Start a Community Compost Site

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How to Start a Community Compost Site

Before you begin

Do your homework

-You can make very good compost simply by putting food scraps and other organic materials in a pile and waiting for it to turn into soil. You can make great compost by following the steps outlined in this post! There is a lot of information provided here in order to ensure that even if you have never heard about compost before today, you will be able to start your very own compost program. Do not be deterred by the information here as the most important thing is that you get started with your composting project as you will learn and grow as you go.

-Get trained in the art and science of composting if you would like to make the best possible compost. The most comprehensive resource for understanding all-things community composting is from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.

-Map out a realistic plan: what will you compost, how much will you compost, what are your financial and personal limitations, what are your goals for the program? Don’t be afraid to start with a smaller, more manageable program and scale up as you gain more confidence and skill in the composting process.

-Gather the materials you need for your project and reach out to potential clients in your community. There is more advice on how to do this below!

Choose your location and develop a site plan

-Get to know your site’s neighbors.

-Map out the entire composting process and where everything will be stored.

-Secure a water source for adding to composting piles (as needed) and cleaning up.

-Identify other site operators and managers if you are not doing this project alone.

-What will be your management plan and schedule? What days will you pick up food scraps for your compost? When and where will you secure your carbon source (browns)? If you are not operating alone, what responsibilities will each member of your program take on?

Getting Started

Create your compost recipe:

-Avoid problem materials: too much oil, fat, grease, dairy, meat, or citrus might hinder the composting process

-Maintain a ratio of two to three parts browns to one part greens.

Browns are relatively carbon-rich materials (such as fall leaves, straw, wood chips and shavings, and shredded newspaper). Bulky browns like wood chips increase the porosity of your compost pile which helps introduce much-needed oxygen, however, wood chips are also high in a substance called ‘lignin’ which takes a while to break down so it is a good idea to use a variety of different browns. An ideal blend of browns for mixing with food scraps is

  • 3 parts leaves
  • 2 parts wood chips or chopped plant stems, and
  • 1 part wood shavings or sawdust.

Greens are relatively nitrogen-rich materials (such as fruit and vegetable scraps, coffee grounds, and garden trimmings). Too many greens that break down easily can can cause an unpleasant smell in your compost pile. This is easily remedied by adding more browns!

-Decomposer microbes require air or oxygen in order to create compost, so it is important to turn your pile often to integrate fresh oxygen.

-Decomposer microbes require water to move around and metabolize dissolved nutrients. The ideal moisture for a compost pile should feel like a wrung out sponge.

The Basic Steps of Building a Compost Pile

A simple compost pile can be built by carefully adding browns and greens in the right amounts, and mixing your green and brown layers together along with water if needed to keep the pile moist.

1. Make sure there is a biolayer of coarse browns, like wood chips or straw, at the bottom of your pile. This layer will filter odors that attract pests, soak up liquid leaking out of the compost pile, and allow air into the pile. A layer 4 to 6 inches deep is ideal.

2. Chop up large or whole compostable items before adding to the pile with a knife, shears, flat shovel, or an ice scraper. Use some sort of paved surface or container for chopping food scraps so they are not left on bare ground. You can use a metal wheelbarrow or tub (like you might wash a dog in) or a 5-gallon plastic bucket. While chopping up your materials is not necessary, it speeds up the composting process substantially. An ideal particle size for composting is 1/8 inch to 2 inches. It may not be feasible to chop all ingredients to this size, so if you plan to chop materials, prioritize chopping items like corn cobs, citrus, broccoli stalks, and pineapple tops, which will take longer to break down.

3. Add one 5-gallon bucket of greens to the base layer of browns. Then, add three buckets of browns. You can always use a larger container than a 5-gallon bucket, such as a wheelbarrow, but be sure to always use the same volume container to measure your greens and browns to ensure a proper carbon to nitrogen ratio is maintained.

4. Ideally, you would then mix the brown and green layers together while leaving the base layer of browns undisturbed. You may use pitchforks, shovels, or any other tools you might have to mix the pile.

Benefits of mixing the pile

  • Introduces fresh air to the composting materials which helps invigorate the activity of the decomposing microbes
  • Releases trapped heat, moisture, and gases
  • Distributes moisture, nutrients, organisms
  • Breaks up and redistributes air channels
  • “Fluffs” the compost- can help reduce the bulk density of the pile
  • Shreds particles and breaks apart clumps of materials

5. Use the “hand squeeze moisture test” to check that your compost feels like a wrung-out sponge. If the material is crumbly and does not stick together, and your hand is dry, add water by using a spray hose or hose fitted with a shower wand as you mix the pile. Be careful not to overwater the pile, however, as this could result in drowning the beneficial decomposer microbes. Water should not leak out the bottom of the pile. If water drips down your arm, material sticks together and drips, and your hand is wet and dripping after squeezing, the pile is too wet. Water should be added to the pile as it is built to ensure that it is incorporated into the entire pile, however, adding moisture is not always necessary if the recipe is good and the pile is mixed well.

6. Repeat steps 1 through 5 as needed. You need a pile that is at least 3 feet tall, wide, and deep (a volume of 27 cubic feet or 1 cubic yard) for active composting to take place. Piling everything into a dome shape is the most effective way to ensure consistent heating throughout the entire compost pile. If you can’t build a pile this size all at once, keep adding material to the pile over time until it’s big enough. The maximum pile width is 20 feet, and should only be used for piles being mechanically turned with machinery so it is recommended to keep piles smaller so that it is possible to turn them by hand.

7. Cover your pile with a biolayer of finished compost or browns to keep flies out and smells down. If using a bin system, cover with 4 to 6 inches, an ensure that no food scraps are visible. When large amounts of fresh food scraps are added to an open pile, cap the pile with 2 inches of screened compost, 6 inches of unscreened compost,  or a foot of browns.

 

It is important to alter your recipe according to your observations of moisture content, material bulk density, odor, and temperature.

Monitoring Your Compost Pile

As a community compost site, you will be composting food scraps from more than one household. Because of that, it is important to use active management skills to create hot conditions in your compost pile and to meet Process to Further Reduce Pathogens (PFRP guidelines). Use compost thermometers, the hand-squeeze test, and your nose to gauge and record temperatures, moisture content, and odor levels throughout the composting process. Record these measurements so you can re-create successful compost mixes, and avoid less successful ones.

You can create thermophilic (hot) conditions by:
– Using an appropriate recipe with sufficient porosity,
– providing piles with sufficient moisture (but not too much),
– mixing ingredients thoroughly,
– building a pile of sufficient size,
– monitoring temperatures,
– turning compost piles as temperatures indicate.

It is important to keep your compost pile in an optimal temperature range. There are three distinct temperature phases that your compost should go through called the Mesophilic, Thermophilic, and Curing.

 

Mesophilic (50-104˚F):
Once the pile is built, things immediately begin to heat up. Under the right conditions, the mesophilic stage only lasts a few days before moving into the thermophilic stage.

Thermophilic (105-160˚F):
Most human pathogens and many weed seeds cannot handle the high temperatures of the thermophilic phase. If the temperature far exceeds 155˚F, composting microbes begin to die off and decomposition slows, so if your pile gets too hot, it is important to turn it. The thermophilic stage can last a few days to a few months depending on the size of the pile and type of inputs. During this time, most of the organic matter is reduced to humus and materials begin to resemble finished compost. Compost is ready for curing when it no longer has recognizable food
scraps and the pile no longer heats up beyond 104˚F after turning.

Curing (50-104˚F):
Curing is marked by a sustained drop in temperature back into the mesophilic range. As the pile cools down and has had time to cure and mature (at least four weeks, but two to four months is recommended), the compost has increased humus content and its ability to store nutrients and has reduced plant toxins and harmful pathogens. Curing compost piles still need moisture, but not as much as before. It is very important that adequate aeration is achieved by limiting the size of the pile to no more than 6 feet tall and 15-20 feet wide. When the compost pile reaches approximately the same temperature as its surroundings, the compost is ready to be sifted. If moisture and aeration are properly managed and no odor occurs, the curing piles do not need to be turned. Finished compost should have a dark brown color, earthy smell, and be within 10°F of the surrounding temperature of the pile.

Tests to ensure that your compost is not toxic to plants:

Ziploc Test (The cost of a Ziploc bag)

Solvita Compost Maturity Test  ($190 for a 6 pack of tests)

Conduct a germination bioassay test by sowing an equal number of inexpensive, fast-germinating seeds like radish or lettuce sown in the compost with a control sown on moist paper towel in a bag.  Compare the number of germinated seeds and thriving seedlings after several days to see if there is an issue with the compost. If no seeds grow in the compost, it may not yet be mature.

 

Having trouble with your compost? Here are two great resources for troubleshooting.

Sifting Your Compost

Sifting or screening the finished compost is a good idea in order to remove big pieces of wood chips and any other
materials that may not have decomposed fully. If mixed into the soil, big pieces of carbon may bind nitrogen in the soil, making it difficult for plants to access this essential nutrient.

There are many screener options, including DIY woodframed hardware cloth. It can be a simple frame held horizontally over a wheelbarrow, bin, container, or tarp for collecting the finished materials. The frame can be propped up on an angle or with two legs, or horizontally with four legs (like a table). Trommel screens or rotating cylinders of hardware cloth can also be built, but require a bit more skill. There are many more expensive ready-made options as well.

The screened out material can be recycled as browns and bulking material into a new pile and can help introduce beneficial microbes to the new pile.

How to garden with compost

Compost can be used in a variety of ways. It can be added directly to soil and applied around the roots of plants. Potting mix can be
made with compost, as well as compost tea. More is not necessarily better, as the health benefits to plants and soil can typically be achieved with 10 to 20 percent compost addition.

  1. To condition soil, mix in 2-3 inches of compost
  2. Once soil is conditioned, apply up to one inch of compost on top of soil
  3. See how your garden grows!

 

What you will need to start a community compost program:

While the equipment and materials that you will need in order to start a community compost program will depend on the size and type of your program as well as your personal preferences and what you already have access to, here are some basic materials recommended as well, average pricing, and advice on how to find them. Most items can be found at thrift stores, local hardware or garden supply stores, and online on websites such as Craigslist (in the For Sale: Farm and Garden section) or on Facebook Marketplace. You might also have luck asking family members, friends, neighbors, and church congregations if they have any gardening supplies that they are not using. You might also be able to post a flier that lists the items you need in a public place or make a post on social media platforms such as a Facebook page specific to your community.

Basic items that can be found at the locations listed above:

  • Work gloves
  • Temperature probe
  • Project monitoring binder or shared online document
  • Garden hose with spray nozzle
  • Shears
  • Ice chopper
  • Flathead shovel
  • Pitch (manure) forks
  • Scales for weighing your compost materials (if you are choosing to track how many pounds of material you compost)
  • Storage bin or shed to store tools
  • Buckets and bins for chopping, mixing, and measuring materials
  • Wheelbarrows
  • Spade shovels
  • An enclosure, bin, or designated space to store your brown
  • Something to contain foodscraps that you are receiving once they get to the site (can be the same container you use for chopping before adding to your pile)
  • Buckets for your clients to store their food scraps in for collection
    • While you can buy these buckets new, in the interest of cost and sustainability, it is recommended that you try to find these buckets used
    • Some of the most promising locations that you can call are large bakeries such as the Sam’s Club, Walmart, or Costco bakeries. Some stores reuse these buckets in store, however, so you might need to call several locations. Some managers might be willing to give you the buckets for free or for a reduced price, but that might require you talking to them about your program. Explain that it is a free program for the benefit of the community, and occasionally people will be willing to work with you to reduce the price.
    • Finding these buckets might not be a simple task. It is worth calling a diverse array of stores to find your buckets. Places like Popeyes might have buckets that they used to store their pickles in, while places like Dunkin’ Donuts will have buckets that were used to store their icing. Not all stores hold onto their buckets for a long period of time, so you might be able to find a store willing to work with you, however, it might take a while for them to accumulate enough buckets for your compost program. In that case, give them your contact information so that when they have buckets available, you can pick them up, but in the meantime keep calling around as you will be more likely to get your buckets quicker if you contact more places.
    • Sample script for contacting stores requesting buckets
      • “Hi there, I am starting a community composting program and am looking for empty, used 5 gallon buckets that were used to store bulk foods. I hear that your store might have some of these, do you know if there are any available right now?”
      • This question might catch some people off guard, so be sure to talk slowly and clearly. When possible, it is helpful to be specific. For example, if you are calling a bakery ask if they have any empty buckets that were used to store buckets. If you are calling a deli or sandwich shop, ask them if they have any empty pickle buckets.
    • Places that are likely to have 5 gallon buckets available:
      • Dunkin Donuts
      • Tim Hortons
      • Chick-Fil-A
      • Sam’s Club
      • The bakery at Kroger
      • The bakery at Walmart
      • The bakery at Meijer
      • Safeway
      • Firehouse Subs
      • Local bakeries
      • Places that prepare bulk food such as hospitals, schools, and nursing homes
      • Meijer
      • Certain local restaurants (such as Asian food restaurants)
      • Local delis
      • Catering companies

Specialty Items

Optional Items

  • Electrical extension cords to provide electricity (if needed)
  • Overshoes to protect boots when navigating through standing water and contact water
  • Steel-toe boots to protect feet from injuries due to rolling or falling objects and equipment
  • Coveralls to prevent bioaerosols and dusts that can collect on clothing from being transported off-site
  • Protective goggles or a full face visor to protect eyes and face
  • Respiratory masks to protect lungs from sawdust and bioaerosols
  •  Earplugs to protect ears from loud equipment and tools

Browns Sources

  • Leaves
    • It is wise to save up large quantities during Fall
    • You can try to call local fall landscaping companies, your local trash disposal company, or ask your neighbors if you can rake their lawns to have their leaves in order to collect them
  • Mulch
    • You can call local tree service companies. They will often give you/drop off mulch for free (but it is wise to tip them)
    • For more free mulch, check out the app Chipdrop
  • Corn cobs/corn husks, hay, straw
    • Contact local famers to see if you could have/but any excess
    • Check Craigslist and Facebook marketplace for listings for these items
  • Corrugated Cardboard
    • It is best to shred this before using as a browns source, but can be used whole
    • Be sure to remove any packing tape that might be on the cardboard
    • You can get in contact with local stores to ask them to hold onto cardboard for you, although many stores will have cardboard in their recycling bins behind the building or will have it in store. People are often happy to give you cardboard for free if you ask for it, just talk to a store manager to work out an arrangement
  • Newsprint
    • You can contact local newspapers to ask if they have any old newspapers you can have
    • Try to shred this before using
    • Avoid using too much of this as the chemicals in the ink of newsprint can be harmful
  • Sawdust
    • You can contact local wood mills and lumber yards to ask for this
    • Be sure to ask if the wood is treated with chemicals before accepting the sawdust as there can be harmful chemicals in the wood that should not be put in your compost pile
  • Shrub and tree trimmings
    • These can be taken from your own back yard
    • You can also contact the local parks department or landscaping companies and ask what they do with their shrub and tree trimmings

 

How to get your community engaged

  • Knock door to door using this speech outline and while handing out a flier. Feel free to adjust this flier to suit your program’s needs
  • Nextdoor
  • Make a post on a local Facebook group page
  • ShareWaste
  • MakeSoil
  • Post an ad in a local newspaper informing people about your program
  • Post an ad requesting compostable items in exchange for timebank hours (if your region has a timebank)
  • Locate 10 clients within walking distance of your composting site
    • You may experience a fair amount of rejection, but do not be deterred! You are doing something good for your community and the planet. You might want to bring a friend with you to knock door to door.  It is helpful to bring along an informational pamphlet, a notebook for writing down the contact information of people who are immediately interested in the program, and a bucket to give to any clients who would like to begin composting right away. It is always helpful to have a bucket as it helps people understand the program. A good way to approach someone is with the following sample “script”
    • “Hi there, my name is [your name here] and I am working to start a free community compost collection service in the neighborhood. What I am doing is giving people 5 gallon buckets to fill with their food scraps each week. Then, every [insert day of the week here], I will come back, pick up your used bucket and give you an empty bucket to fill until the next week. Does this sound like something that would interest you?”
    • Often times people will immediately tell you whether they would like to join the program or not. If they are unsure, leave them with information and encourage them to reach out if they have any questions.
    • You might get people who sign up for the program and then do not participate in the program. In this situation, it is recommended to leave the bucket with them for a week or two before sending a message requesting to pick up the bucket so that it can be given to a different community member to use.
  • Set a day and time that you will collect, clean, and return compost buckets each week. You are welcome to choose more than one day/time a week, but it is often most efficient to start with one predictable time each week. A good time to choose is whenever people are expected to have their trash and recycling bins outside each week
  • Clearly communicate with your clients the date/time each week that they should have their bins out on their driveway or front sidewalk. You should be sure that you instruct your clients to leave their bin in one of these locations, rather than next to their trash bins in order to avoid your bins accidentally getting taken and thrown away. A good way to communicate with your clients is by using a pamphlet, website, social media group page, or email list.

Recommended community compost models

Tier One: Bucket pick up program

What comes with your bucket starter kit?

  • Total Grant Amount: $100
  • $20 to source ten food scrap collection bins (ideally 5 gallon buckets) for your clients
  • $80 set up your composting site
  • Stickers indicating what type of scraps are appropriate for composting (you can attach these to your buckets to help your clients)- you can also request a stencil which can be used to spray paint a logo on your buckets
  • Optional 1:1 consultation on zoom to answer specific questions, support your success, or help you effectively site and set up your program
  • Access to video orientation: compost clinic and intro to composting and wasted food reduction 

Tier Two: Bike trailer pick up program

  • Total Grant Amount: $250
  • Build a bike program, post on craigslist, do a shoutout on social media, ask a bike shop for a bike
  • A $150 grant to purchase a bike trailer to help you collect food scraps from locations that would be too difficult/inefficient to reach by foot
  • A $50 grant to source 25 food scrap collection bins for your clients
  • A $100 grant to set up your composting site
  • Stickers indicating what type of scraps are appropriate for composting (you can attach these to your buckets to help your clients)- you can also request a stencil which can be used to spray paint a logo on your buckets
  • Optional 1:1 consultation on zoom to answer specific questions, support your success, or help you effectively site and set up your program
  • Access to video orientation: compost clinic and intro to composting and wasted food reduction 

Tier Three: Truck pick up program

  • Total grant amount: $500
  • $300 for gas and other truck related programs
  • A $100 grant to source 50 food scrap collection bins for your clients
  • A $200 grant to purchase equipment for your composting site
  • Stickers indicating what type of scraps are appropriate for composting (you can attach these to your buckets to help your clients)- you can also request a stencil which can be used to spray paint a logo on your buckets
  • Optional 1:1 consultation on zoom to answer specific questions, support your success, or help you effectively site and set up your program
  • Access to video orientation: compost clinic and intro to composting and wasted food reduction 

To apply for a grant to start a program in your community email us at info@robgreenfield.org

Information Source: Institute for Local Self-Reliance Community Composting Done Right- A Guide to Best Management Practices by Linda Bilsens Brolis and Brenda Platt

Illustrations Source: L. Bilsens Brolis, B. Platt, Community Composting Done Right: A Guide to Best Management Practices, Institute for Local Self-Reliance, 2019 (www.ilsr.org/composting-bmp-guide). Reprinted with permission.


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