Help Is On the Way, Sort Of / by Ryan Koch

Here’s the truckster moving coffee chaff from Magic Beans to our compost piles.

Here’s the truckster moving coffee chaff from Magic Beans to our compost piles.

I was recently asked to submit an opinion piece to the Lexington Herald Leader in response to the city’s (Division of Waste Management) decision to stop taking paper waste in our recycling bins. Here is an expanded version of what I submitted.

I need to start by saying that Seedleaf cannot offer free pick-ups of all of the paper waste that the Division of Waste Management (LFUCG) is temporarily not picking up. We are more than glad to be part of the conversation of how to help our city become more environmentally responsible, but we cannot offer an easy and convenient rescue plan at this time. 

I am somewhat glad, though, that this announcement came when it did, because, Lexington, we need to talk. In the recovery community, health is precipitated by honesty. Truth cultivates growth. My training is not in agriculture, or in waste management, but in mental health. I started Seedleaf because I wanted my neighbors to enjoy healthy food, and to build life-giving connections with each other and with our earth. We have observed that growing gardens and building soil together through composting has been instrumental in knitting participants together. And since 2009, we have been busy picking up food waste at 35 area restaurants and kitchens, tackling a small part of the food waste component of our city’s waste stream. (Compostables account for 29% of our community’s waste stream, according to a 2008 waste audit!)

Truth-telling is important because, honestly, our community has not done a great job prioritizing or supporting the city’s recycling efforts. Many of us engage in “wish-cycling.” This is the phenomenon wherein a person thinks:

    1. I am a basically good person.

    2. And I live in an enlightened town.

    3. Therefore, anything I put in our blue recycle bin will not end up in a landfill.

Have you done this? I know I have. Such wishful thinking severely taxes the Municipal Recycling Facility (MRF) as they sift out all those items for which there is no market: old garden hoses; plastic shopping bags; etc. Taxpayers pay for this sifting, and over 20% of what we send to the MRF ends up at the landfill by way of this scenic route. Wish-cyclers like me would do better just to set those yogurt cups and plastic berry clamshells directly into the solid waste bins.

This is not a problem because we are wishful, or particularly terrible, people. We simply prize convenience. And shipping all sorts of plastic and paper products to other countries has been the easy button upon which we have relied for quite some time. Now we have to be honest about the new reality of the global demand for America’s trash: there is no global demand for our trash. It is a good thing to reckon honestly with what this means for our community. I appreciate the Division of Waste Management’s announcement that there is now no outlet for our paper waste. Here is our next wake-up call. What we have been doing is not working. We need to take responsibility and change our behavior.

So we at Seedleaf are glad to propose a few things. These are local solutions that occur on a small scale. They are simple, but not easy. They will be inconvenient and they will require some sacrifice. But they, like any bit of bad news, may help us draw together as we draft solutions. 

    1. Compost at home. Anyone with the privilege of a yard can likely spare 10-20 square feet for a simple compost bin to process your home kitchen waste. You can spend a lot on a fancy container, or you can invest $20 and some time and make one yourself. There are loads of tips online, or you can learn with Seedleaf at an upcoming Compost 101 near you.

    2. Compost with neighbors. We can set up simple 3-bin systems where folks can process their own food waste and paper products. In fact, we currently care for two such drop off points and they seem to be working great. Email seedleafinfo@gmail.com to get a list of he materials we do and don’t accept, and to find out where these drop-offs are located. 

    3. Subscribe to the Compost Carpool. We are now accepting a range of paper products from home composters. You can sign up for a monthly, bi-monthly, or weekly pickup service, depending on your household’s need. Visit seedleaf.org to get started today. 

    4. Buy less stuff. This is the first R in the old Reduce-Reuse-Recycle mantra. Reduce, like prevention, carries way more bang for the buck than does Recycle. We need to let our grocers know that we don’t need a big plastic net baggie of potatoes, or any one-use plastic (or now paper) thing. That’s our buying power at work. 

Seedleaf’s composting program is not the solution to our city’s recycling woes. It is unfair to the nonprofit community to continue to rush in to vacuums created when municipalities abdicate responsibility for critical services. But I think we do have a contribution to make. Like any non-profit leader, I have to anticipate a day when Seedleaf’s work here in Lexington is completed. On that day everyone who wants to will have access to fresh local produce. Anyone who wants to will have access to the land they need to grow their own food, for their own use, or for market. And anyone who wants to will be able to compost their home food waste, including whatever paper products people are still using. It is my hope that this recent bad news from the Division of Waste Management inspires a reckoning, part a shift towards a more sustainable and responsible future.

Learn more about composting at home, or taking the lead in your neighborhood by attending an upcoming Compost 101 (see our Upcoming Events page on this website).