We need to talk about community composting

We’re receiving about 20 enquiries a week from people desperate to compost but without the space to do so. Brighton & Hove Food Partnership Director Vic Borrill explains the benefits of community composting and why, as local elections near, community composting needs to be pushed up the political agenda. Scroll to the bottom of the page to find out how you can help!

Why is community composting so great?

Community composting offers a solution for residents in Brighton and Hove who want to compost their fruit and veg waste but don’t have space for home composting. It is most obviously a fantastic way to make use of old peelings and the like, turning it into nutritious compost for houseplants, window boxes, community gardens, schools and parks.

But the scheme also saves the council the money that the collection and processing of that fruit and veg waste would have cost if it had gone into the general waste system.

And it has proved a great way for people to get to know their neighbours. In some cases, it has led to other community action, including community gardening and park litter picks.

How does community composting work in Brighton and Hove?

Community composting in the city started in 2012, a partnership between Brighton and Hove City Council and the Food Partnership. There are 38 schemes now with more than 1,000 households participating. Schemes are mainly found in the city centre or alongside blocks of flats and each scheme is limited to about 30 households or the bins fill up faster than the compost is made. The amazing tiger worms that turn the waste into compost are busy little workers but compost-making still times time.

Tiger worm. Image @allispossible.org.uk via Flickr

Usually, three wooden bins are provided, and these are used in rotation. Community composters put in fruit and veg waste, as well as uncoated cardboard. Tiger worms enjoy a mixture of fruit, veg and cardboard for their lunch.

Each scheme is coordinated by a volunteer compost monitor. However, everybody in a scheme participates in some way, for example by turning the compost or reporting back to the monitor if there are concerns.

The resulting compost can be taken by scheme members or passed on for community use.

How is community composting funded?

Brighton and Hove City Council gives the Food Partnership a grant to run the scheme. Over the last year this grant was £15,000. We undertake necessary tasks such as recruiting and supporting the volunteer compost monitors and ensuring that repairs and maintenance take place. The council also pays for the bins and any repairs or replacements required, and it helps identify suitable sites and manage the process of applying for the relevant permits from the Environment Agency.

How does community composting help with the city’s recycling targets?

The formula agreed when community composting was set up indicates that nine tonnes a year of waste fruit and veg are going through the scheme rather than being collected and going into general waste. That’s a huge pile of old peelings going to good, local use! However, the amount of food waste that gets diverted from the general waste stream into community composting isn’t included as a measurement target for the city. Maybe it should be.

We’d like to revisit the basis on which our calculation has been made and include a specific, citywide target for community composting that gets properly reported.

We want community compost to be an integral part of the city’s waste management plans.

Why aren’t there more schemes or more households involved?

There is no lack of interest in community composting. We have to turn away lots of people every week. The simple answer as to why there are not more schemes is resources. Each scheme needs staff time to look after it for supporting the volunteers, organising repairs and managing new scheme members.

A bigger grant would mean more schemes. But, as we all know, the Council is having to make tough spending decisions.

In a built-up city like Brighton and Hove there are also a lot of demands on space. Finding sites that work for community composting means considering how it sits alongside other uses for green space. Over the past six years we have been able to be creative about where schemes are sited, including in the city’s squares, at a railway station, in church grounds and parks.

Are there any challenges associated with community composting?

Sometimes there have been problems with vermin but our new bin design, regular repairs and well looked after schemes can prevent this. We have also had issues with people leaving other rubbish on or around bins, especially if the schemes are in parks and general bins for recycling and rubbish aren’t visible. We have improved signage to try and stop this happening.

We have also had a couple of bins stolen, but again an improved design that locks bins to each other is now helping to prevent this.

Our biggest frustration is having to tell people who want to join schemes that they can’t because there just isn’t the capacity. For example, over the last few weeks we have had 20 enquiries a week that we haven’t been able to put on a scheme because the ones in their area are full.

Would it be better to have a doorstep food waste collection as in other places?

We know that many people are keen to see a doorstep food waste collection. We also know that the investment needed for this to happen currently isn’t available. So, certainly in the short-term, community composting provides a viable alternative for people living in homes without gardens to compost some of their food waste (the scheme only takes raw fruit and veg waste).

But I also believe that home and community composting has a role even in places with a food waste collection. Community composting is a really low-impact way of managing waste with no energy involved in the transport and processing. Scheme members walk their peelings to a compost box made from reclaimed wooden pallets and the wonderful tiger worms turn the waste into compost for growing flowers, fruit and vegetables locally – or even just for returning to the earth.

What does the Food Partnership want to see happen next?

We want to see community composting as a key element of the city council’s plans for waste management in the city. This would see jointly agreed ambitions for how many schemes we establish. Fifty schemes (or 1,500 households) is within sight, but with an appropriate level of funding over multiple years these figures could be more than doubled.

How can I help?

It is election time in Brighton and Hove. Decisions about funding levels for community composting – or even if there will be funding – beyond September 2019 (when the current funding ends) will need to be taken by the new administration. Brighton & Hove Food Partnership will be talking to all the political parties about this.

If an election candidate knocks on your door please ask them what their plans would be for community composting. Email us at info@bhfood.org.uk to let us know what they say. If they want to know more, please tell them about this blog.

For those keen to join a scheme, all sites are currently full to capacity. We are reviewing this regularly so please sign-up to our email list for updates when sites re-open for new members. If you would like to see an increase in resources to open new sites and maintain the current ones, please contact your local councillor. Below is some suggested wording and please copy info@bhfood.org.uk if you send a message.

Thank you for your interest and support.

Sample letter to a councillor

Dear (insert councillor name).

I have tried to join my local community composting scheme but it and the others in my area are full. This scheme is funded by the council and run as a partnership between Cityclean, the Food Partnership and a team of local volunteers who look after each scheme.

Currently 1000 households living in areas of the city without gardens use the Community Compost scheme for their fruit and vegetable waste diverting this from the household waste collection and producing compost for use in local schools, community gardens and parks. I would like this project to be further resourced to increase capacity for more households to be able to compost their waste.

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