An article written for WasteAid by Ramón Plana, maestrocompostador.com
This is the second post in a short series on community composting. See the first one here.
Community composting brings many environmental, economic, educational and social plus points. In order to plan a successful community composting project, some challenges must first be dealt with. These can be classified as technical, logistic, economic, social and political. This post will focus on the latter two: social and political challenges.
Social challenges to community composting: We generate biowaste (organic waste such as food waste) in our homes and in businesses such as grocery stores, fresh markets, restaurants and coffee shops. Different strategies are required for managing biowaste from these different sources.
It is much more important to reduce food waste at source – so the saying goes “the best waste is that which is not generated.” Engaging citizens, at home and at work, in waste reduction can be a challenge in itself.
Once the biowaste is generated, other challenges arise. People tend to see food waste as disgusting garbage, so a significant effort must be made to clearly explain that biowaste can be transformed easily into a valuable resource, and how to do it. (The cultural negative view that people usually have about organic waste is really interesting and maybe should be the subject of a future post.)
People tend to lack a good understanding of waste management, particularly of their direct role in reducing waste. A communications campaign, with people going door-to-door and answering questions, is often the best approach. It is very important to listen to one another in the planning stage, so that problems can be overcome in advance.
Children play a critical role in passing messages back to their parents. Schoolchildren often learn about composting by using leftovers from school meals to produce compost, which is then used to grow vegetables in the school garden. Vermicomposting is great with children – what child doesn’t find bugs fascinating? Once the skills have been acquired in school, children are able to train their parents and family in waste separation.
[NOTE from WasteAid – see How to make compost using worms (vermicomposting)]
I wish I could say that it is this easy to encourage people to participate in decentralised composting programmes. Many people will want to see the system working before they participate, so word of mouth becomes the best advertising campaign.
We sometimes organise meetings for reluctant neighbours, and hide compost in boxes and buckets around the hall. Towards the end of the meeting, we show people that they have been sitting close to compost without experiencing any nuisance, such as bad odour or flies. This helps deal with people’s concerns, and can change their attitude towards the programme.
At other times, we have installed active composters at the entrance to the hall where the meeting is being held. Participants, politicians and journalists were therefore able to experience for themselves the real impact of living around a community composting area.
Incentives can also be helpful in convincing people, such as discounts from municipal refuse collection taxes for those participating in the scheme (and higher costs for those who don’t). The bureaucracy of this can be challenging, however, so others have offered discounts to the local swimming pool, bus network, or cinema, or incentives from local farmers, restaurants, or fun activities.
In one of the projects that we developed, combining community composting and hen farming, the incentives were that the participants take the eggs laid by the same chickens that they were feeding. A next step in this direction is the use of social currency to “buy” the biowastes from the participants so they can use that “money” to get different things in stores and businesses in the municipality.
In conclusion, use your imagination, listen to your people and plant the seeds that will encourage more and more participants.
Political challenges: It is often the case that local government officials and politicians do not support the project, or have concerns about their real efficiency or how people will react to them.
Most of these situations come from the lack of knowledge of what composting really is and how it works. They may also have had previous bad experiences (or heard about them) and then think that composting does not work or will cause lots of problems.
If local representatives don’t really know what composting is, it is necessary to teach them. The best way to do this is to take them to a location where there is already decentralised composting, and put them in direct contact with officers and politicians from those localities to talk about the reality of this biowaste management system.
If there is an existing waste collection service in the area, this could be impacted by the diversion of food waste into the community composting programme and so clear communication is again very important.
The best way to start is with a pilot project in a community area, school, etc. A small project can help educate people about composting and attract them to support a larger project. The important thing is to plant the seeds of inspiration and care for them.
The human side of composting – the social and political aspects – are just as important to get right as the technical ones. Particularly for a community-scale project, it is vital to have the support and participation of local citizens.
Despite all the benefits, decentralised, community-scale composting schemes are still uncommon. The fact is that people generate the waste, and so when they are responsible (in part) for its management, they become much more engaged citizens.
The author, Ramón Plana, works as an independent consultant in waste management, specialising in the biological treatment of organic waste. He has more than 20 years of experience in the sector and since September 2007 has worked as an independent international consultant. His professional activity includes different countries in Europe, America, Africa and Middle East. Find him on the web: maestrocompostador.com and on Twitter: @RPlanaCompost.