Harvest Cycle Wants You to Keep Your Compost Close

Listen above or read the transcript below.

Katie Murphy: My name is Katie Murphy and I work for Groundwork Rhode Island, which is a non-profit that is a trust of a nationwide non-profit that operates relatively independently in Rhode Island. The program that I run at Groundwork is called Harvest Cycle, which is a compost pick up and processing program in Providence, Rhode Island.

Grassroots Fund: And how did you get involved with composting in this organization?

KM: So I guess maybe the best place to start would be when I was in college, I started thinking a lot about climate change and urban planning, and I was thinking a lot about the sort of large scale changes that need to be made in the way groups of people live together and the way they share resources and who uses what, in order for us to get to a point where we're not destroying the planet. And also to get to a place that's more equitable, how the way that those resources move back and forth between people is shared more equally. 

And those are all things that obviously everybody's thinking about right now. But I think I was really interested in not so much in protesting about climate change or like trying to convince politicians to vote one way or another on a certain bill. But I was much more interested in actually thinking about the nuts and bolts, about how our systems are inefficient and how we could, you know, work differently to reimagine this system sort of from like a bird's eye view and also from like an embedded view and sort of looking at both of those angles and, you know, trying to get some sort of wisdom from both of those angles.

I ended up meeting this guy named Michael Bradley, who runs his own really amazing compost facility right in the city. And he's a chemist. So he's coming at everything from a really careful study of exactly what happens when food scraps break down. And so I was really inspired by my goal and I sort of volunteered at his compost site for a while. And actually, through him, I got involved with this group called Zero Waste Providence, which had actually just started in 2018. It's about a year old now, year and a half. And it's just you know a bunch of random people in Providence, looking at how do we, in so many different facets, transition over to zero waste in Providence. And one of the first couple of things we talked about was exactly what does zero waste? I mean, it's a lot more of a complicated thing than most people think it is. A lot of people think, oh, zero waste just means nothing goes to landfill.

But what exactly are we talking about wasting? You know, what about thinking about human effort? What about thinking about people's time, and thinking about how we design things so that instead of bashing them up and making them into the same thing over and over and over again, why don't we just use the same bottle and wash it out? And how do we create reverse logistics systems, like the old fashioned milk bottle delivered to your door and then the milkman picks it up and brings it back and washes it out and then you get the same milk in the same bottle?

And they actually have a lot of stuff like that in Japan. And some countries still have stuff like that. But pretty quickly, I decided that I want to focus on compost and that in terms of creating a zero-waste system, it seems like compost is like the biggest hurdle that we should be focusing on and the one that will make all the other hurdles a lot more possible to deal with. 

And I was much more interested in thinking about a compost than recycling, which I think is important because a lot of people... I'll talk to people about, oh, we should, you know, try to focus on getting schools to compost or something. And people in government or people who work with government or work with schools will say, well, you know, the schools don't even recycle. How could they compost? And it seems to me that composting is actually a lot simpler than recycling. And recycling is really difficult for a lot of people to understand because there's so many different types of things that you can and can't recycle. Whereas food scraps, it's pretty simple. At least on the consumer end, it's pretty simple. And I think that - and maybe this is me being jaded - but I think that recycling tends to get prioritized, partially because it's part of this really robust industry and that there's money to be made in recycling and that money often isn't made by doing the best job with recycling.

 And so I don't necessarily think that the recycling industry is poised right now to have doing the best work at its best interest or being completely zero waste in its best interests.

So I was really interested in working in composting. And so we formed this group, and through this group, I met this woman named Amelia Rose, who is the director of Groundwork Rhode Island, and had just started working on this program called Harvest Cycle, which had been started by someone else on, this woman named Allie Trull, who ran it for three years. She was picking up everything on her bike. Basically, she was just biking around this one neighborhood in Providence. And I think she had about 40 subscribers and taking it all to a small urban farm. So she wasn't doing any processing. She was just doing pickup. And that had grown for a while to the point where she wasn't really able to do it by herself anymore. She was going back to school. So she asked Amelia if she wanted to take it over. So Amelia had just taken it over by the time I met her. She took it over in April 2018.

I met her that summer, of 2018, and toward the end of the summer she offered me a job and she said she was hiring somebody to run Harvest Cycle and she was wondering if I was interested because I had some compost experience and I was really interested in sort of like designing ways that compost could happen in Providence. And I was absolutely overjoyed that somebody wanted to pay me to do something that I cared about. So since then, I've been managing the compost program. It's mostly just me with some help here and there.

When we started, we had about 30 subscribers and we were picking everything up by truck. Now we have about 120 and I pick everything up by bike.

GF: I think a lot about things like zero waste or compost as sometimes being written off as like these individual actions that are only accessible for certain kinds of people. I wonder when you're talking to folks or when you're trying to wrap your own head around how to change systems in a city, how you grapple with that legacy, and how you are trying to do it differently. 

KM: Yeah. I mean, that's something that I'm almost constantly thinking about and thinking around and trying to think of other ways to think about because I really don't think that it has to be that way. I mean, compost is like, compost is one of the most like ancient and universal arts that we have. It just so happens that in the past, you know, a couple hundred years, particularly in the US, that has become something that we don't do anymore. And a lot of people who are immigrants who I talk to about composting, like, oh, yeah, like I didn't know that you guys call it that. But, you know, we do that, you know, back home. That's what my parents did. Or, you know, a lot of people do have some kind of point of reference for it. You just to kind of have to talk about it for a while before everybody finds their point of reference. Just kind of kind of like you have to do with talking to almost everybody about almost anything. But yeah, I mean, groundwork’s whole mission is about connecting people who may not have access to green space or have had access to green space, to green space and helping build like a stewardship and community ownership and feelings of belonging with those spaces.

And yeah, I mean, people have different reactions to compost. Like, a lot of people are grossed out right away and sort of like, oh, this is gross. You're doing stuff with trash, you know? 

But yeah, I think it's really important because there's no reason that, like, compost has to be a thing for rich people or a thing for white people. And in fact, I'm a really strong believer in the fact that compost is something that should be accessible to everyone and makes a bigger difference in the lives of people who have fewer resources.

And if you think about that, there's really direct connections to food security. To access to greenspace. Compost is something that you need to make plants grow. And a lot of times, especially in a city like Providence where a lot of the soil is contaminated with lead, especially in the less affluent neighborhoods, especially in neighborhoods that are next to areas that have traditionally been manufacturing areas. There's a lack of healthy, safe soil to grow food in. And so I think compost is a really important tool to sort of give everybody equal access or to start to work towards equal access for everybody to just even the like, the privilege of being able to grow food.

GF: What do you think a success will look like in terms of composting in Providence? 

KM: I have really specific opinions on that.

I mean, there's the big level thing, right? Like most people, when they think about what success looks like for compost, they think: all the food scraps are diverted from the landfill. You know, all the food scraps are efficiently turned into fertile soil that can be used for gardening. But then the question is, where is that happening? And I think that's something that a lot of people aren't taking into account. 

And I mean, my ideas on this developed sort of in tandem with a lot of conversations with Michael Bradley, who also feels really strongly this way, that food scraps should be processed as close as possible to the place that they're produced. There should be a compost facility in every single neighborhood that's walkable by everybody who lives there. Everybody in Providence should have a compost facility that's connected to a garden that they can walk to. And they everybody should know where it is. Everybody should know what happens there and be proud of it. If we were able to do that, we would be able to create a ton of green jobs. Good local jobs that people could walk to from the neighborhood. And all of that compost would be accessible then to be used in the neighborhood for agriculture. Whereas right now what’s happening in big cities that are putting together curbside compost programs, like in New York City, it’s all getting picked up and taken to upstate New York on trains and it's processed there.

And the, you know, the big facility that processes it then just gets to sell all that compost. And none of that compost is going back to the people who are giving the food scraps. And really, that's a resource. And not only are people not able to hold onto that resource, they're actually paying for it to be taken away. And that's what's happening right now with our trash system, too, like in Providence. There's no obvious fee that you have to pay for your trash to be picked up. It's picked up by the city, but it's paid for in your taxes. And then if you live in a larger apartment building or something, the person who owns the apartment building is paying for a private company or restaurants are paying for private haulers to come in and take their trash away. So really, it's like a double whammy of extraction. And so being able to have this sort of like local dispersed processing is, I think, really important. And every time we're talking about planning for compost like a compost system in Providence, I always am really adamant about thinking, OK, let's keep the our eyes on the prize.

Let's keep that goal of this dispersion in mind. And yes, there are some ways in which in the short term, it might make sense to just make it seem easier to just replicate our trash system. But in the long run, that's not going to solve a lot of other problems.

GF: It’s easy to fall into the belief that scaling up and doing more and bigger in the way we've learned that companies work or that nonprofits work is the ultimate success, right? What do you think comes next? And maybe not next that maybe like what do you think is missing? As someone that thinks a lot about, you know, both the more local piece and just kind of our overall relationship with all the materials, not just this one thing that we have right now decided is kind of the enemy. 

KM: Yeah. I mean, the real thing that I think is missing, which is so big, is just the way we're all thinking about this in terms of who's responsible. I remember, one of my friends when I was working at the Climate Mobilization, read this book that was a history of advertising in the United States. And there was a chapter on the movement that was started by Coca-Cola and these soda companies that were starting to sell drinks in disposable bottles like in the 60s. Before that, everything had been sold in glass bottles. And, you know, there was this reverse logistics system where Coca-Cola was responsible for taking its glass bottle back.

And as soon as these sort of disposable plastic bottles started to be produced, they ended up all over the ground. And there were just plastic bottles everywhere because there wasn't the kind of ubiquitous trash that we have now. And people just didn't know what to do with these bottles. And so Coca-Cola and a lot of these other big companies that were making things in disposable containers started this campaign: don't be a litterbug. And so that was the genesis of shaming people for littering in the United States, which is like - yes. Don't litter, you know. But is that really what it did sas it diffused and it moved the blame away from these companies who are completely irresponsibly producing these things that were they basically there was taking something that they had been responsible for its entire life cycle and just saying, oh, you know, after we sell it, we're not responsible for it anywhere anymore. Who knows who's going to be responsible for it. But it's not us. And putting it onto the individual consumer. And now that responsibility keeps getting pushed down the line. And the reality is that kind of nobody is responsible for all this material when it gets to the end of its lifecycle.

Like, to a certain extent, Waste Management, it has this sort of blanket responsibility that refers to almost every single material that humans use. And that's actually a huge responsibility. And nobody deserves to have that responsibility. No entity, you know, not even a huge government entity could deal with that. In addition to the fact that a lot of waste management has become privatized. So there's really not very good oversight with that kind of stuff. And then who ends up being responsible is non-profit environmental organizations. And that being responsible for cleaning up the damage that's done by landfills. And, you know, health organizations are starting to try to deal with people getting cancer because they live next to a Superfund site or something like that.

So, yeah, I think like a systemic analysis is missing. That's, I mean, in some ways, that's a crazy answer to your question, because it's like, you know, it's not just a piece that's missing. It's just sort of thinking about all of it wrong. And, I mean, the nice thing about compost is its sort of easier to think about it systemically. And it's this thing that people just weren't thinking about it. Also, we can kind of introduce this new way of thinking. But like I mean, that's one of the problems that I have with the discourse around recycling, is that it's not really thought about systemically.

GF: Will you just say something about the privatization of waste management, because that might be new to some people. 

KM: Yeah. So this is something that I have learned about from a grassroots level, from the way that it affects me. And have then been extrapolating, you know, upwards sort of. So I don't totally know everything about how the industry works in America as a whole, but in Providence and in a lot of cities, the trash pickup, residential trash pickup is subcontracted to private companies. And there is a private company called Waste Management, which, you know, I think a lot of people see waste management and they're like, oh, it must be the government or it must be the city or something. But no, it's a company called Waste Management that is responsible for doing all the hauling. And then landfills, I think some landfills are private. I think some are owned by municipalities or at least managed by municipalities. But like there is this sort of proliferating privatization and the waste sector.

I grew up in New York City and the waste sector in New York City is not privatized. I mean, there is some commercial collection that is privatized, but residential collection in York City is run by the Department of Sanitation. And so I think maybe because I was used to that when I was a kid, I was sort of shocked when I came to Rhode Island and learned that, you know, it's not the city that's picking up your trash. And there's actually a lot of implications of that. There's a really strong sanitation workers union in New York City. The sanitation workers are paid really, really well. They have great benefits. It's you know, it's a really good job. It's considered like a great job.

GF: I was hoping that would be a waste management truck. 

KM: Yeah, me too. Me too.

But so, like, that whole sector is really strong in New York. And I mean, this is also me speaking completely as an outsider. But from my observation, my theory is that one of the reasons that it has been easier for compost to start to happen in New York City, even the New York City is such a huge place, like probably one of the most challenging places to think about the logistics of picking up everybody's compost is actually because there was a governmental department that was in charge of it. Whereas if I were to try to talk to somebody in Providence about getting municipal compost pickup, there's not even a person to talk to in that position. There's just a contract. 

And Waste Management obviously wants to continue picking up the trash. So it's not like I call Waste Management, you know. And there's a lot of different ways that that could go. You know, Waste Management could start picking up compost and bring it to a different place. They have to basically create a new program as they do, which is an option. Or the contract, when it expires, and it expires like every 10 years or something like that, it's up for renegotiation. The city could give the contract to someone else or open up the contract to someone else, so could create a separate contract for composting. Or the city could build its own department. I guess probably within public works to deal with sanitation. I find that unlikely. It's interesting just, you know, working with the city, seeing how little resources a lot of departments in the city have to deal with this kind of stuff. So it's hard, but we've been working really closely with the Department of Sustainability in Providence and they've been, you know, really helpful in terms of guidance and, you know, connecting us to the people we need to talk to and sort of like advice space and connection guidance that's been really useful. And we're actually working with them right now in setting up this compost pilot project. 

GF: Yeah.

KM: Scalability. 

GF: What do you think people can learn from compost?

KM: You know, if you bring your compost to a community garden or something or, you know, a community drop off spot, that compost, that material that was once something that was in your kitchen is now going to have a second life for somebody else.

And I love the way that it connects us to each other in that way. And the reality is that every material we have connects us to each other in those ways, except we're taking that material and just basically throwing it in a hole right now and covering up. And it’s still there, it’s still doing things.

And someday it will have a relationship to us.

And the fact that, you know, climate change is happening because of the methane that's coming out of the landfill and there's like acid leachate going into the bay and all of those things are affecting us and we have a relationship with them.

And it's not the kind of relationship that we would want. It's not a good one. And so I think beginning to think about all the things around this that way is really important.

And I think that can that can lead in to, you know, thinking about our relationships with other people as well and the way that, like, you know, all of us, regardless of what neighborhood we live in, you know, or like whether we, you know, are like sheltered from thinking about, you know, people who live ten blocks that way as being part of our lives or not.

The reality is that we are connected by this web of, you know, materials that we need to survive.

GF: That’s really beautiful. That's like the most beautiful thing I've ever heard anyone say about compost. 

This interview was a part of the Grassroots Fund Guiding Practice Community Stories. To learn more and listen to other stories, visit grassrootsfund.org.

Primary issue area:

  • Environmental Health


  • Rhode Island