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The West's spreading compost movement.

Town by town, people are learning how to keep their clippings to themselves

ON A COOL SATURDAY morning in June, Cindy Havstad begins to talk about composting. A woman with a passion for her topic, she addresses her audience, a handful of homeowners and their children from Livermore, California, with surprising energy considering the early hour. After ticking off the benefits and ease of composting, she shows the attentive group how to get started.

Havstad has her listeners in the palm of her hand, and she knows why: they are enticed to her demonstration by a desire to do their part to solve our nation's garbage crisis--ready to compost, rather than dump, their yard waste.

Out of such motivations movements are made and sustained, and the West has an impressive new social movement under way. With landfill sites filling up fast, people are banding together to reduce their solid waste. Curbside recycling for cans, bottles, and newspapers is now common in many areas. Some cities and counties have voluntary programs designed to cut solid waste by specific amounts by specific years. And a few have gone even further, mandating the cutting of solid waste dumping by as much as half by 1995.

Of course, that means dumping far less yard waste. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that grass clippings, leaves, and prunings account for 19 percent of household trash, and as much as 50 percent in summer and fall. While some communities have started huge municipal composting sites with curbside pickup, such efforts can get expensive. So, using a program launched in Seattle four years ago as a model, several cities are persuading thousands of residents to make their own compost.


Seattle had promoted composting for more than a decade when, in 1989, it took the big leap--setting a goal of composting three-quarters of all yard waste by 1998. How would that be possible? To help find out, the city hired Seattle Tilth Association--a nonprofit organization that specializes in urban organic gardening and home ecology--to experiment with ways to promote backyard composting.

The success of Seattle Tilth's program has led dozens of other communities--including Vancouver, British Columbia; Portland; Burbank, Glendale, Ventura, and the counties of Sacramento and Alameda, California--to pattern programs after it. Alameda County's program, which includes the Livermore demonstration project, so closely mirrors Seattle's that cities nationwide are now going there, too, for information about what works.

There's nothing magic about Seattle Tilth's approach--it just takes hard work, volunteerism, and city funds. The city distributes at no charge home composting brochures, other educational materials, and a compost bin (plus an hour-long training session) to any Seattle resident who asks. It also maintains five demonstration sites: all display commercial and homemade bins and offer self-guided tours to explain composting methods. Perhaps most important, the city has mimicked the USDA Cooperative Extension Service's highly successful Master Gardener program by training hundreds of Master Composters to spread the word.

In Alameda County, Master Composters receive 50 hours of classroom, field, and hands-on training in composting biology, bin construction, and troubleshooting. They also get tips on teaching methods. In exchange, Master Composters commit at least 50 hours to educating the public about composting setting up displays at fairs and festivals, teaching in classrooms, staffing compost hotlines, and leading workshops similar to the one at Livermore.

Multiply passion and effort by the hundreds of Master Composters in the West, and it's clear something big is cooking: hundreds of workshops a year, thousands of backyard composting bins (24,000 distributed in Seattle alone, so far), enormous quantities of waste intercepted between the yard and landfill.

In Seattle, consultants have estimated that 2,900 tons of yard waste are being diverted from dump sites each year--59 percent of the goal. "We've persuaded people to change their behavior toward yard and food waste," says Madelon Bolling, public information specialist with Seattle Tilth. "Don't throw it in the garbage; learn how to compost it."


Seattle Tilth Association helps communities start composting programs. The group's $5 information packet describes a model program and includes designs for three home composting bins, a resource guide to composting products and equipment, and a tour guide for a home composting demonstration site. For an additional cost, the group offers a Master Composter Resource Manual, a home composting brochure, and several slide shows. For more information, write or call Seattle Tilth at 4649 Sunnyside Avenue N., Seattle 98103; (206) 633-0451.

To find out if your area has a program, or to learn how to become a Master Composter, call your local waste department or sanitation service.
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Author:Swezey, Lauren Bonar
Date:Mar 1, 1993
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