Compost program quadrupling service area
Nonprofit helps businesses, residents work toward zero waste by collecting organic food scraps via bicycle route.
Urban Roots said its compost pickup program has gained enough steam to expand past the pilot.
Levi Gardner — founder and executive director of the community farming and education nonprofit at 1316 Madison Ave. SE — launched the Your Compost program to collect food waste from homes and businesses on April 1, 2017.
As it passes the year mark, the program is on track to quadruple its original footprint from one weekly route in Eastown to an area bounded by Michigan Street on the north, Burton Street on the south, Division Avenue on the west and Breton Avenue/Lakeside Drive on the east.
The organization anticipates the expansion will happen gradually between now and 2019.
“There are people all over the city with lots of food waste, and it’s just going to landfills,” Gardner said.
After studying similar programs around the country, Urban Roots applied for a Wege Foundation grant to get its own version running last year.
A Your Compost subscription costs $19 per month for a residential household. The nonprofit quotes separate prices for businesses on a case-by-case basis depending on the needs of the establishment.
Greg Mankowski, a senior at Aquinas College studying sustainable business, is the program coordinator.
He said he is driven to be part of Kent County’s recently announced plan to reduce landfill waste 90 percent by 2030.
“The South Kent Landfill is about to be full. It’s at the end of its lifespan,” Mankowski said. “I went (there) a while ago and watched them line the landfill so the waste doesn’t leach into the groundwater. You can’t even describe how big it is. It’s hard to describe the scale.
“At the same time, it’s like, ‘Wow, this is pretty finite.’ It’s filling up.”
Mankowski has long had a passion for composting. Last year, he brought a bag of homemade compost with him to his job interview at Urban Roots, even though he was applying for a social media role. They quickly saw he was ready to dig in and hired him as a rider intern for the compost route.
After he finished his internship in December, he took over management of the program and plans to stay on after graduating in May.
His work involves cycling the routes to pick up compost, bringing it back to Urban Roots and managing eight or so piles in various stages of decomposition by adding water, wood chips, checking temperatures, mixing the materials and so on.
Currently, Mankowski has two routes to manage — 30 stops on Tuesdays and 12 on Thursdays — and soon will add more with the help of an intern and possibly one or two new hires, although the jobs have not been posted yet.
Each pickup day, Mankowski takes a yard waste bin strapped to a trailer hooked behind a bicycle — an apparatus he calls “The Rig” — to pick up subscribers’ 5-gallon pails of organic waste.
He brings a clean bucket when he leaves to pedal his route, so he can take away the slop bucket and replace it with a clean one at each stop. Then he cleans the dirty bucket with soap and a squeegee, which he carries on his rig, and moves to the next stop.
The compost program accepts eggshells, produce waste, coffee grounds and finely shredded paper. It prohibits meat, seafood, dairy and excess starch. Participants are asked to seal the buckets with the provided airtight lid between uses to help trap the odors and keep foodservice areas smelling fresh. They also can shred newspaper scraps on top of the mix to absorb the excess water.
Ferris Coffee’s downtown Grand Rapids location at 40 Pearl St. NW is one of the program’s current business subscribers. Jessica Coles, café manager, said her workplace composts all of its coffee waste and about 75 percent of its food waste.
“We sometimes have leftover baked goods that cannot be composted because they are difficult to break down,” she said.
The cost savings on trash bags and trash bins is offset by the cost of the subscription, so there is no net financial gain from composting, she said. But the program helps the company meet its core values of environmental stewardship.
“Ferris is a plant-based food vendor, so by composting with Urban Roots, we are able to help continue the food cycle in our own community,” Coles said.
Shea Johnson, manager at Rising Grinds Café, a social enterprise inside LINC UP at 1167 Madison Ave. SE, said Urban Roots is helping them reach a milestone.
“Our goal is to compost 100 percent of all our organic waste by this summer,” she said. “Currently, Urban Roots collects about 10 gallons of compostable waste from the café each week, though we are a new business and expect that this will steadily increase.”
Rosie Runals, administrative assistant at Grand Rapids Center for Community Transformation, oversees her organization’s contributions to the compost program. She said participation in the program is part of a larger connection to Urban Roots.
“Our students are able to work for Urban Roots through our youth employment program at temporary part-time jobs working in the gardens,” she said. “For us, it is a step in the direction of sustainability. It’s a community partnership, which is what incentivizes us to do it.”
Gardner and Mankowski said besides expanding the routes, Urban Roots has other plans in mind for its compost program, such as running zero-waste wedding events, selling plants grown in the compost to city residents and returning finished compost to subscribers on the basis of seniority.
“Hopefully, the cult of composting is going to reach more people and become much more widely accepted in the coming years,” Mankowski said.
“If we can open people’s eyes and do away with a primitive form of waste management — burying it in the ground — Grand Rapids can really move ahead.”