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Richmond aims to collect thousands of pounds of food waste with compost pilot

Bright green and purple compost bins
The Alice Fitz Community Garden, located along Perry Street, is among the 20 locations where the city of Richmond will collect compostable material. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

The city of Richmond started rolling out bright purple and green bins in 20 locations at community gardens, libraries and more this summer, thanks in part to a $90,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to pilot a new composting program

Kate Rivara — Richmond’s community garden coordinator, who wrote the grant application — is a longtime backyard composter. 

She said she likes “to be able to create that fertility in the soil, to take these things that are rotten and squishy and discarded, and say, ‘Hey, you still have purpose, you still have value, you're still useful.’” 

But Rivara said she couldn’t make enough compost in her backyard to fertilize her own vegetable garden. So, she started thinking about ways to collectivize the process and landed on the idea to apply for the USDA grant. 

Composting comes with environmental benefits — it diverts food waste from landfills, which can reduce methane emitted during decomposition. It also reduces the need for fertilizers that could harm nearby aquatic ecosystems. 

Food waste is a massive issue nationwide, with the USDA estimating that 30-40% of food is discarded yearly in the United States. Food made up about one-quarter of the country’s total landfilled waste in 2018

Flyer with compost pickup locations
(Illustration: Courtesy city of Richmond)

With the $90,000, the city’s Department of Parks, Recreation & Community Facilities was able to purchase a fleet of compost bins, and it contracted with Real Roots Food Systems to do the actual composting.  

Mark Davis, founder of Real Roots, said the organization is “built around creating opportunities for people to participate in the food system.” They grow food, compost, educate and offer volunteer programs.  

Davis said people are disconnected from their food: They usually don’t know where it’s from or who grew it and how they did it. 

“When you get connected back to [food], you get connected to a lot more things,” he said. “You get reconnected to nature, reconnected to the environment, to your health, to your family members, community members.” 

Composting is a way to build that connection, Davis said, and he hopes people will see that pay off soon. Some of the compost produced will go back to community gardens where the food waste was collected. Some also will also go to city parks for greening projects. 

He said the new bins have received a lot of attention already. 

“We've been processing over 1,000 to 2000 pounds of food scraps a week, even in the earliest of weeks,” Davis said. 

Composting is not a perfect solution to food waste. While it can reduce greenhouse gas emissions from organic matter as it breaks down, it doesn’t always cut them out entirely. And it doesn’t deal with root issues that lead to waste, like the lack of access to healthy food in some communities. 

Additionally, most industrial-scale composting programs (including the ones that can break down tough organic material like bone) use fossil-fueled generators to power machinery to heat and agitate the compost. 

The program set up by Real Roots is designed to be less energy-intensive than that. It’s a static pile system, meaning no energy is used to agitate the compost. Real Roots is also using some funds from the grant to set up a solar-powered blower system, which is used to speed up the process and reduce methane emissions.  

Rivara described it as a mid-level operation — unable to handle really tough stuff, but capable of more than a backyard compost pile. 

The pilot is funded until September 2023, but Rivara hopes there’s a big enough response to justify funding and growing the program longterm. 

“Ultimately, we want to get to curbside or door-to-door,” Rivara said. 

Expanding the program’s footprint would also result in more compost production, potentially opening the door to redistribution for home use, Davis said. 

The city is accepting fruits and veggies, kitchen scraps, eggshells, bread, compostable bags, coffee grounds, rice and pasta — as well as paper towels, napkins, plates and bags. 

Meat and dairy, plastic, glass, Styrofoam, cooking oils and pet waste are all among things the city won’t accept. 

The Department of Public Works empties the compost bins each Tuesday.