing yeah, that’s very promising. And you have a number of different products for different uses – I presume it’s high-quality compost you’re selling?

FF: Yeah, we…you know, because our feedstock’s are very consistent, we get a very consistent product on the back-end. We don’t change our process – so that’s been a big part of us is keeping that quality control on the process side and then also on the finished product side.

And then we screen the different sizes. We screen really, really fine mesh – quarter-inch material – you know, very fine, and that goes to the golf course market, that goes to that green roof market. And then we screen a half-inch/three-eights inch product, which is pretty general purpose: it can be used in potting media, it could be used as a mix, it could be used directly into the garden as an additive. And then we screen really at a larger size, which is coarser, it has a lot more of the woody material in it, it’s got more mulch content in it – and that’s used for erosion control because that’ll hold the slopes, just like a mulch will hold and give you temporary stabilisation of that slope.

And then we do some mixes: a lot of people, they don’t realise the value of the word compost so they’re used to buying topsoil – and we don’t sell topsoil because that’s not sustainable. But we manufacture topsoil; so we take a portion of compost and we blend it in with some sand and some silt and some clays and we make what I call and engineered topsoil, and that’s a very popular product because when people say: “well, do you have topsoil?”, and I say: “no, we don’t have topsoil, but we have engineered topsoil”. And then they go “well, what’s engineered topsoil?” and it’s basically a topsoil that we create by blending other ingredients in with it.

And that’s been a huge market boom for us, because again people are more used to buying topsoil. But when they buy topsoil they buy weed seeds, they buy…I mean, who knows what’s been sprayed on the field…so it’s an unknown but, see, they think if it’s black it’s good, because if it’s dark then it’s rich. But when you look at the analysis of topsoil here in North Carolina, there’s really only one percent organic matter in the soil. And our compost has about sixty to seventy percent organic, so it’s very high in organic matter, which is really the secret to compost, is that: all in the organic matter, and the humus.

EM: Right, and why do you think that there’s so little understanding about compost then, in a general sense?

FF: So I think, you know, it’s all how it’s marketed. And a lot of compost is sold in the US not as compost, but as a soil supplement or as a topsoil, or you know, a manufactured topsoil – and that’s just the stigma that people just have to get over, over time, I think. One of the challenges that we have in the industry is to monetise the value of compost because if you took each and every one of those components and you started adding, not just the value of fertiliser value, but the cation-exchange capacity, organic matter, biological activity…but people don’t value that, they just look at NPK (nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium), they don’t look at the overall picture of soil health.

I think part of the problem is, you know, the commercialisation of fertilisers – the brand-naming of fertilisers – you know, “hey it’s Springtime, time to go out and get your spreader and….” well, you know, we don’t have that market appeal. We’re trying to work on people getting back to basics. One thing that the recession has done is that it has increased awareness of waste, so people aren’t wasting as much. The other thing is, people are now growing a lot of gardens themselves. So that’s been a big push for us: community gardens are growing all over the US, there’s a big push for urban gardens. You know, so I think it’s an awareness thing and I think we need to do a better job at educating the general public as well as school kids because if they learn it, eventually it’ll become common practice.

EM: Yeah, so get it into the school curriculum.

FF: That’s right.

EM: And do you know of any other businesses or companies that are composting their organic waste?

FF: I don’t know of any right off my hands that I could think of, but you know, that changes all the time. I know there’s some egg processors that are doing it here in North Carolina, there’s some tobacco companies that are looking into doing it with their stems – so there’s other industries, I don’t know if it’s just biotech per se. And a lot of it, I tell you, I’ll be honest with you: a lot of it, and it was a big bridge that I had to cross, was the big liability issue here. You know, “oh, what’s the liability, you know” and I think a lot of the corporate people say “well, that’s not our business, we’ll, you know we’ll just send it to a facility”.

So a lot of facilities are probably taking similar material like we’re generating and composting that material. There’s a plant not far from us that makes amino acids, and I know that they have a left over residual, and they’re taking that and they’re shipping it to a competitor of mine, and they’re composting it. So, directly setting up a facility on-site, I don’t think there’s a lot. But I think there’s a lot going to compost, but you just don’t know about it because they’re private contracts they’ve arranged.

EM: Yeah, well it’s good so long as they’re composting it!

FF: That’s right! Yeah, that’s right.

EM: So what do you think it takes to get started on a facility like your one?

FF: You know, it’s very much baby-steps. And I think the approach was: prove it on a small scale; figure out what your technology is. The obstacles that I look at are: of course, money is one (laughs). But you know, location is really important. We don’t really have an odor problem, but you know, when you’re handling stuff like food waste and some of the other materials…if you’re handling manures and there’s dairy farms all around you – there’s not an odor problem (laughs). But if you’re handling dairy manure or food waste and you’re surrounded by a housing development, then there’s an odor problem, right? So I think locations are important.

You want to be near a major road, but you don’t want to be right on the, you know, you want to be off the major road. You want to be in an area that’s pretty much you know what the growth around you is going to occur. Like, I know there’s facilities that have been around since the 1970’s and what is happened is that everyone sold the land around it, so now it’s all housing – well, now you have all these odor complaints. Well, it was there since the 1970’s, I mean….

Yeah, so location’s important and, you know, storage issues, seasonality – those are the big issues. And then, you know, how you plan your facility. You know, looking at the process flow and how materials come in, and you want to make it as linear as possible. Just like, you know, an auto-manufacturing line – the line’s straight. So you want to have an engineer to be able to figure that out, but you also want somebody that has knowledge in the industry.

It’s a lot of materials movement, so if you want to move something a short distance, you could move it with a loader. If you want to move it a little bit longer than that short distance, say…sixty/seventy feet, maybe it’s better to use conveyors or a truck, like a dump truck, or a conveyor and a truck.

And then, you know, your run-off: you want to make sure that if it’s an outdoor facility, that you’re capturing that run-off.  So contamination is also an issue. So those are the big things. And then, sizing your equipment for your facility, so like, you know it’s really better to start out with leasing equipment because the life expectancy of that equipment may be short: like a grinder that takes a lot of beating. So all those little things on figuring out what the movements are and how to increase your efficiency in those movements are really important.

EM: Amazing, great advice. And would you say that it’s economically viable for businesses to go down this road?

FF: Yeah, I think it is. You know, the model in the US is: a lot of composters make the majority of their money on the front-end which is tipping fees, not so much on the back-end. It may be eighty-twenty or sixty-forty. And I think that it could be a good business, but it all depends on what those…you’re competing against the landfill, so your fees have to be better than the landfill so you can bring that business in.

You want to try to get as clean feedstocks as possible, so contamination is an issue there because if you’re picking out a lot of trash and stuff, that’s just more processing time and more equipment. If you make a really good product on the back-end then you can recoup more of your profits on the back-end. So, you know, I think it can be. I know the other model is the AD model, and that works really well where you have high-density populations, small footprint, high tipping fees – so you can recoup some of that in the tipping fee, the energy generation, and then the final product.

What I worry about is there’s a lot of AD plants out there that…they consider everything but the final product, and you know, they’re saying “well we can sell it as a digestate”: in a lot of cases here in the US you can’t because you have to treat it for pathogens, you got odor issues, it’s not a mature product. So it’s more of a cost than it is a profit. So, I’d like to see that model work, where they take the digestate on the back-end and they compost the digestate too so they make another value added profit.

EM: Yeah, absolutely, that makes sense. And finally, is there any last words of advice that you’d like to give?

FF: I’m a believer that if the markets are there and the markets are steady and there’s a really good demand for the product, that we’ll see more facilities expand, we’ll see more facilities being permitted, because the economics working out – start working out a lot better, because you know. A lot of the composting that was done early in the US was mandatory state mandates on keeping yard waste out of the landfill, which was a smart thing to do because it’s useless in a landfill. But they didn’t have the infrastructure, they didn’t have the training and the technology to do it right, to make a product. And you see a lot of municipalities kind of getting out of the composting business, and you see a lot more private-public partnerships being developed. Because I think we understand it more as a manufacturing process – and that’s the attitude you have to take, which is “I’m not just keeping this stuff out of the landfill, I’m making a product”. And, you know, if you make a high quality product, obviously you can demand more price for your product.

EM: Great, great stuff. Frank, that’s all we have time for today, thanks for coming on.

FF: Alright, thank you Eleen.


Recycling Organics in the Middle East


This episode corresponds to Lesson 3 of our course.

In this fourth episode, Eleen Murphy focuses on the Middle East and interviews Daniel Mitroussidis from ITSA on managing organics in a business setting in this part of the world.

Thank you ESCAB for making this episode possible.

QuantorXL® Drum Composting is a turnkey system that achieves full hygienization. Manure, sludge and bio-waste can be composted and turned into a resource, recycling many important nutrients back to nature. QuantorXL® is approved by the Swedish board of agriculture and fulfills EU regulations.



EM: So Daniel, today we’re focusing on the Middle East and just specifically your project in Qatar. But before we get into that, maybe you can give us just a little background information. It seems that recycling is gaining traction in the Middle East, why do you think that is?

DM: It certainly is, I mean, organic waste is what smells and that attracts bacteria and disease. And when you got a prosperous nation like the UAE for example, you know, it’s growing. And the cost of land in using landfills or dumps is becoming very expensive and it can play a detrimental role to society, and just general health and living standards. So, what we try to do is to treat the organic waste on-site or in a collective method on a site next to, or within, the landfill or dump, therefore actually minimizing the organics that goes into the landfill or dump, which we think is a waste of resources, and turning it into compost.

EM: That’s a brilliant idea actually, that’s really cool. So they have a pressing need to recycling, I suppose. But what are the challenges you’ve seen to introducing recycling systems? I presume the notion of recycling is gaining popularity?

DM: It is, it is. There are elements and drivers, but the current practices there at the moment (and there are improvements to this) is that there’s little awareness campaigns (although this is improving), there’s very little source-separation activities, there’s minimal compost development. So, putting quality back into the soils is paramount, especially in a region that is purely desert. There’s in increase in migrant populations, so therefore, when they’re building infrastructure; roads, airports, shopping malls, there are more people producing more waste. So the economic growth in that area contributes to growth in waste generation per person. And if you look at the statistics in the Middle East, for example in the UAE or Qatar, per kg per person it’s on of the highest in the world.

EM: Wow, okay so there’s a lot of work to be done there. And you’ve been part of that work yourself in Qatar, in The Pearl which is a high-end residential and retail complex is that right?

DM: Yeah, the Pearl, which is run by UDC (the United Development Company), based in Qatar as you said, is a beautiful residential and retail complex. And people pay for prosperity, and do not want to see waste, and management are very pro-active and are always looking at ways to add value to the good work already done there.

We identified through our waste management audit, when we were asked to conduct that exercise, that there’s a huge need for landscaping, and maintaining beautiful grounds and floral settings. The Pearl imports everything –

EM: Yeah, just, because actually I remember you saying before, and I thought this was really, interesting, but they import the plants as well, do they?

DM: Yes. They’ve started to develop their own nurseries there but as you can appreciate with the weather, the extreme heat, it’s not always easy. And accessibility to good water, which is suitable for plants, is not always easy to ascertain as well. So, one of the things that we were able to do was, in example, with the workers camp there, they feed them 24/7. Their food is placed directly into the Biobin for on-site treatment. This is turned into compost, then placed onto the garden beds. So there’s less money spent on rubbish removal, importing soil conditioners and plants, and that means The Pearl can manage this themselves.

At the same time, we’ve been able to educate the kitchen staff in better practice of food waste management, and educate the staff in effective management practices in source separation methods as well.

EM: Alright, and was there any other habits that you observed that could be changed?

DM: Yeah, we found that a lot of the watering is done during the day. From an environmental perspective, it is a natural resource and it makes it very difficult when you’re watering in extreme temperatures during the day. That means the irrigation system isn’t working until it’s full at maximum, the plants are dying more readily because there isn’t conditioner in the soil, like a fetiliser. So we’ve been able to actually put the compost on there, therefore extending the lifespan of that plant, and less water required.

EM: Cool, so it saves water as well.

DM: Absolutely. It acts like a sunscreen.

EM: That’s really cool. And so did change happen in The Pearl and more generally, what do you think we can do to inspire influencers to change their systems?

DM: Well firstly, it’s about meeting people within the organisation, understanding their vision, their objectives and their values, and finding the like-minded people and objectives coming together. Secondly, the organisation has to have a strong commitment to environmental issues. And without sounding too cynical, there are many environmental policy statements on all organisations in any website or any other documented policy: it’s whether they actually act on it. And thirdly it’s to make environmental, commercial and social sense.

So, leadership is required and it starts at the top, and it’s about changing their behaviour, so if you improve the task, then you improve the process, and you improve the result, which ultimately improves the performance. So very, very quickly and not in any particular order: it’s about changing culture, and policy and procedures. Everyone works to a task and duty, so if you change that task and duty to make it more effective, more efficient, and more aligned to environmental practices, then you improve the results and the performance. Apart from education and training, you have to look at current plans in place for growth and development, so therefore it’s not just a gimmick; it’s part of everyday use. And with that everyday use, that becomes part of the culture of the organisation, and then that sends a powerful message across the rest of the organisation or the complex that it’s a standard that you’ve developed. And you never go back.

EM: Awesome. So, after the Qatar project – or you’re still involved in the Qatar project aren’t you?

DM: Yeah. We go as regular visitors there in Qatar, and we’ve ascertained new clients, and these are catering companies and food processing plants as well. Because what they do is, a large part of their business is producing food waste, and that food waste is something that we could put back into the ground. And at the moment what their doing is, they’re stopping their work, getting transport companies to pick up the bins and the skips, and they’re paying them to drive across the country to actually dump. We’re saying that you don’t need that. If you eliminate the unnecessary practices and develop new ones, you’d be surprised at the results you can achieve.

And in Qatar, especially for The Pearl, we’ve allowed them to enhance their landscaping services, for example, there’s cost savings in labour and products, there’s been training for staff, there’s efficiencies introduced in water usage, and greater yield of plant as I’ve discussed earlier. The dying plants don’t need to be disposed of; they can go into the Biobin. Planting is more effective and more efficient, in the sense that you’ve already got quality in the soils to work with. There’s less need and requirement for watering because of compost. And we’re able to demonstrate the sustainability loop.

So it’s been more of a win-win and a “win-win” as we’re there doing the work. The more we understand the client, the more we understand their current practices, we can actually introduce new methodologies based on their local circumstances, and therefore fit into their practices. And it’s actually worked in a wonderful way for mutual benefit.

EM: Brilliant. And how important, then, is understanding business culture, to making recycling a popular choice?

DM: It’s very important because decisions in business should be based on data and fact, especially in relation to waste and environmental…many businesses initially don’t know how things are spent. They have beautiful budgets, they have beautiful accounting and financial systems, but if you ask them to break down the frequency of the use and the spending habits, and asking “why”, it’s very, very different. So, business culture should be part of a process of imporvement – an improvement culture. As I said earlier it’s first to understand the problem and then make improvements.

If you have a methodology of measuring and reporting waste levels, this further promotes engagement. So, you’re using the standardised methodologies at a business or a workplace level, to allow targeted analysis and prevention. That means if you have data and facts in front of you, you are a much more informed decision-maker, and it can be driving by the establishment of waste prevention targets. At the moment, a lot of places we visit don’t have targets at all, because they don’t know that there is a…or, they know that there’s a problem – that’s why they’re talking to me – but they don’t know that we can actually dissect it, and then try and put in some new technologies and methodologies.

EM: And what role should local governments play in driving change in this part of the world?

DM: Well one of things we’ve been able to do with our success, at a local level, is allow government and relevant stakeholders to play a pivotal role. They’re also talking about laws being introduced to ensure organic waste is handled in a responsible manner. And that’s a very general term, “being responsible”. It has to be better than what’s happening at the moment. There are laws and regulations, but they have to be enforced and monitored as well. So, we’ve been able to change a bit of habit and behaviour accordingly. And that’s been wonderful for us in the last ten months.

EM: Wow, that’s really cool, that’s really inspiring. And finally, do you have a quick word of advice for our listeners in similar situations?

DM: Yeah, certainly, I mean it’s not so much as a sales gimmick or a slogan, but you know, if you have a look at what we take from the ground, we should it back in the ground. When I do work in India, for example, Mother Nature allows trees at a certain time to lose their leaves. So in India what they do is they gather up the leaves and they burn them. In the end of the day, those leaves play an important role when they fall back to the ground and when you put them on soils because they act as a natural sort of remedy for the soil to be enhanced.

And from a government-driver perspective: you cannot achieve national and economical prosperity unless you invest in community outcomes. And a cleaner environment creates growth potential for economic and community prosperity.

EM: Brilliantly said. And unfortunately that’s all the time we have for today. Best of luck in the future now, and thanks for coming on the show!

DM: Thank you.

That was Daniel Mitroussidis for the Organic Stream on Compostory.org. If you have any questions or would like to learn more about ITSA’s work or the Qatar project, you can find Daniel’s email address on the ITSA website – that’s www.itsa.net.au. As always, you can find us on compostory.org or on Twitter: our Twitter handle is compostoryorg. Thanks for listening and hope you’ll tune in next time.



Separate Collection: The San Francisco Story


This episode corresponds to Lesson 3 of our course.

In this first episode, we are talking to Robert Reed who represents Recology, a company specializing in resource recovery services in the San Francisco region.

Interview by Eleen Murphy


Thank you to BiobiN for making  this episode possible.

BiobiN® is a mobile, on-site organic/wet material management solution that starts the composting process and effectively manages odour from putrescible waste. BiobiN® can be used in a variety of outlets, including food manufacturing, restaurants, shopping centres, supermarkets…it’s endless. Whereever organic or wet materials are generated, BiobiN® is THE solution



: Robert you represent Recology, a company based in San Fransisco and specialising in resource recovery services. Could you briefly tell us a little bit more about the company and its activities?

RR: Yes. San Fransisico set a goal of achieving zero waste by 2020, maybe the most ambitious recycling goal that we’re aware of. So we’re doing everything we can to help the city achieve that goal. We’re also an employee-owned company, so the people driving the collection trucks, or working in the recycling plant, or working at the compost facilities all own the company.

EM: Very interesting. I’d like to talk about the so-called organic “waste” generated by our communities around the world. What do you think it takes to change the way these materials are perceived, so that they become valuable in people’s eyes?

RR: Food scraps and plant cuttings, in my mind, are the most important “garbage” there is. That’s where the nutrients are, and that’s where a lot of the carbon is. So we don’t want those materials going to an incinerator to be destroyed. We don’t want those materials going to a landfill where they’ll decompose in an airless or anaerobic environment and produce greenhouse gases – including methane which is a very potent greenhouse gas. You know, all those things came from the earth and they need to go back to the earth. Compost provides farmers a viable alternative to using liquid or chemical fertilisers. So we need to help people understand that, and that composting is a big part of a solution to our environmental challenges. And once people understand that, then they say, “give me a kitchen pale, I want to be part of the solution. I don’t want to send my coffee grounds and peelings to a landfill or incinerator, I want to send it back to the farm.” You know, even the most jaded person who says “why should I do this?” we say “Well geez, do you like fresh peaches? Do you like table grapes and all those good things that they sell at the farmers market?”


“Well you can’t just take away from the organic farm, you have to put something on the farm so they can continue to grow these healthy foods and continue to bring them back to the city, so that they can go onto your table and you can enjoy them and they can support your good health”.

EM: So your main ambition is to educate people?

RR: Yes!

EM: So in San Francisco, are people into recycling? Have people embraced the program?

RR: Yes, most people have embraced these programs. We’re collecting 600 tons a day of food scraps for composting. But you know, if you do a waste characterisation on materials San Francisco are still sending to landfill, you still find 25, 30, 35 percent could be composted. So that tells you we can do a better job and we need to do a better job.

EM: And in addition to improving the soil and our carbon footprint, which we talk about in the lessons on Compostory.org, we often mention that the recovery of organics can benefit local economies. What’s your take on this?

RR: We really need to look at the big picture when it comes to costs, and when you do that, and you’re responsible, you quickly realise that we have to do these things. And by the way, recycling and composting creates many, many jobs and there’s been lots of the reports in the United States in the last two months that we can create tens of thousands of jobs by recycling and composting. Not many people work at landfills, not many people work at incinerators.

EM: Yeah. So are you seeing any trends emerging in the US?

RR: Yes. I think a major development occurred this summer when Michael Bloomberg, the Mayor of New York, announced that New York City was going to establish a food scrap compost program and switch from sending food scraps to landfills and incinerators and instead compost them. And then, you know, Boston Massachusetts and other cities started to get on the bandwagon. We’re starting to get our legs, we’re starting to get momentum, we need more composting facilities. We need more places to take this material.

EM: Definitely. So this is going out to an international audience. Is there any piece of advice you can give to the other communities listening in?

RR: This isn’t rocket science, this isn’t putting a man on the moon. There’s not a tremendous amount of engineering, we have all the answers and we have all the techniques. Do we have the will?

EM: That’s an important question. Any other advice?

RR: It’s important to have face-time with the residents and the businesses in your communities. I mean, it’s very helpful to use all this technology but it’s very important to get in front of people, and one of the things we’re trying to do is have tenant meetings at apartment buildings. We’ve been going to community meetings for years, and talking about recycling and composting. And we tour thousands of people, particularly younger people, through our recycling and composting facilities.

EM: So I presume it gets pretty popular once people realise it’s not, like, the hardest thing to do in the world.

RR: Come on, hard? It’s one of the easiest things to do! I mean you put your bottles, your cans, your paper cups and molded plastic packaging and other things that can be recycled into your recycle bin. It’s just as easy to throw those things in a recycle bin as it is to throw them in the garbage can. You know, participating in urban compost collection program is also extremely easy – thousands and thousands and thousands of people do it every day in San Francisco. They do it at home, they do it at work, they do it when they’re in the coffee shop – you just need the infrastructure.

EM: It’s a no-brainer really.

RR: It’s more than that. We have to do it! It’s not going to be that long before we don’t have enough food to feed everybody. We’re really using our topsoil and we’re losing every year. We can’t continue to just take away, we have to give back to the soil. We have to protect the soil, we have to get it back to the farm.

EM: Exactly. Unfortunately though Robert that’s all we have time for today, but that you for sharing your insights with us. Best of luck with Recology, let’s hope San Francisco reaches its zero waste target by 2020.

RR: We’re going to do everything we can to try to make that happen.