Poor soil is the biggest obstacle to urban food production Much of the once fertile Hudson River Valley is now polluted and paved over. How can people who live in the most contaminated parts of Albany access healthy soil? The answer is simple: use local organic (once living) waste to produce fresh compost. Food waste, dead leaves, wood chips, and grass clippings can all be diverted from the landfill and reintegrated back into the environment as compost, a nutritional soil supplement used in gardening. Finished compost is amazing for a number of reasons: it restores nutrients and microbial processes to sterilized soils, improves moisture retention and pH, creates soil where none exists, and reduces the risk of exposure to soil-bound lead.
Albany’s Rapp Road Landfill is slated for closure. Composting is a good alternative to the dump. In fact, it may be the sustainable solution that helps bring vegetables to food deserts and mitigates climate change.
The Radix Ecological Sustainability Center in Albany is kickstarting the way for the Capital Region to compost more efficiently. Radix is a non-profit educational learning center and urban farm based in Albany’s South End. Ten years ago the site was a derelict parking. It now has a solar-heated bioshelter greenhouse that is managed as an indoor ecosystem with fish and flora integrated in an aquaponic system. Microlivestock like chickens and ducks live on the farm and eat food waste. The gardens use a rainwater collection system and electricity is provided by photovoltaic panels. As a demonstration site, Radix runs sustainability education programs and a farmshare. Radix works with the community advocacy organization A Village… Inc., to increase access to healthy, farm fresh food in the South End (classified as a food desert) by distributing at the Health Market, the only farmer’s market in the South End. Radix also encourages food waste diversion through the Community Composting Initiative (CCI).
The CCI is a weekly compost collection service in which subscribers get their food waste picked up at their curbside. The CCI also provides a hands-on example of sustainable waste management for our education programs. Volunteers, youth participants, and interns can touch, examine, and engage with all aspects of the compost process, from adding food scraps to the pile, to sifting fresh compost soil to garden beds.
Radix utilizes several techniques for composting. First, microlivestock such as chickens and geese eat food scraps, and thus lay eggs and defecate manure. Though they eat a significant amount of food scraps, not all is edible; what does not get eaten by the animals is mixed into compost piles with wood chips. When nitrogen-rich food waste is mixed with carbon-based woodchips, aerobic microbial composting begins and the compost pile heats up. As a result of the microbial metabolism, the internal temperature can reach 160 degrees Fahrenheit. In the winter, we harness some of the biothermal heat by running water pipes through the compost pile, and into the greenhouse. Over time, the pile cools and shrinks by almost 50% of volume, and earthworms take over the next part of the process. The finished product is a beautiful broken-down organic matter that is dark in color, with a sweet, rich earthy scent. This resulting soil can then be added as a fertilizer to our raised-bed gardens, replacing the nutrients that are lost with the previous year’s crop.
We believe that it is just as important to keep composting local as food production. When food waste is transported over long distances, the greenhouse gas emissions negate the atmospheric benefits of composting. Furthermore, in local “microbrew” composting, there is greater care put in to what materials get added in to the compost pile, screening out plastic trash, which in industrial scale compost end up getting processed anyway.
We offer a number of practical solutions: some organizations and businesses voluntarily donate their food waste to us; for those who don’t have time, we offer the compost collection subscription; and for those who want to compost local, but aren’t local to Albany, we offer to help match farms to food waste producers.
Composting food waste is an essential component of creating healthy, equitable, and sustainable urban ecosystems. Keeping food out of landfills and making soil helps fight climate change, addresses food scarcity, maintains employment, educates youth, and regenerates soil ecosystem health.
To support Radix, or learn more about our programs, check out www.radixcenter.org.
This article was produced in part with funding provided by the NYS Pollution Prevention Institute through a grant from the Environmental Protection Fund as administered by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.
Any opinions, findings, and/or interpretations of data contained herein are the responsibility of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the opinions, interpretations or policy of Rochester Institute of Technology and its NYS Pollution Prevention Institute or the State.