La La Land’s Latest Trend: Community Composting

Local man transforming Los Angeles one neighborhood at a time

To outsiders, Los Angeles can seem a bit intimidating. It’s the second largest city in America, the most populous county in the country, and a traffic congestion juggernaut that has commuters seeing red on the daily. It’s where stars are made and trends are born.

Michael Martinez is not intimidated.

It’s the only way to explain what this West Covina native has accomplished in just four years, transforming a bold idea from a grade school garden into one of the most high-profile community composting programs in California. “LA Compost started as a pilot project in 2013 with a goal to keep organic material in the community, so neighbors could start seeing it as a resource and not waste,” the nonprofit’s founder and executive director recalls. Now, with eight community composting hubs throughout Los Angeles County, plans to add 10 more in 2017, and a waiting list of about 40 potential locations, LA Compost is on track to become the first county-wide community-based composting program in the state. Just as profound, the nonprofit provides a localized model for how individuals and neighborhoods can get involved in California’s fight against climate change.

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Michael Martinez (right) with volunteers at LA Compost

You could say Martinez was born for this moment. He was raised to appreciate the source of his meals: “My father always valued the importance of food and ensured my siblings and I understood its story.” And he was acutely aware of what too often came next: “Growing up in Los Angeles, I was very familiar with the landfills in West Covina and Puente Hills.” Perhaps that’s why he was so disturbed by the disconnect he witnessed from his fifth-grade students. “Not a lot of kids could trace a carrot beyond the supermarket or saw anything grow from the ground before,” he recalls.

From there, an idea was born—an ambitious new program to build soil health and community health using compost as a vehicle. Martinez started a school garden and composting site with his fellow teachers in West Covina. A high school soon followed, and Martinez’s phone started ringing. “Friends and families and people I knew throughout the city started asking if they could get involved.” Within a few years, a local church funded the construction of a community garden and compost center at the high school where the church congregates. Martinez credits home-field advantage with giving LA Compost its strong foundation. “I had a lot of connections from schools, churches, and businesses,” Martinez continues. “I knew I could really get a good start and some flexibility if I messed up a thing or two.”

Expanding his neighborhood composting concept beyond the familiar borders of West Covina took courage and a leap of faith, but Martinez says he had confidence in the communities that make up Los Angeles. “For me, it’s about tapping into that potential and diversity from ZIP code to ZIP code to create a decentralized model that collectively has a bigger impact.” Along the way, Martinez says he’s been able to navigate his way through state and local regulations without a problem, paying special attention to hauling agreements and various state and local permitting requirements. “What we offer is smaller, individual operations with a lot of on-site local solutions that don’t require a lot of movement of materials,” he adds.

LA Compost and similar community composting groups throughout the state are crucial partners in California’s effort to reduce short-lived climate pollutants that contribute to global warming. When sent to landfills, organic waste decomposes and generates methane, a potent greenhouse gas with a heat-trapping effect at least 70 times greater than carbon dioxide. Compost use provides a simple, proven way to build carbon content and hold more water in soils, which is essential for building climate resilience.

“California’s diversion goal and the effort to get three-quarters of all organics out of landfills by 2025 cannot be attained without a variety of programs and community efforts of all sizes,” notes Robert Horowitz, environmental scientist with the California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery. “So long as your community composting program stays under 100 cubic yards of materials on site at any time and 750 square feet, you should not need a solid waste permit.” He says most community garden compost sites don’t come close to that volume. “My advice is keep it small, and even if you intend to stay way under 100 cubic yards and 750 square feet, I recommend getting to know the inspectors at your local environmental health department.  They will let you know if there are local regulations or other concerns.”

By the start of 2017, LA Compost’s eight hubs were diverting more than 8,000 pounds of organic material from landfills each month. Looking toward future expansions, Martinez says maintaining standards is top priority. “I want the bins to be clean. I want best practices taking place. I want every hub to be owned by the community in which it’s located.” Over the past few years, Martinez says he’s noticed a growing interest in composting and more excitement among citizens who want to get involved. “I would say do what works for you and your schedule,” whether it’s participating in a community composting operation or starting a compost pile in your own backyard. “Do what works for you. Composting happens. Nature is very forgiving. Just have fun with it.”

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— Lance Klug
Posted on Apr 3, 2017

Summary: To outsiders, Los Angeles can seem a bit intimidating. It’s the second largest city in America, the most populous county in the country, and a traffic congestion juggernaut that has commuters seeing red on the daily. It’s where stars are made and trends are born.