Compost Outlaws

Yard Trimmings being used as “ADC” at the Bradley Landfill in Sun Valley

Our neighborhood comrade Tara Kolla, who grows sweet peas for farmer’s markets in her urban backyard, has been busted for . . . composting! Specifically for composting fruit and vegetable scraps from a local restaurant. From last Friday’s Los Angeles Times:

Tara Kolla said she was doing a good thing for her Silver Lake Farms business while doing the right thing for the planet by filling a garbage can each week with produce scraps from a nearby restaurant and dumping them into her compost.

A neighbor did not see it that way and complained about the compost, which Kolla has in two wood boxes covered with black plastic.

“I didn’t put it here to offend anyone. I put it here because it’s a work area,” Kolla said one morning as she showed a visitor her half-acre urban farm, where she grows flowers as well as some other crops to sell at farmers markets in Echo Park, Hollywood and Silver Lake.

In August, Kolla received a letter from the Los Angeles Local Enforcement Agency telling her to “cease and desist” composting food waste that was not generated at her home. The letter was signed by David Thompson, the agency’s program supervisor, who declined to talk on the record. But a city spokeswoman said there would be no additional action taken if there are no more complaints.

It turns out it’s against the law to compost material not generated at your own residence. So when you take back that bag of coffee grounds from Starbucks to put in your compost pile you’re an outlaw. It’s a law that benefits the status quo, where the the city and private contractors haul away all that perfectly good organic matter that could be nourishing our neighborhood gardens, parks, and street trees and stuff it in . . . the dump.

There’s a dirty little secret with what happens to the organic matter we all some of us put in the green bin (a trash can provided by the city some municipalities to separate out yard trimmings) in the city of Los Angeles and many other municipalities. According to a friend of mine who works in the recycling business, 80% of the green bin contents in Los Angeles (county?) [Editors note: see neighborhood colleague, and fellow “trash geek” Jeremy Drake’s correction in the comments section. Drake says that LA City does not use green bin contents as ADC. My friend may have been refering to LA County waste practices.] are used as “Alternative Daily Cover” or ADC. ADC, which in addition to yard waste can consist of all kinds of things including broken glass and construction materials are used to cover up trash dumped into landfills. So while our friend Tara gets busted for composting, some cities go about taking the same perfectly good organic matter and toss it into the dump along with the rest of our garbage.

The green bin is a sham, but it gets worse. According to Mayor Sam’s Sister City, classifying waste as ADC “allows dump operators to escape paying State per ton fees which in turn are used for State recycling and enforcement programs.”

There’s a opportunity in this composting kerfuffle for an elegant solution. Anyone who gardens in the city knows how important, and sometimes difficult, it is to get enough organic matter. How about regional composting facilities? Instead of trucking organic matter from restaurants and yards to far-off dumps (and generating tons of diesel particulate matter on those long hauls), how about we compost it closer to home? We’ll need skilled workers for this, perfect in a time of rising unemployment. This is precisely what our friend Nance Klehm does in Chicago, taking the waste from 6,000 daily meals at the Pacific Garden Mission and, with a large worm composting operation, turning that waste into prized worm compost which is sold at a farmer’s market. The operation is staffed with homeless clients from the Mission. Waste is reduced, gardeners get compost, homeless people get work and everyone benefits.

Now let’s change these silly composting laws and get to work . . .

[Editors note–Tara had a correction to the LA Times story–she does not “dump” stuff in her compost pile, but skillfully and responsibly layers green and brown materials. You can take a compost class from her at the Norman Harrington / Franklin Hills Community Garden. More information at Silver Lake Farms.]

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  1. Take a look at the Pacific Garden home page and then look at their new facility on Google Earth. How do their indigent clients get there? And how do employees and volunteers get there? The vast parking lots suggest the answer. Whatever is environmentally sound about their building must be undone by its pedestrian/bike hostile location and asphalt landscaping. Or do they deliver services to other sites? Using what transport?

  2. The problem is that too often we’re suckers…. give us a device to make us feel good about our actions (the green bin) and they can do what they like with the stuff once they take it away…

  3. Wouldn’t it be great if part of the Obama administration’s stimulus plan included the mandatory composting of food and green waste from all private restaurants and public food services along with the creation of a distribution chain to sell the compost as fertilizer for large farms–an inexpensive alternative to petro-chemicals.

  4. Interesting post. 2 questions: 1) I don’t follow the state per ton fee part. If the green bin waster operators classify much of what they haul as ADC, then they avoid paying fees? Why? 2) What about the Griffith Park site? I bought my compost bin there and the guy selling them explained that that facility was the site where green bin waste was brought.

  5. Julie,

    1) Here’s how the scam works, as I understand it. The dumps take stuff like construction debris and green bin waste, grind it up and spread it to cover the day’s deposits. Call it ADC and it doesn’t count as garbage, so they don’t have to pay fees for it even though it’s filling the dump rather than being reused.

    2) The Griffith Park site only receives a tiny fraction of the city’s bio-waste. And, FYI, at the Griffith Park site they mix the mulch with sewage sludge from the Hyperion Sewage Treatment plant and “zoo doo” from the zoo before it’s composted. Because of the sewage sludge (pharmaceuticals? heavy metals?) I would not use it on vegetables, but it’s probably fine for non-edible plants.

  6. Um…. from the LA times article you link to, it’s illegal…

    “unless it is placed in a vessel that controls airborne emissions. “

    So it looks like a minor compliance issue to me?

  7. Charles,

    Tara sent the following reply to your comment:

    That’s a good point Charles. I’m glad you brought it up. About those airborne emissions: My feeling is that the compost bins that the City of LA sells at Griffith Park don’t control airborne emissions any more than the bins in my backyard. (I’m Tara, who received the Cease & Desist from the Environmental Affairs Department.) The city-backed compost bins have air vents. They have lids too but so do mine. Surely airborne emissions escape to some degree out of all air vents…?

    My husband built our bins based on the traditional 3-bin system found online and in books. Except because our climate is so dry here in LA, our bins are solid on all four sides to help keep crucial moisture in. Our bins also have air vents to help oxygen flow, just like the city bins. As a lid, we cover each of our two compost piles (volume of which is far below the limit) with a sheet of impermeable black plastic. I weigh the plastic down on all four sides to keep it securely over each pile.

    If the Local Enforcement Agency and the CIWMB had taken the time to visit my house before issuing the Cease & Desist (but they haven’t because they concern themselves primarily with large waste management facilities) I think they would see that my bins and my methodology – which is pretty thorough when it comes to C:N ratios, layering and oxygenating – control airborne emissions just as well as city bins. My hope is that one of these days, somebody from the CIWMB will do the fair thing and actually take the time to pay me a visit in my backyard and evaluate my little composting area. (Hopefully they’ll come the day all six surrounding neighbors have their gas-powered leaf-blowers going.) Until then, we have to wait for the law to be changed before we can go back to composting materials that we didn’t generate ourselves, which is what I was cited for.

    After speaking with the California Integrated Waste Management Board in Sacramento on Monday Dec. 29/08, however, my understanding is that it could be YEARS before state law has any hope of being changed. A strategic directive #8.4 was issued in ’07 to evaluate existing laws for scientific and market condition relevance but the group doing the evaluating won’t report back to the Board until after the summer of ’09. Even so, they look at laws from the p.o.v of large waste management facilities, not backyard composters like me. Whatever the group’s findings, there’s a long bureaucratic process that takes place before any decisions get made.

    Meanwhile, the typical 32 gallon size trash bin of pre-consumed, raw, organic veggie scraps like carrot tops, spinach bottoms etc., left over from the produce that the chef of Canele purchases from the Santa Monica Farmers’ Market every Wednesday, is going to waste, instead of being put to perfectly good use by being recycled into compost for my backyard. (I was collecting the scraps for about a year before I received the Cease & Desist.)

    Such a small thing it is that pile of raw veggie scraps but it’s taken on a meaning of its own, symbolic you might say, each time I hit another brick wall as we harmlessly try, the Chef of Canele and I, to put her veggie scraps to perfectly good use and reduce our landfill quotient in the bargain. What we were doing made good, old-fashioned common sense! Despite it all we’re trying to stay positive. I do believe smart people in Sacramento will get behind swift change and allow us to resume our green deed; we all want the same thing, after all.

    Thank you for supporting what we do. Two words for the CIWMB: Common Sense. May it prevail in ’09!

    Tara, Silver Lake Farms

  8. In fact, the City of LA is very proud to have NOT used any green bin collections as ADC for years, they mulch ALL of it. Although green waste is used as ADC routinely state-wide, the City and LA’s Zero Waste team were quick to shut me down when I called them out on ADC at the 3rd Zero Waste Conference early last year. The landfill lobby is big, bad and strong and push hard to promote ADC, but unfortunately the law does most of the work by giving CA cities diversion credits for using green waste as ADC according to AB939. With the recent passage of AB32, the Climate Change law, however, there is renewed spirit in the organics sector to tie best possible use of organics to climate issues and GHG reductions and end the use of green waste as ADC state-wide.

  9. Jeremy,

    Thanks for the correction. My friend in the trash business may have been referring to LA County, not LA City. In a letter dated August 21, 2008 Margaret Clark, Vice-Chair of the
    Los Angeles County Solid Waste Management Committee writes:

    “The use of greenwaste as ADC has numerous environmental and economic benefits, including: preventing the mining and wasting of clean soil that would have otherwise been used as daily cover; conserving landfill capacity, by avoiding an additional cover material layer and the ability of green waste to compact and decompose over time; creating markets for the beneficial use of green waste; maintaining a local outlet for the beneficial use of greenwaste; and, strengthening the curbside collection infrastructure for greenwaste. These benefits are especially important in Southern California since there is inadequate processing capacity for green waste and a limited market for compost made from greenwaste due to difficulties encountered in permitting/developing these types of facilities. This is particularly acute in urban areas due to lack of suitable land, stringent air quality regulations, and community reluctance towards the proximity of such facilities. Even if such facilities were developed elsewhere, greenwaste would still need to be transported over long distances, leading to higher trash rates and added traffic congestion and air pollution.”

  10. Why don’t you get a couple of rabbits and feed the scraps from the restaurant to them? Use the droppings from the rabbits, which will be compost friendly non-meat based, and chunk them on your compost pile. This will be produced on your homesite, so your neighbors have no complaint rights, unless you violate some sort of anti-rabbit ordinance. We have to be smarter than the man, cause the man ain’t too bright.

  11. I once read that napoleon would often keep exquisite gardens as a way to calm his inner self and relax. I can imagine that if he composted, he too might be written up in your blog, profusely praised for his love and affection for the earth and humanity as a whole. Pity that when out of his garden, he is still…. Napoleon.

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