Update: In the first month of ROC City Compost, more than two tons of organic waste was diverted from landfills, the city announced on Aug. 11.
Climate change seems so daunting, one person may think, “What difference can I make?”
ROC City Compost may answer that question.
“It’s a great feel-good program for neighbors to participate in,” said Shalini Beath, energy and sustainability manager in the Division of Environmental Quality, part of the city’s Department of Environmental Services.
ROC City Compost, launched in mid-July as part of the city’s climate action plan, is a way for residents to divert kitchen waste from landfills and reduce the resultant greenhouse gases.
“Landfills release methane, which is a very potent greenhouse gas emission,” Beath said. “So composting is a great way to reduce these harmful methane emissions.”
Beath said she’s received thank-you notes from people who’ve signed up. “We really didn’t know what to expect starting out.”
ROC City Compost is part of the city’s broader program to reduce food waste. The compost pilot is scheduled to last a year, is set up for 1,000 households. As of late July, about 100 slots remained.
The program is free for residents. Participants receive a compost kit that has a counter-top and five-gallon bucket and instructions about what to collect and where to take the buckets. At the drop-off sites, buckets are weighed and the contents dumped into a large green toter, which later is carted off.
About $160,00 is budgeted for the pilot program. Beath said it’s too soon to know what the savings would be, but she said the benefit is more than monetary.
“My motivation is to educate our citizens about the benefits of composting, the benefits of reducing greenhouse gas emissions through composting, and then to help people directly play a role in reducing those emissions and making our city a better place to live in. So composting is something that is an easier step than some of these other climate initiatives that seem so overwhelming.”
Beath talked to Minority Reporter about details of ROC City Compost. The conversation is edited for space and clarity.
How does ROC City Compost work?
All you have to do is collect your food scraps, following the guidelines and bring your food scraps to our drop-off sites. We take care of the transportation and the composting part. We’ve been talking to our contractor, Impact Earth, and we would like to give back compost to participants as a thank you, to use in their potted plants and container gardens. We’re still working out the logistics.
Unlike backyard composting, you can put meat and bones in the ROC City Compost buckets. Why?
In your backyard, you are leaving it up to aerobic composting. So you have oxygen, you have moisture and you have the natural decomposition of food waste. Your pile is not that big because it’s just your household. You never generate enough heat to break down proteins, basically. So that’s why backyard composting recommends that you stick with just veggies and fruits and coffee grinds and leaves and things like that. The difference with a commercial size processing facility is the scale of the operation. The heat that’s generated can break down proteins in hours. There’s so much of it. In this case, we are bringing our stuff to a worm farm, also large scale. There are huge trenches with these specific worms that break down food waste. It’s just a massive amount of worms, a massive trench. And they literally eat through all of the food waste. That’s where all of this stuff is going. They eat through it, it goes through their systems and they excrete compost. So the compost that we collect is basically worm castings.
Why have a drop-off program rather than curbside collection?
The drop-off is a simple first step to determining the level of interest. … Dropping off is more straightforward than a curbside collection program, which involves purchasing vehicles and staff drivers. Before we get to that step, we want to start with the first and simpler operation, which is just doing, drop-off starting with two locations, seeing how those two locations fare, giving it a one-year period to collect data, and very importantly, collect feedback from participants. … Our goal is to expand the program. Our goal is to divert as much of the organics as we can from our landfills.
How did you come up with the drop-off locations of Genesee Valley Park and Cobbs Hill Park?
These were locations we knew we could manage. There was parking, it has to be visible from the road, there has to be a way for our trucks to pick up the big containers and get out pretty easily. …. The goal is not right away to service the entire city. The goal is to collect data, small scale and determine how to expand. So we talked about, do we want to do kind of like more south east or west? Do we want to do north or south? And we ended up doing one on the east, one on the west. Even though they’re both kind of south, it was really east and west. Our goal is eventually to try to get city-wide locations.
How are you getting into neighborhoods in all quadrants?
We have flyers, we have posters. We sent them out to libraries, R-Centers, city hall, Neighborhood Service Centers. We specifically reached out to community gardener groups. We did a lot of information sessions about what the program is about, what are the benefits, how does this work, why would you participate. 311 is able to answer some of the basics and can sign people up if they can’t access the website.
How does composting fit into the larger picture of reducing food waste?
I do think it’s important to talk about both food waste reduction and composting as part of the same message so that people understand that the first priority really is to stop wasting food. We’re working on preparing a webpage for that. As we develop our materials and finalize them, we’ll do a whole outreach campaign to target neighborhoods. We’re just starting that food waste education message at the public market. We’re also planning once we finalize to email or e-blast or some way get the message out to all of the compost participants to let them know about the food waste reduction priority.
If you don’t care about landfill diversion, you care about saving money. We have a handout of simple steps that anyone can take, like think about what you’re buying. Don’t just randomly purchase stuff or with meal prepping, um, making sure that food isn’t a see-through container or labeled in front of the fridge. So you’re eating it without wasting it. Um, we also want to work on putting together a list of food donation suggestions. The city cannot accept donations. What, what I’d like to do is have maybe a handout or QR codes or something to help people who have excess food. Let’s say you have a party or you’ve ordered too much food. Some of it is not even opened. I would not want you to throw that out. I would want you to know where you can take it so you can drop it off and feed hungry people. So that’s also coming soon.
What surprised you in the first few weeks?
July 14 was the first Wednesday and then that Saturday, which was the 17th, was just a downpour all day. I was at Cobbs Hill Park and the (top of the) tent was filling with water. But people just kept showing up in the rain storm with their buckets, super eager. They brought their kids, and kids started weighing the buckets and I think people felt really good about doing something. Again, it’s, it’s a way that anyone who wants to can be directly involved in helping better our city’s environment. I think that’s a pretty positive note, not only for the participants, but also for us because you can’t necessarily see that in a lot of the other climate action.
Editor’s note: For information about ROC City Compost, go to www.cityofrochester.gov/compost/ or call 311.
Reporter Patti Singer is participating in the ROC City Compost program. In two weeks, she kept about 7 pounds of food waste out of landfills.