Community composts

Community composting is an option for composting collectively with others in our neighborhood. Community composts are especially suited to neighborhoods where there isn’t appropriate space for individual backyard composts, such as apartment blocks or residential areas surrounded by asphalt. Community composts have the advantage of making composting accessible regardless of land access. They also reduce the overall surface area devoted to compost bins by using models with larger volumes where many people can compost together.

Types of collective composts

Collective composts can take many different forms. In its simplist form, you can begin a collective compost by gathering together a few friends or neighbours, and starting a communal compost bin in one person’s backyard. Or collective composts can be run through an apartment building, a church or a school to offer composting options to this specific group of people. Community gardens often run collective composts, open to those who already garden at the site.

Though ideally, all citizens should have access to community compost projects in their neighborhood. We can start community compost bins in public spaces that are open to all citizens who choose to sign up. This type of project can be run by environmental groups, and offered to dozens or hundreds of citizens, with the possibility of receiving funding from the city or from grant programs. We’ve even seen community compost projects where the organic waste was picked up from people’s homes by bicycle—there are many possibilities! Also, some collective compost projects are started by social enterprises, where the citizens pay a small fee for having access to the compost services and the resulting mature compost.

While many municipalities now offer curb-side pickup of organic waste, often this excludes apartment buildings and condos. Municipal compost also tends to accept animal products, diapers, etc., making the resulting compost less than ideal for aspiring organic and veganic gardeners. So even in cases where the city offers compost pickup, there are still compelling reasons to run community compost projects.

The following information gives the basics for starting non-profit community compost projects that are open to the public, though much of the same information applies to other types of collective compost projects.

Getting started

Community composts are often run by a local environmental group, a community garden or a neighborhood association. If you are interested in starting community composts, start either by approaching an existing group that may be interested in the project, or gather together a group of motivated citizens who would like to undertake and manage the project.

Managing a community compost project takes a group of active and committed volunteers, and larger-scale projects often require regular sources of funding in order to hire a project leader. When first embarking, ensure that the group has the passion and availability to start the project, as well as the intention to continue managing the site once it’s up and running. Ideally, recruit volunteers with a mix of skills and interests: construction, fundraising, administration. You may have the most luck recruiting active gardeners, as they have a special interest in the resulting compost.

Finding a site

Scope out your neighborhood for locations where the land owners might be willing to accept a community compost project: churches, schools, non-profits, businesses, parks. Grassy surfaces are best, though asphalt surfaces are also a possibility. Community composts should be located in residential areas so that citizens can easily access the location on foot. Approach the land owners with a project proposal, being sure to emphasize the benefits of compost, and your plans for properly managing the compost site, free from odours.

Bins and materials

Look for funding opportunities and volunteer builders to construct the compost bins. You may find support through local businesses, the municipality, and environmental grant programs. You could run a fundraising event, or ask for a contribution from new members of the community compost.

There are generally three large bins per site. One is active, where people can add food scraps and dried leaves. One is in dormance, where the maturing compost sits for several months before being harvested. And a third bin or a shed holds all the collective materials: dried leaves or other carbon-rich materials, pitchforks and shovels, a log-book, etc. This could also take the form of one long bin with two or three separate compartments. Large wooden bins are especially appropriate, and can be repaired over the years. They will need to be changed every few years as the wood begins to decompose. Compost bins can be made out of reclaimed materials, such as wooden pallets. Though, attention should be paid to the workmanship and aesthetics of the compost bins to ensure they are appreciated by those who are lending you space. When deciding on the size of your bins, you may wish to perform a "waste audit" in advance to roughly anticipate the quantities of organic waste that will be added by the participants.

You will need sufficient carbon-rich materials for the entire year. Other people’s bagged leaves are perfect: in the fall, you can collect enormous quantities of bagged leaves from the neighborhood. However, you’ll need a location where you can store an entire year’s supply of bagged leaves (a fourth bin, perhaps?) In the event that you don’t have enough leaves, other carbon-rich materials are available, like cardboard and sawdust from untreated wood.

Members

The bins can be locked with combination locks. This way, the only people who have access are those who are registered members for the community compost. This avoids issues with non-members misusing the space as a garbage bin.

All new members should receive a basic orientation in how to compost, to ensure that they only add appropriate materials, as well as sufficient carbon-rich materials. You can leave an instruction list at the compost site clearly indicating which organic materials are allowed in the bins, as well as general guidelines about the do’s and don’ts of composting.

Some community composts have log-books, where members indicate when they’ve brought organic waste, as well as when they’ve helped by aerating the compost. This gives a clearer picture of how many people are actively using or contributing to the site. Members can also be asked to weigh their organic waste with a scale in the materials bin. This can be helpful when searching for funding opportunities for community composts that are run by environmental organizations, to demonstrate the diversion of organic waste from the landfill sites.

The quantity of members should be regulated to ensure that the bins are neither significantly underused nor overused. You can add a sign on the bins giving a phone number or email address that people can contact if they’d like to join the community compost. Even if you’ve reached capacity, add their contact information to a waiting list in case space opens up.

Community compost bins often get completely filled with organic waste during the winter in cold climates, when decomposition is slower. Members will need to find alternative ways of dealing with their organic matter until the springtime.

Continued management

Community composts need active management in order to succeed, including registration, orientation for new members, and regularily managing the compost site. Ideally someone should aerate the compost every week or two (this is simple: take a pole or a compost aerator, and drive it into the compost to create air tunnels). A group volunteer-bee should be called three times a year: in the spring and the fall to turn and harvest the compost, and again in the fall to collect bagged leaves from around the neighborhood. While often one or two people are in charge of the administration, it’s important to ensure that the members feel a sense of communal responsibility for helping to manage the site.

Further resources

The following resources show a variety of examples of composting initiatives offered at the community level. This includes guidelines for starting small collective compost bins, as well as examples of larger-scale initiatives from non-profit organizations and social enterprises.

City of Toronto: Starting a community compost

United Kingdom: Community Composting Network

Quebec City, Quebec: Example of a community compost project run by a non-profit in downtown Quebec (French only)

Montreal, Quebec: Example of a community composting project run by a non-profit in Montreal

St. Paul, Minnesota: Example of a pilot project for bicycle pick-up of organic waste by a non-profit in Minnesota

Craik, Saskatchewan: Example of a community composting project as part of an ecovillage and sustainable development plan in Craik in rural Saskatchewan

Winnipeg, Manitoba: Example of a community composting project run by a neighborhood association and community ministry in Winnepeg

Victoria, British Columbia: Example of a social enterprise for composting through residential pick-up


20 January 2012
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