Kompost Kids dig decay
April 29, 2012
By Linda Fausel
Compost. It represents the cycle of life. It is soil in the making. It has been going on for millions of years. And it is going on by design, next to the railroad tracks on the western edge of Bay View.
The organic refuse piles you see next to the dirt road that runs between Lincoln Avenue and Becher Street behind the buildings on Robinson Avenue represent the ardor and labor of the Kompost Kids. This homespun corps of local urban agriculture pioneers is dedicated to community composting. They find sites to establish compost bins where tools, raw materials, and even labor may be shared, in addition to the compost they create.
You could say the Kompost Kids are crazed with decay. They are smitten by the natural decomposition processes that transform kitchen scraps, leaves, dried grass, straw, and other carbon- and nitrogen-rich materials into nutrient-rich soil.
They intercept the flow of reusable plant-based matter headed for landfills, allow it to break down into compost, then redirect it to gardens and lawns where it is used as fertilizer, mulch, or an amendment that is dug into garden soil to make it more friable.
“Composting is a low-cost and effective approach to soil remediation, water retention, and diverting precious nutrients from the almost overflowing landfills,” said project founder Melissa Tashjian (pronounced TASH-unn). Research conducted by the Environmental Protection Agency found that 27 percent of the U.S. waste stream is made up of yard trimmings and food residuals. Much of that is laid to rest in our landfills. The mission of Kompost Kids “is to educate the public, individuals, businesses, and institutions about the benefits of compost and to reclaim organic materials from landfills to create soil for community-based agriculture projects.”
Tashjian’s passion for gardening and composting were cultivated by her Armenian-immigrant grandfather, Peter Tashjian, in Niles, Ill. “I was about 10 or 11 when I first learned what composting was,” Tashjian said.
She moved to Riverwest in 2006, a transplant from Chicago. There she created a vegetable garden and compost pile in her yard, where her neighbors tossed their compostables into her bin.
“Being able to see the transformation between organic residuals to living soil is an amazing thing,” she said. “It never gets old!”
When she relocated to Bay View in 2009, Tashjian soon found like-minded friends to make compost with. The following year they had great fun helping generate 25-cubic yards for the Hide House Community Garden in 2010 when the garden was established. They wanted more.
Tashjian recruited Beth Lukomski and Marion Ecks. “These women are extremely dedicated to self-resiliency and have helped shape this organization to what it is today,” Tashjian said. “They each bring their own mystical power to the table whether it is Beth’s operational skills or Marion’s grant writing. These women really know how to get stuff done.”
Wild Flour Bakery was the first business to contribute in October 2009. At that time Tashjian pulled a wagon to pick up buckets of “goodies,” while walking her dog Bruno. Their endeavor began to expand “organically.” Word traveled that they were willing to pick up compostables from local businesses to be used to supply “living soil for local urban agriculture projects,” Tashjian said. They set up flexible compensation options. Their first paying customer was Transfer Pizza, who pays $10 per weekly pick-up. Others have reciprocated by finding a new volunteer to join the compost crew or they drop off their compost themselves.
After more than a year of working without an official identity, they formalized the organization in June 2011, named it Kompost Kids, and decided to form a non-profit. They are currently in the process of establishing their 501(c)(3).
They sought space to set up a large-scale compost operation in October 2009. Sweet Water Organics agreed to let them use vacant space behind their building on Robinson Avenue. Tashjian and her colleagues built bins. Friends and relatives donated tools, materials, plus kitchen and yard waste.
Currently there are 10 volunteers who perform pick-up services. Another 10 help with the website, marketing, grant writing, and other administrative tasks. “There are many pieces to the puzzle of creating an organization with this much depth,” Tashjian said. The four principles are Melissa Tashjian, director; Beth Lukomski, treasurer; Marion Ecks, secretary; and Sam Zajac, president.
To date, they have created six community compost sites but plan to have 12 by year-end, including two sites they are establishing at UW-Milwaukee and Marquette University.
Wikipedia defines compost as “organic matter that has been decomposed and recycled as a fertilizer and soil amendment.”
Making compost is not terribly complicated, Tashjian said. Odor is an issue that people often worry about when considering composting but it can easily be avoided. The solution is a good mix of carbon and nitrogen in the compost bin.
“If you add enough brown (dry, carbon-rich) material like dried leaves or wood-chips, you will not have that problem,” Tashjian said. “Most often, problems arise when people add too much green.
Fresh grass clippings, fruit and vegetable scraps, and weeds are typical green (moist, fresh nitrogen-rich) materials. Brown materials might include brown dry leaves, dried grass, sawdust (in moderation), wood chips, straw, and shredded cornstalks. “The best combination is about four parts of ‘browns’ to one part ‘greens,’ by volume,” Tashjian explained. “It is all about creating and maintaining that simple balance of greens and browns.” The balance is required to promote the production and health of the microorganisms that break down the materials in the bin, to transform them to rich compost. (Compost is also referred to as humus or soil.)
Aiding the decomposition process of the microorganisms are the critters who show up voluntarily. “We have had red wigglers (earthworms) and other forms of insect life in our compost bins from the very beginning,” Tashjian said. “They are a sign that our pile is working and is hot enough but not too hot for these macroorganisms. These insects came of their own volition and survive through the winter.”
The other elements of the formula are water (rain) and millions upon millions of microorganisms that contribute to the process of breaking down vegetal matter to nutrient-rich compost.
The people part
Kompost Kids is powered by the time, energy, and expertise of another kind of critter: devoted (human) volunteers.
“Many of the volunteers have been with us for over one year now,” Tashjian said. “Their dedication astounds me. We have about 10 Kompost Kids who make signs for us, help with the website, generate flyers, and spread the word of composting on a regular basis.”
Paul Kaminsky is one such volunteer who is a long-time composter. A retired city of Milwaukee nurseryman, he has lived in Bay View for 22 years and has been working with Kompost Kids for two years.
“Composting is just part of being a responsible Earthling,” Kaminsky said. “By recycling my yard and kitchen residue, I help reduce the waste stream, as well as create my own fertile garden soil. I say anything that falls in my yard stays in my yard. Leaves, grass clippings, and dead plants go to the compost bin, not the gutter. Now, after years of adding compost to my beds, I grow most of our summer veggies at home in the garden soil of my dreams.”
Local grocers, restaurants, and cafés are playing an increasingly important role in the Kompost Kids’ operation. Volunteers take away the recyclable food products produced by the business. “We have about 10 compost couriers who pick up from 15 businesses,” Tashjian said. They deliver the collected materials to the organization’s community compost sites.
Russell Rossetto is co-owner of Transfer Pizzeria Café at 101W. Mitchell Street. His restaurant was the first to sign up with the Kompost Kids. Rossetto said getting on board with the composting process presented some challenges, at first. “It was some work to change the culture of just throwing everything away into one container…and we still have work to do,” Rossetto said. “But we’ve learned to separate our recyclables…now we’re learning to separate our compostables.
“We strive to be holistic in our approach to food production. People talk about ‘farm to table’ but our involvement with Kompost Kids allows us to talk about completing the cycle—table to farm… It becomes apparent that we also need to work harder on cultivating a more viable urban farming sector in order to keep that cycle truly local.”
Transfer Pizzeria Café pays the Kompost Kids monthly stipend to have their compostables picked up. Smaller organizations work out deals. Others, like Anodyne Coffee, drop off their compostables (coffee grounds) at the compost site. Milwaukee Public Market, Soup Market, Hamburger Mary’s, VIA Downer, South Shore Yacht Club, Great Lakes Distillery, Braise, and Marquette University’s Straz Hall are also clients. Hi-Fi Café participates and Sven’s European Café and Palomino Bar just signed up.
After more than two years, the Kompost Kids want to take their work to the streets. Literally. “Once we have established our post-consumer compost pilot, we would the like to roll out a curbside residential pick-up program,” Tashjian said.
She is well aware of the possible challenges but there was a time in Milwaukee, not so long ago, when curbside recycling seemed like the stuff of fantasy. Now residents take it for granted. So too, perhaps, of Tashjian’s vision for a curbside compostables pick-up program.
And then there is their other dream. The Kompost Kids hope to see their composting model outgrow Milwaukee. “We’d love to have it replicated throughout the nation,” Tashjian said, “but we will just start with Wisconsin.”
Kompost Kids has applied to be a 501(c) (3) organization. They accept donations. Thinking about having your business’ compostables picked up? Want to learn more about the organization? See kompostkids.com.
Compost Know How/DIY
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