A Modest Proposal for Composting

By FRANK CARINI

Eight years ago this October, a group of forward-thinking community activists in Goshen, Ind., began hiring low-income residents and the homeless to solve two problems: empower the underemployed and unemployed, and bring curbside recycling to this small town of about 30,000 people.

Today, this bicycle-powered project devoted to social justice and environmental stewardship is a shining example of how employment, homelessness, sustainability, transportation and conservation are all interconnected. The initiative has built community, fostered mutuality and provided inspiration.

The Community Bicycle Project/Goshen Re-Cycles promotes sustainable transportation by making bicycles available to low-income and homeless people, teaches bicycle repair and basic repair training to residents in transition and keeps recyclables from being incinerated and landfilled.

Residents in transition and people without homes work with program organizers on a regular basis, earning $15 an hour for carrying out bicycle-powered pickups, including recyclables from the 50 or so Goshen residents who have signed up for the service.

Goshen Re-Cycles uses refurbished bicycles to pull trailers that carry the recycling containers. The trailers are made locally and assembled by those employed by the program.

Rhode Island, thankfully, already provides curbside pickup of recyclables, but perhaps we could use this successful Goshen initiative as a model to collect compost and provide jobs for the needy in some of our state’s 39 cities and towns.

Since November, ecoRI Public Works has been leading an effort to inform the public about composting at the state’s biggest indoor farmers’ market — the Wintertime Farmers’ Market at the Hope Artiste Village in Pawtucket. This effort is a continuation of recycling and food-scrap collection ecoRI offered at the Lippitt Park farmers’ market run this past spring and summer.

During this time, we’ve learned many Rhode Islanders want to compost. It’s just a matter of making the practice better understood and more feasible. And long before we started a small-scale composting program at farmers’ markets, Greg Gerritt, of the Environment Council of Rhode Island, began working tirelessly to bring composting to Rhode Island at the state level.

Gerritt’s task is no easy one, but in the meantime perhaps we could solve some problems of our own by borrowing an idea from a small Midwest town and modifying it with some Yankee ingenuity.

We have the people and the organizations to make it happen. Unfortunately, we also have another needed ingredient — people in need of work.

This past summer, Providence resident Than Wood started a venture he calls “Farm in a Cart.” Thanks to a small grant from the Southside Community Land Trust, Wood was able to rig his bicycle with a trailer and bin that allows him to cart compost from residences to his city farm he grew out of a vacant lot on Westminster Street.

Having seen Wood pedaling frequently this past summer and fall along the streets of the West Side and South Providence, I’m sure he wouldn’t mind some additional pedal power.

In the Providence area alone, we already have the pieces in place to change Goshen Re-Cycles into Bike Farm — a bicycle-powered, curbside composting pick-up service that combines a necessary community service with fair-wage work for people with no or low income.

Recycle-A-Bike already generates plenty of pedal power. Southside Community Land Trust has community gardens in need of nutrient-rich compost and an expert in urban farming on the payroll — Rich Pederson, the steward of the trust’s food-producing classroom, City Farm.

And as the ecoRI Green Team has learned, people willing to transport their compost to us — about 135 pounds a week — and farms, such as Wishing Stone in Little Compton and NorthStar in Westport, Mass., willing to take it off our hands.

We have creative people in idea-generating organizations that could help design and run such a program. People like Amelia Rose at the Environmental Justice League of Rhode Island, Katherine Brown and Leo Pollock at the Southside Community Land Trust, ecoRI’s friends at Farm Fresh Rhode Island, the fine people at Crossroads Rhode Island and, of course, my colleagues at ecoRI News.

We can’t afford to wait for local, state and federal governments that are slashing social services programs to design a plan to keep valuable compost out of the waste stream. We don’t have that much time. People need jobs now.

Frank Carini is the editor of ecoRI News.