Sustainable Development

Is Composting Worth the Hassle?

On Sundays, I carry a small bucket of compost three blocks from my home to the green bins next to the American Museum of Natural History. My offering is usually a frozen block of coffee grounds and orange peels, onion skins, and carrot tops (kept in my freezer during the week for the smell). My bucket holds about a gallon of food scraps approved by GrowNYC (no chicken bones or bread crusts allowed). Most of my neighbors seem to keep their food waste in a series of small to medium containers. Impatiently, I wait for them to empty old soup canisters and food storage containers into the green bin and then meticulously save the emptied containers for next week's benefaction.

Why do I go to all this trouble? I am convinced that my food waste is a valuable contribution for healthy soils to sequester carbon. To feel even better about my own efforts to save the planet by reserving a full fourth of my freezer for garbage, I interviewed Brett KenCairn, the founding director of the Urban Drawdown Initiative (UDI)—an organization that helps cities design and implement natural climate solutions, including composting.

DB: What exactly is “drawdown”?

BKC: “Drawdown” is a term coined by Paul Hawken. The more technical term that is frequently used is sequestration. These terms aren’t truly interchangeable. Hawken used drawdown to refer to actions that were about both emissions reduction and carbon capture and sequestration. In this case, we are using the term drawdown to mean exclusively natural climate solutions, or actions that utilize natural living systems as the primary mechanism for capturing and assimilating carbon and storing it in a more productive form—additional humus in the soil or additional sea life or additional forest and wood accumulation—and it happens naturally. This is a process that has been in operation for several hundred million years and is remarkably effective, though slow. But as a linebacker once said to me, “I was slow, but I was big.” The earth is big. Her natural systems, oceans, forests—they are big. The last Ice Age left behind incredibly rich, mineralized soil many feet deep. Topsoil layers store huge volumes of carbon.

We don’t recognize the significant economic opportunity and environmental benefit that is being squandered by treating these materials as “waste.”

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Brett KenCairn, Founding Director of the Urban Drawdown Initiative and Senior Policy Advisor for Climate, Sustainability, and Resilience for the city of Boulder, Colorado

Why did you start the Urban Drawdown Initiative?

We won’t be able to stabilize the climate unless and until the majority of the human population turns toward the work of restoring and regenerating the living system capabilities of this planet. The only way we are going to sustain a world that our children will want to live in is if we rapidly protect and restore the critical life support systems that we depend on. Carbon capture and drawdown sequestration is still a rapidly rising field of interest, but there was essentially nobody working on the urban landscape side of this. There is enormous activity in the large working lands context—i.e., big agriculture, big forestry, and big range—but nobody has taken urban landscapes seriously as a potential carbon sink. Urban landscapes provide us a whole series of vital services.

Cities consume over two-thirds of the world’s energy and account for more than 70 percent of global carbon emissions. UDI has centered cities to be part of the solution, too. Besides reducing urban-based emissions, how can cities be part of the drawdown solution?

We can do drawdown in a variety of ways, through a variety of living systems. The most obvious in an urban context is the trees—although we’re starting to explore ways to increase the distribution of shrub layers, because shrubs do all kinds of good things. They’re experimenting with green walls of shrubbery in the Phoenix area to separate schoolyards from busy transportation areas. There is also the human created system of organics waste cycling: all the food that comes in and the organic waste that it generates are processed; the biosolids that come out of that represent a lot of material. If it could be captured in a relatively clean way, we could be nourishing a lot of the soils that surround our cities and regenerative agriculture for not only food production, but a whole host of related ecosystem services objectives—that’s a fancy way of talking about all the things these living systems do for us—provide shade and heat management, absorb storm water, neutralize toxins, create nutrient dense food, provide habitat (homes) for all of the living things that make up our living systems.

In a small apartment, it can be a hassle to keep compost until I can schlep it down to the weekly farmers’ market, but I am happy to do it if it makes a difference! Does it?

Questions about organics and composting are beautiful expressions of both desire and persistence to look for a place and a way that we can participate in the carbon cycle. Composting individually is an almost religious act if we understand religion to be a methodology of entering into a deeper relationship with oneself and one's place in one's community. Composting is acknowledging our role of consuming living things and honoring that portion of them that isn’t consumed by enabling it to be returned quickly to the ground. It is also to remember that the nourishment of our food is based on this cycle of returning carbon back to the earth. On a global level, it is probably not a place from which significant contributions to global climate stabilization are going to occur numerically. However, it is a vital act of nourishing the soul of hope—and of remembering of our place in these many cycles: life, food, carbon, death.

Composting will absolutely be a part of UDI’s future work through a return to very local efforts that create a new kind of climate action opportunity for our communities. Climate action is a scope of activity that, up to recently, had been simply about emissions reduction. It must now become more than that. We must now not only prepare for climate change (resilience/adaptation), we must also recognize and integrate equity and social justice. It is now increasingly clear that the intrinsic racism and injustice that our society has been built on is itself a part of the causes of climate change. The roots of climate change are in objectification, in our having forgotten that the earth is a living being that we are in relationship with and that our health and well-being are dependent on its health and well-being. Indigenous peoples remembered with exquisite subtlety that everything they need to live full, rich lives came directly from those places; nothing more and nothing less.

Composting is acknowledging our role of consuming living things and honoring that portion of them that isn’t consumed by enabling it to be returned quickly to the ground.

What are some of the best policies for cities to capture and use their mountains of food waste?

In terms of the best methods for harnessing the enormous volumes and values of organic waste flowing through cities, an important first step is to assess and demonstrate the value being lost. One of the reasons that we do not capture these wastes is that we don’t recognize the significant economic opportunity and environmental benefit that is being squandered by treating these materials as “waste.” The ultimate objective is to establish public policy that requires organic waste capture, but it’s politically infeasible to implement policies that will disrupt existing stakeholders who have an interest in the current system without building a strong case for the value of that disruption. My suggestion for initiating this kind of policy change is to bring together key public and private sector stakeholders to commission analysis of the opportunities associated with organic waste capture and utilization.

A qualification here is the importance of building in equity considerations at the outset. In almost all instances, one of the challenges we face is that the solutions proposed for these types of waste situations are capital-intensive. They tend to concentrate the opportunities in the hands of a few well-financed interests and concentrate the impacts in communities of people who are benefiting the least from the effort. It would be important to support analysis of alternative approaches such as the LA Compost model, where, rather than building large centralized collection and processing facilities for urban organic wastes, the approach is to instead create a broad network of small-scale, community-based composting operations that distribute the materials, the economic opportunity, and the benefits of the associated process.

Do cities need more trees?

I could not say more emphatically, YES! Trees and, more broadly, urban landscapes have been dramatically underappreciated in terms of the many vital, life-support system roles they play. Not only do we know that temperatures within urban environments can vary by as much as 20 degrees depending on the level of tree cover, we are now starting to recognize that there are enormous air quality differences based on the level of green urban landscapes and neighborhoods. (See this great recent New York Times article.) We are also beginning to understand the relationship between trees, shrub layers, and storm water infiltration. This issue is going to become more important as we see increases in the number and frequency of extreme weather events that are inundating local areas with moisture. Unfortunately, tree cover is declining nationally. This is caused by a variety of circumstances, including invasive pest species like the emerald ash bore (which is decimating large portions of urban forests across the Midwest and now heading into the Rocky Mountain region).

Analysis suggests that trees and forests within settled areas—both urban areas and smaller communities—represent something like 15 percent of the total carbon capture taking place in forests across the United States. Urban forests are vital resources in both our climate stabilization and climate change buffering strategies. Rather than think about the appropriate targets as a per capita metric, it would be more useful to consider canopy cover percentage. Think of looking up into the sky and estimating what proportion is “covered" by some form of shading. To prepare for the incredibly intense conditions that are coming toward us—according to some reports, over one-third of all communities with more than 50,000 people will experience over 30 days per year in which temperatures exceed 105 degrees by midcentury—we must rapidly increase the shading potential in our cities. Thirty to 40 percent canopy closure should be our target for areas that are going to be at high risk for these climate extremes.

UDI was the primary catalyst in launching a national campaign to increase the scale of federal support for urban forestry. Starting in the summer of 2020, UDI convened a consortium including American Forests, Trust for Public Land, the Urban Sustainability Directors Network, Davey Tree, and others to formulate a two-pronged, national strategy to dramatically accelerate the scale up of urban forestry across the United States. Simultaneously, UDI is working with cities across the country—Newark, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Chicago, Minneapolis, Denver, and San Francisco—to demonstrate what these scaled-up urban forestry initiatives could create. In each of these major cities, we are designing strategies that would rapidly scale-up the urban forestry field in each area, employing 200 to 300 more people in this sector to take on tree planting, tree protection and maintenance, and improvements in other aspects of urban forests.

Who are some of your partners in this work?

UDI has a very extensive network of partners. One group I would highlight here is the “Carboneers Collaborative,” which came out of a meeting at The Pocantico Center where we met Marc White, a founder of the Rid-All Green Partnership (RGP) in Cleveland, Ohio. RGP is a leader in equity-based urban agriculture efforts and began working with UDI to integrate carbon drawdown with a focus on biochar. Together, RGP and UDI developed a proposal to the USDA-NRCS Conservation Innovation grant program. Through this effort, RGP secured a federal grant supporting biochar-bioenergy efforts with the Detroit Community Black Food Security Network, the Covenant Pathways regenerative agricultural efforts in the Navajo Nation, and an Anglo cooperative farming effort in southern New Mexico. This effort is also an illustration of a community-based, community-scale technology development and dissemination strategy that is in contrast with large capital-intensive approaches.

A detailed description of these projects is available in the UDI Strategy and Action Plan Overview.

Brett KenCairn is the Founding Director of the Urban Drawdown Initiative (UDI). He also serves as the Senior Policy Advisor for Climate, Sustainability, and Resilience for the city of Boulder, CO. To learn more about the UDI, visit www.urbandrawdown.solutions.