Members of the Brewerytown Garden work the three-bin composting system that's now up and running at 27th and Master streets

A Department of Parks and Recreation program that teaches Philadelphians how to work together on composting is finally up and running, after years of planning.

The Community Compost Network, part of the city’s FarmPhilly initiative, has so far trained and outfitted 13 community gardens, farms, and schools with the tools to compost, according to Parks & Rec spokesperson Maita Soukup.

The idea is modeled off a similar program in Washington, DC, according to Ash Richards, the department’s director of urban agriculture.

“This is a way for us to get composting out into the neighborhoods,” Richards said.

The Philly version was set in motion in 2019, and this year is the first it’ll run with fully-trained crews who track the amounts of waste they take in. These neighborhood composting sites are not for everyone to use, they clarified.

Each has a limited-capacity three-bin system that requires a methodically maintained balance of different types of materials, so the program can’t accommodate food scraps from the general public, Richard said. The idea, rather, is to run neighborhood-level programs that get members of the surrounding community involved and invested in composting.

Currently funded with grant money from the Pa. Department of Agriculture and Comcast, per Soukup, there’s hope that in the future, the program will evolve enough to be considered a “public good” sustained by tax dollars.

“It is setting a precedent, it’s showing that it works,” Richards said, noting they don’t like to call it a “pilot,” because that sounds like it might go away.

“Part of this work is just to also convey to City Council, to convey to the mayor, to convey to funders that this is an area of sustainability, of agroecology, that they should be supporting, financially and socially and politically.”

Most of the compost made at Brewerytown Garden feeds the beds used to grow food for the garden’s farm stand Credit: Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

Getting the community involved

Currently participating sites are in neighborhoods across the city, and include:

  • Liberty Lands garden
  • Pearl Street Garden: Urban Tree Connection
  • Collins Smith Barrick play garden
  • Lawncrest Community Garden
  • Hardy Williams Academy Mastery Charter
  • 8th & Poplar Farm
  • Temple Community Garden
  • Brewerytown Garden
  • St. James School
  • Hunting Park Community Garden
  • Pleasant Playground Garden
  • Cesar Andreu Iglesias Garden

If you live near one and want to get involved, reach out to the garden directly, said Soukup, the Parks & Rec spokesperson. (The school sites will serve just students and teachers.)

Steve Mezzanotte holds unfinished compost at the Brewerytown Garden Credit: Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

Each site chose how to start things off from a few options provided by the program.

In Brewerytown, the garden chose to pursue a cooperative model. Anyone who contributes their food scraps also helps maintain the three-bin system, explained member Courtenay Long, whether via physical labor involved or coordinating the schedule. Once the composting process is complete, everyone who contributed will get a portion of the finished product.

“We absolutely want people from the community to be a part, but they need to also be the hands that work,” Long said. “So we don’t have a dump-and-run model here.”

It’s a limited-capacity system, so the garden did have to set a cap on participants, Long said. In future years, Brewerytown Garden is looking at “scaling up,” but it’s all a matter of figuring out how much material the three-bin system can handle, he added.

Steve Mezzanotte leads the way to community composting area at the Brewerytown Garden Credit: Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

How the network works

There are a few different types of composting. You might know about “cold” composting, a relatively slow but low-maintenance option that’s used by gardeners around the world. There’s also vermicomposting, which deploys earthworms to speed things up.

Philly’s Community Composting Network is using “hot” composting — a process that involves carefully proportioning different types of organic materials to spark microbial activity that heats up the material and breaks it down faster than the normal “cold” process, but doesn’t require maintenance of squiggly invertebrates.

Hot composting does require some start-up materials — a three-bin system, sifters, gloves, temperature probes, and wheelbarrows — which the program provides.

To get things going, 2 to 5 people from each site attended two weekend trainings supported by the nonprofit Institute for Local Self-Reliance, Richards said. The sessions covered the technical aspects and how to use the tools involved, but also aimed to teach participants how to engage other community members in the collective effort.

“A lot of folks came to the training with their own experiences, composting at home or [composting] at a business,” Richards said, “but not necessarily composting on a community scale, which requires a lot of communication.”

Long, of Brewerytown Garden, called the network a “great setup for success.” The Brewerytown Garden has had a cold composting pile for a while, he said, but the material in it decomposes slowly, is mostly garden waste, and doesn’t produce compost as effective as what’s produced with a hot system.

“We wouldn’t have just like, out of nowhere started a program like this,” he said. “but by giving us the tools … it just makes it so doable.”

Credit: Ellen C. Miller for Philadelphia Parks and Recreation

Looking forward

In the near future, the Parks Department is hoping to add five more sites to the Community Composting Network, per Soukup, but Richards noted that’s dependent upon funding. Once the department decides to add more, there will be a public application for any sites that are interested in becoming part of the network.

The Parks Department is also working on finalizing a Community Composting Manual, which Richards and their team developed with the help of Circle Composting. It’s expected to be available online in June.

“We would love to have 100 sites,” Richards said. “But again … we don’t have the funding for that. And so this is a way to get people to resources.”

Asha Prihar is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn. She has previously written for several daily newspapers across the Midwest, and she covered Pennsylvania state government and politics for The...