There is a food fight being waged on Capitol Hill over the Republicans ending the composting program instituted by the Democrats when they took over the House. If only a referee could enter the fray to set some rules about why composting is so important. While composting advocate and Montgomery County, Maryland-based GrowingSOUL founder Jessica L. Weiss won’t be trekking up to the Hill anytime soon, she is working hard to educate citizens about how easy composting is and how important it is to the environment.
Examiner: What is GrowingSOUL?
Jessica Weiss: We are a sustainable food education center focusing on zero waste food production systems. Our mission is to close the gap in the food system by bringing composting to municipal level.
E: How did you get interested in the sustainable food movement?
JW: I’m a very bad gardener but I’m very interested in the environment and I’m a foodie. I read Barbara Kingsolver’s “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle” and got very interested in local foods. I’m from California originally and I grew up going to farmers markets. So I started connecting my family to that and we experimented with just eating local food for a year.
E: What is the organization working on right now?
JW: On the commercial level we have several small restaurants, a retirement center in Bethesda, and we now have ten Chipotle restaurants with the go ahead to essentially take over all the Chipotle restaurants that we can drive to.
It’s really Montgomery County right now. But by talking to Chipotle, what we are shooting for is to create a franchise program so that nationally we would connect Chipotle restaurants with compost haulers and urban farms and food banks and create more of these loops.
E: What are the benefits you’ve seen since you purchased a truck that runs on vegetable oil to do your composting hauls?
JW: Having a truck that runs on the waste from Chipotle that we are picking up allows us not only to have a smaller carbon footprint, but now we aren’t having to pay money for gas. And that was really our biggest expense.
E: What are some of the other initiatives you are working on?
JW: We’re trying to bring reusable composting to Montgomery County and the Metropolitan D.C. area. So we’re going to take the vegetable oil truck and similar to having paper drives when I was little, we are going to have a mobile unit. We’ll drive around to specific sites, either people’s houses or a grocery store parking lot, and people can bring us their compostables and throw them in the back of the truck for free. And we’ll use that to donate to make the compost for the food bank.
We want to get fresh food to the people that need it the most. The tagline is that we are creating the healthy soil in which good food and strong communities grow and thrive. So we want to get people to think about composting the same way they think about recycling. It’s what you do. It’s how you sort your trash. And we want to instead of calling it trash or waste, we want to call it landfill so that people realize what they are doing when they throw it into the trash.
E: Why do you think composting is so important to a healthy society and a healthy planet?
JW: There was a statistic that really struck me — if you take a piece of organically grown broccoli and compare it to an organically grown piece of broccoli from 50 years ago, it has 75% fewer nutrients in it now then it did back then just because of the soil erosion depleting all the nutrients.
What we can do is take those nutrients and put it back in the ground and grow more nutrients that we can feed people.
E: Why has there been more awareness about recycling than composting?
JW: Because people are grossed out by composting. People are willing to touch a dirty beer bottle but aren’t really happy picking up bones that someone else has eaten or banana peels. It rots and it smells and it gets gross sitting in your trash can.
It’s dirty work. I happen to love that. To me it smells like the day after it rains. In some ways it’s a mindset about how you feel about nature. Just taking inner city kids and showing them a tree that’s growing or seeing how a vegetable grows is mystifying.
E: How do you change that societal aversion to composting?
JW: We give them compostable liners and we get these free pickle barrels from restaurants. We have these buckets available. They can take them home, put a liner in it like they would put a trash liner in their trash can and throw their coffee grounds into it. It fits under their sink. The can put a lid on top of it so it doesn’t smell. If it smells they just put their coffee grounds on top of it so it smells like coffee. And then they just pull the liner out and toss it in our truck. So it makes it pretty clean.
A lot of what you need to do is teach the interconnectedness and how many people are involved in the food system. And food should really cost a whole lot more than it does. So if we don’t want to encourage the cost to go up, how do we keep it down. Well, we can do things like use renewable energy. The bulk of the transportation of food in this country is using diesel engines. We can create a network of co-ops around the country where these trucks can fuel up on vegetable oil and cut down on their carbon footprint and cut down on the cost. So we are working more on sustainability. That’s an initiative I really want to push through.
E: Where do you see the composting movement going in the future? Will it get bigger?
JW: Oh yeah. You look at places like San Francisco, Seattle, Ontario. Canada is way ahead of us. They have municipal composting. The reason recycling has caught on in this country is because there are haulers willing to do the recycling. And the biggest problem with recycling is that a lot of times with plastic and stuff we end up crushing the stuff and sending it out to China to do the recycling there because it’s unaffordable to do it here.
When I was growing up you had to collect your bottles and take them to the recycling center. The reason it’s caught on is because there is a bin everywhere you look now. What we’re proposing for municipal composting is that you have a green bin and you have a blue bin and then you have your landfill.
People are inherently lazy but they want to do the right thing. I don’t want to say lazy in a bad way. People are really busy and if they have to go out of their way it’s not going to happen. Some people can afford to pay someone to make it happen. But most people can’t.
If you think about the cost of gardening, it makes sense to recycle your own food scraps. Composting is the recycling of food scraps.