I grew up composting, using a method that I recently learned has a name. Rick Kaye, director and creator of the Compost Club, says that what my family always called "pitching the compost over the side of the hill" or "dumping the compost" is actually called "sheet composting." The pile was never turned, worms were never added and, of course, it was never used. The Compost Club goes way beyond this elemental method, though the end goal is largely the same: to minimize the waste stream as much as possible.
In Sonoma County alone, Kaye says, 1,200 tons of garbage are picked up five days a week and carted out of county. Sonoma County doesn't have a working landfill, so one-third of the waste stream that is actually compostable food waste is trucked into someone else's backyard. And this compostable food isn't composted once it gets there. How can it be, when it's covered in tons of trash? What it does do is add to the leading cause of human methane production: landfills. Unless the landfill in question is capturing the methane and converting it to something handy, like electricity, we now have banana peels and apple cores contributing to the climate crisis.
In 2002, when his daughter was a second grader in Healdsburg, Kaye volunteered to coordinate her school's recycling program. They started a recycle club, and the students took turns staffing the recycle cart at lunchtime, making sure that containers of milk and juice were emptied, and that everything that could be recycled was. During his duties as the "damage control" during the lunch rush, Kaye noted a huge amount of food waste. Why not take this opportunity to introduce a food-scrap effort into the mix?
Compost boxes were made, a compost-box rotation schedule was put into place, and soon the students staffing the recycle cart were adding one more task to their job: dumping their buckets of lunchtime scraps into the compost box of the week, so that the worms could do their work. Soon, garden soil was being made. Students made labels for their soil and began selling it for $1 per pound. What began as a small business, selling just to parents, soon grew. The Healdsburg Nursery gladly accepted the compost, and on Saturdays, students and parent volunteers began staffing a booth at the town's farmers market. Selling out was, and still is, never a problem.
The Compost Club has since helped to start up similar programs in Windsor, Sebastopol and Santa Rosa. The compost bins set up are for vermiculture, which means they utilize worm composting—effective, yes, but slow and limiting, because worms are vegans, so meat and dairy scraps still have to go into the garbage bin.
Though some might feel satisfied with such accomplishments—hundreds of children educated in the importance and method of composting, tons of food waste kept from the landfills—Kaye is just getting started. After being approached by numerous schools and youth programs, the Compost Club became a nonprofit in 2006.
Kaye wants to be able to move beyond vegan worms to a thermal composting system that will allow for all food waste—including chlorine-free paper products, lunch bags and biodegradable flatware—to be composted quickly and effectively. Vessel composters, however, sell for upwards of $8,000. After three frustrating years of trying to find a way to secure vessel composters for schools, the Compost Club has finally made a breakthrough. An Oregon farmer has figured out a way to make his own affordably, and is giving the Compost Club full details and directions. What would have cost $8,000 will now cost $1,500, plus some sweat and labor.
Kaye is not stopping at schools, either. Restaurants are a huge producer of food waste, and yet what options do they have for composting when many of them are located in downtown areas? The Compost Club is working toward helping restaurants learn about and secure food-waste pulverizers. These miraculous machines grind down the food and separate out the pulp, reducing the waste by 75 percent. The resulting pulp could then be picked up by the Compost Club and delivered to one of their "demo farms," such as the one they currently have at Dragonfly Floral Farm in Healdsburg.
Kaye says that their work has just begun, and, yes, they need help making it all happen—more compost plots, more volunteers to help set up the worm farm, and let's not forget more funding.
While "dumping the compost" may be easy enough, turning that compost into usable soil is an art. So is educating children. That the Compost Club is able to do both is testament to the beauty of their vision, as well as to the fact that this vision is one that we can no longer afford to brush aside as a luxury, rather than a necessity.
For more information, go to www.compostclub.org or call 707.922.5778.