Vine Neighborhood

Community composting trial in Vine leads the way for Kalamazoo's neighborhoods

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Vine Neighborhood series.

The Vine Neighborhood became the first in the City of Kalamazoo to explore participation in community composting. And people are really excited about it, data suggests.

As a part of a trial run by the City of Kalamazoo’s Sustainability Strategy, Vine Neighborhood residents recently were given the opportunity to participate in the composting service. They were given the option of picking up a 5-gallon bucket they would use to collect solid food waste for one week (Aug. 27-Sept. 3) or have a bucket delivered to them that week for the composting service.

Forty-two residents participated in the trial. Buckets were distributed by volunteers and Chris Broadbent, operator of The Bike Farm, a one-man, bicycle-powered composting service based in the Vine Neighborhood and run by Broadbent. It was the service used to run the week-long compost pick-up trial for the City of Kalamazoo.

Jamie McCarthy, the Sustainable Development Coordinator for the City of Kalamazoo, says interest in participating in the community composting trial was overwhelming.In total, the participants generated about 103 gallons of food waste by the end of the trial week. The food waste included things like carrot tops, apple cores, fruit skins, miscellaneous veggie scraps, and other plant-based waste.
Led by Jamie McCarthy, the Sustainable Development Coordinator for the City of Kalamazoo, in partnership with the Vine Neighborhood Association, The Bike Farm, and others, the first round of testing people’s interest in community-wide composting was completed in September and data from that first step has become available.

For the short period of time the service was available to them, there was strong interest in the program, says McCarthy. Comments from participants bear out McCarthy's observation and their support of the Bike Farm, which is powering the sustainability effort.

“The Bike Farm recognizes the big picture on the benefits of composting,” says Kalamazoo resident Jessica Sundstrom. “It is important not to contribute to methane gases (which are released when food waste enters a landfill), and you can be good for the environment.”

Dan Lafferty says, “to produce less waste” is the reason he uses The Bike Farm for his compost pick-up, in which customers’ solid food wastes are collected in a very environmentally friendly way – by bicycle.  
“I like that Chris operates by bicycle as well,” Lafferty says. “This was an easy way to reduce what I’m sending up to the landfill – to have someone else take my compostable materials was convenient since I don’t have a spot for it.”

Results of the trial 

Of those who participated:

• Twenty-three said they would be willing to reduce the level of their standard trash/garbage pickup service in order to increase the amount that is sent to compost.

• Ten people said they would be willing to pay for the service ($5 to $10 per month), nine said they’d pay $11 to $30 per month; and only two people said they would not prefer to pay.

• Nineteen people said they were interested in seeing a compost pick-up service become a service that is paid for through a tax millage, the same as recycling is currently set up for the city.

“Food wastes should be diverted from landfills,” says Alexandra Leist, sustainability analyst for Fabri-Kal Corp. and a volunteer in the composting trial in Vine Neighborhood.• Twenty-six said they were interested in using the recycled compost materials as additional garden nutrients.

All seemed to appreciate having their solid food waste saved from landfills. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the average American generates about 4.5 pounds of solid waste (food and other types) per day.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that food waste in the U.S. is the largest stream of municipal waste-to-landfill (by category), accounting for about 22 percent of what is dumped.

Without the process of composting, which involves breaking down the waste into organic matter, a head of lettuce can take up to 25 years to decompose in a landfill, according to the documentary “Wasted! The Story of Food Waste,” produced by the late Anthony Bourdain.

“Food waste should be diverted from landfills,” says Alexandra Leist, a sustainability analyst, TRUE (Total Resource Use and Efficiency) advisor for Fabri-Kal Corp., and a volunteer in the composting trial with Broadbent. “Food waste is a valuable resource that, when composted, provides several environmental benefits, such as reducing groundwater and air pollution.”

Although she recently relocated to a different neighborhood, Leist decided to volunteer to help with the composting project in Vine when she learned about it through her participation in the Southwest Michigan Sustainable Business Forum.

Broadbent has been using composting as a way to help divert solid food waste from landfills for years. He started The Bike Farm in late 2019. He continues to try to provide a service to those in the community who lack the space, knowledge or time to do composting themselves. 

He picks up solid food waste from Kalamazoo area residents by bicycle year-round and accepts bucket drop-offs at the Kalamazoo Farmers Market from May to November. Afterward, he uses a bike with a trailer to transport it to The Bike Farm, a portion of a backyard lot he uses in the Vine Neighborhood. 

Creating compost.On his collection route, Broadbent travels anywhere from five to 14 miles per day on pickup days. His operation seemed to make him a natural choice to be a partner in organizing a composting pick-up trial for Vine residents.

Broadbent has been able to convert food waste into usable organic matter using a three-bin system that he currently has set up at his Vine Neighborhood location. Food waste is mixed into a large pile along with dry earthy material such as fallen leaves and bark. It is turned and shifted from that pile to a second pile and then, as it decomposes, into a third pile until it can be considered the finished product, compost. 

The contents of any one bucket of waste generated by Vine Neighborhood participants could be expected to move through each pile at a rate a rate of about two to four weeks per pile. By the time a load of materials is added to the third pile, it looks a lot like soil from a garden with no recognition of what it once was.

To ensure a quality end product, Broadbent has been using a PH reader that can test the PH levels of the compost when added to some water. He is able to sell the end product for use in gardens, and soon it may be usable as a natural alternative for ice melt on sidewalks, he says.

Broadbent says he gained experience with composting by working on farms. Besides running The Bike Farm, he is an adjunct faculty instructor at Kalamazoo Valley Community College, where he teaches Intro to Sustainable Food Systems. He is also a past manager of the Kalamazoo Farmers Market.

In addition to the physical compost pick-up trial, the City of Kalamazoo wanted to gauge the public’s interest in the service for future planning purposes. To accomplish that, the survey was launched in August through the City of Kalamazoo’s Planning Department. It focused on the specific interest in composting by Vine Neighborhood residents and businesses. The results varied as far as what amount of community composting they wanted to see, but the interest was clear. 
McCarthy said there was “overwhelming interest in participating.”
To get the word out to Vine residents about the survey, there was digital distribution of the survey on social media by the city and its project partners. It was accessible via QR code on yard signs that were used as promotional tools and placed throughout the neighborhood.

Survey respondents expressed interest in a community drop-off spot for food wastes and an interest in a waste-related tax millage. Both ideas received support as future possibilities, while a few people said they were ready to join the bicycle pick-up program through The Bike Farm right away.
The pilot program helps show that the City of Kalamazoo’s Sustainability Strategy is a living document, McCarthy says. The strategy stems from the Imagine Kalamazoo 2025 Master Plan’s goal of “Environmental Responsibility.”

“Our next steps will be helping neighborhoods throughout the city with a similar pilot to better understand the demand in each,” McCarthy says. “The purpose for the pilot is part information gathering for the city and part helping neighborhoods and associations decide what works best for their residents. In particular, the city is interested in helping neighborhoods who have composting or similar environmental goals in their neighborhood plans. We seek to support them by exploring opportunities to promote a circular economy and grow green jobs.”
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Read more articles by Sharon Dever.

Sharon Dever moved to Michigan 12 years ago and has lived in the Vine Neighborhood for three years. She is interested in everything environmental and is also interested in community events and social justice issues.