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The Importance of Composting
Sloan: Hi Shawn! I’m exploring how people mobilize around a shared identity to fix a public problem. In this case, how an environmentally-conscious Denver resident who wants to do more can get involved in the Denver Compost Collective.
Denver Compost Collective’s motto is “Starve the landfill, tend the earth, feed the people.” When did you first realize this cyclical process was important to you?
Hendrickson: I had some anger, to be honest— anger about how power gets used and misused, and who suffers for it. Anger about who gets abundant access to life’s resources, and who has to struggle to survive. And anger about who gets to live at the pretty foothills of the mountains, and who has to live in a toxic wasteland. And of course — anger about how we’re harming our planet and how impossible it feels to stop it. I was trying to understand how we, as people, can break free from systems that ultimately don’t serve us. I always knew there were solutions, if we just keep at it long enough— that there’s a synergy we can tap, to have a better way - one that doesn’t require exploitation - rather, just the opposite.
Starving the landfill is a starting point— an active choice, and an easy one to get behind. It’s recognizing something about our consumer society and about our role as individuals participating in it, and that, through the power of non-participation, we can cease to support those things that go against our values. It might even be easier than we think to “win”… In other words - we can starve “the beast” instead of fighting a fight we can’t win (trying to actively shut it down), you know?
" I was trying to understand how we, as people, can break free from systems that ultimately don’t serve us."
Tending the soil is a humble thing to do and an invaluable one— to me, it represents the willingness to do labor and to get dirty. In our case, it’s a literal thing and I think that’s important, but it’s also a broader recognition of our dependence on the earth, and the fact that we’d better tend to that relationship.
Feeding the People, to me, is just as essential as the rest of the work. There’s a socio-economic imbalance that I personally get to escape for the most part, but there are plenty of folks who can’t. It’s a practical matter - people deserve access to food. So, rather than some feel-good, “go green” approach to environmentalism that just forgets about the struggles of others, how can we leverage our position within an environmentalist-type membership to draw folks into a social justice action? A win-win-win (and beyond), with one simple weekly contribution. That weekly contribution (both in terms of money, and in terms of raw food waste) kick-starts a “closed food loop” process, and we’re able to harness that energy to do some real good in our community - socially, environmentally, and economically. It may seem like some grand vision that can’t possibly be realized, but it’s not. It’s actually pretty practical. Small, but doable. And nobody gets exploited behind the scenes to get it done.
"Rather than some feel-good, “go green” approach to environmentalism that just forgets about the struggles of others, how can we leverage our position within an environmentalist-type membership to draw folks into a social justice action? A win-win-win (and beyond), with one simple weekly contribution."
Sloan: When did you really become conscious of your impact on the environment?
Hendrickson: One very clarifying experience was going through the Master Composter training program, put on by Denver Urban Gardens. It’s a 40 hour course designed to get folks very prepared to teach other folks in the community about composting - its benefits, how to do it, how to use the finished product. That’s when I learned that over half of Denver’s household waste could be composted. And it’s a similar rate for the US as a whole. If I am against oil companies who spill oil into the ocean, or polluting factories who smog up the sky— the least I could do is be serious about handling my own food waste. That food waste becomes methane if it’s sent to the landfill, and contributes to our greenhouse gas emissions significantly. I began by making a promise to every scrap of food that I dropped in a trash can that I’d do better to honor it going forward.
"If I am against oil companies who spill oil into the ocean, or polluting factories who smog up the sky--the least I could do is be serious about handling my own food waste."
Sloan: Can you explain how the benefits of composting go beyond the elemental?
Hendrickson: By letting our food and yard waste go to microbes and bugs instead of the landfill, we do great things for the planet and specifically the soil: we reduce greenhouse gases, conserve water and nutrients and minerals in the soil for our plants, increase biodiversity, help bind heavy metals and other toxins, support the structure of soil - and most importantly, it’s something that each one of us can do. In addition, we benefit by reconnecting to our earth, and the source of life. Without that tiny layer of living soil beneath our feet, none of this life would be here. So, composting is a point where we can re-engage with the Earth in a very sacred but practical way. And we get to reclaim our identities - from consumers, to something more.
Sloan: Composting seems like an easy solution to a lot of problems, yet it’s not widely implemented. What’s the biggest obstacle to composting today?
Hendrickson: The biggest obstacle that I see is that people don’t feel the need. We don’t feel the need to put in the work of organizing our communities and doing the labor and growing our own food, and ultimately “tending to our Earth,” and forcing a change to policies or laws if they block us. The need for community food systems is definitely there, particularly in these times when we’re seeing the instability in our globalized food system, not to mention the climate crisis… but people don’t generally feel the need to overcome the barriers to make it happen, because of the convenience of consumerism (at least for those who can afford it). That’s why, until that day comes when there’s a closed food system on every block— we made a convenient, practical, weekly service that “closes the food loop” but on a slightly larger scale, and thus our members can avoid the mess of doing it themselves.
"The need for community food systems is definitely there, particularly in these times when we're seeing the instability in our globalized food system, not to mention the climate crisis...but people don't generally feel the need to overcome the barriers to make it happen, because of the convenience of consumerism (at least for those who can afford it)."
Sloan: Are there any local organizations or policymakers you have teamed up with to make Denver more sustainable?
Hendrickson: We’ve chosen to team up strictly with organizations in which we can have a direct, autonomous and localized relationship, based on shared values and a common mission. So, our main farm partner (where all our compost is processed, then donated to feed the soil) is Frontline Farming and we’re also partnered up with a few community food pantries around town, where we distribute food about once per week (at least until it runs out).
Through keeping our partnerships limited in this way, our work is not diluted/distracted/coopted - rather, it’s enhanced. We’re able to do more than we otherwise could have. With this set of partnerships, we’ve effectively “closed the loop” on a small food system— food is grown, then distributed to communities in need, and it’s funded in part by folks who are our compost collection members (who also provide the food waste, supporting the food production cycle). The whole process occurs within maybe a 12-mile radius.
Eventually, the goal is to market our farm partner’s produce to our compost collection members - so they’re literally eating food that was grown in soil that was fed by their food waste. A truly closed food loop system… but that’s a project for the future.
Sloan: It helps to recognize there’s clearly disparities even within a public service. How much do you think the inequalities between race and class affect one’s likelihood to compost? What can we do to address these disparities?
Hendrickson: I can remember the first time I went into a health food store when I was maybe 10 or 12 years old, saw all the organic natural bath sponges, essential oil soaps, etc. and I was overwhelmed with a feeling of being out of place— that this was a store for rich people. I understood absolutely nothing about the stuff on the shelves and why people would ever buy it except to show off to their house guests. Anyway, just saying that it’s an awful feeling to be in such a setting and feel like you’re not worthy of being in there because you don’t “get” it or can’t afford it anyway, or folks will figure out you don’t belong because of how you grew up. That feeling stuck with me for a long time, and still informs me to be honest. There’s something wrong with a system that allows us to care about our planet but requires us to be upper-middle class to really belong or even participate.
More than that, though - my hope is that, despite the predominance of privilege within the environmental movement, we’ll be able to attract people from a variety of backgrounds and identities to our staff, and maybe ultimately even as co-owners. That’s power, and that’s what really has the ability to inform and direct our processes. That’s what can change the dynamic of who gets to “play” when it comes to environmentalist work and who doesn’t.
Sloan: Finally, what would you say to someone thinking about composting? What is a good first-step?
Hendrickson: If you can— start a worm bin! It’s not nearly as creepy as it sounds. And about as easy as keeping a hamster.
Sloan: Shawn, thank you for taking the time to answer my questions! I can’t wait to get more involved in Denver sustainability efforts and I greatly admire the work you are doing!
Hendrickson: You’re very welcome! Your questions were wonderful - haven’t had anybody dig in like that and I sincerely respect the thoughtfulness. You caught me at just the right time - our 3 year anniversary was this week (on Earth Day), so I guess I had a lot of reflecting to do!
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