Some of what we do best in our lives and work through our Be the Change Project is putting ideas into action. I love to find solutions that address many problems or challenges at once. In permaculture parlance we call this “stacking functions.” Bike-powered compost collection is one such beautiful solution.
In early 2015 my wife, Katy, and I were reading the The Good Food Revolution by farmer and food activist Will Allen. This book came on the heels of our reading Naomi Klein’s troubling and stirring book about climate change This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate.
In his book, Allen chronicles the start and evolution of his urban farming operation in Milwaukee. It is an inspiring story which, for us, showed further the intersectionality of climate, race, and economic injustice. At one point, Allen says that he measures the likely success of the farming projects he visits by seeing how much attention they pay to soil building. And throughout the book he talks about the importance of compost and describes how his operation makes huge mounds of the black gold from supermarket waste, woodchips, and other organic matter, much of it from the urban core.
This got us reflecting about how we’ve been developing soil or, more specifically, how little we’d been doing to build soil. Until recently, our composting efforts had been sporadic and largely dependent on whether or not manure showed up from friends’ sources. To boot, we live in a desert on a property with loads of clay and overall poor soil.
Following The Good Food Revolution, I read two books about soil: The Soil Will Save Us and Cows Save the Planet, which are both quite good and quite similar. Each describes the soil carbon cycle, the benefits of rotational grazing and holistic management practices (via Allan Savory), the impact of soil loss over the centuries and its significant contribution to the climate crisis (perhaps 40% or more of CO2 emissions are the result of the degradation of the soils, particularly in the last century but going back thousands of years!), and, the magic of compost. This perfect storm of books covering climate change, soil and compost, and action (along with our work with the city of Reno and local organizations on climate change) got me hooked on making compost really happen in a creative way in Reno.
Existing Bike-Powered Composting Operations
I had learned about two bike-powered compost operations while living in Missouri at the Possibility Alliance. The student-run Rot Riders of Truman State University in Northeast Missouri and the Pedal People of Northampton, Massachusetts. The Pedal People have been doing bike-powered waste, recycling, and compost pick up the past 16 years – the longest running program we’ve come across. And, they’re a worker’s cooperative.
Other programs I came across over a couple months of research were Resoil Sacramento and the Compost Pedallers of Austin, Texas. Resoil Sacramento was a largely one-man operation run by Scott Thompson who recently branched off to create Oakpark Soil. Scott has been super gracious in answering our questions as has Alex Jarret at Pedal People who also provided a host of info on how to start a workers coop.
Compost Pedallers is one of the slickest bike-powered compost operations out there – great site, great program, high quality video, fancy trailers and bikes — it seems they have some serious financial backing. From these various projects we took inspiration and guidance and started the Reno Rot Riders.
Back in August, I approached two restaurant owners who I knew were local food advocates and who I thought might be supportive of our project. Gino Scala of Great Full Gardens and Mark Estee of Campo and Reno Provisions were immediate “yesses.” They understood our goals and vision and were willing to work with us as we got off the ground and got our systems in place. Our intention was to start small, do it well, get some good press, and then grow into a workers cooperative serving both commercial and residential customers.
From one supporter we received a donation of bins while another supporter has covered the costs of trailer materials and the design work of a graphic artist. I am not a welder (yet) so did some research on using electric conduit and bolts to build a bike trailer to meet our needs. Building the trailer could be an entire other blog entry but for now, the photo above will have to suffice. I’ll add that it is made entirely of salvaged metal, used bike tires, painted wood leftover from someone’s Burning Man camp, and some new nuts and bolts. I really like the school bus yellow color. I built most of it over two days with some help from the great folks at the Reno Generator. If you’re local to Reno and haven’t gone there yet, check it out – it’s a fantastic community resource.
We started collection on October 7 and all has gone well so far: The restaurants have adjusted quickly to filling the bins, the homemade trailer works well, the compost is cooking, and I’m getting really strong legs from pedaling waste around town! The trailer has elicited lots of comments from passersby and been one of the funnest parts of the job so far.
One old guy in front of our neighborhood quickie mart watched me pass by and said, smiling, “You da shit!” Another guy on a big loud motorcycle pulled up next to me at a light and said, “You’re really keeping a small carbon footprint!” He grinned and added with a laugh, “Unlike me!” Another neighbor was washing a car and doing some yard work when I passed by several times over the course of a couple hours with full and empty loads. He commented happily each time including, “Wow, you’re really making great use of that trailer.”
Basics of Bike-Powered Compost Collection
Here’s some of what we share on our “one-pager” for folks interested in the Rot Riders:
The Rot Riders is a 100-percent, bike-powered compost-recycling program that will collect organic waste and turn it into compost at local farms and gardens. Our mission is to transform how Reno does waste for the benefit of people and planet.
• To reduce greenhouse gas emissions at the landfill and in the carting of waste
• To build the local economy with healthy, meaningful work
• To support local and urban farming and community gardening
• To create a worker’s cooperative that empowers citizens and offers an alternative business model
• To employ marginalized populations (youth aging out of foster care, the formerly incarcerated, people of color…)
• To enhance bike culture and stretch the boundaries of what people think is possible with bikes
• To educate children and adults about composting and facilitate composting at schools and homes
• To support Reno Parks and Public Works in going pesticide and fertilizer-free
• To foster connection between people and planet
• To support climate work more broadly in Reno through a successful “climate crisis-oriented” project
• To build bridges between nonprofits and local government to facilitate the Big Work that needs doing
We have started our pilot project with three local restaurants in the midtown and downtown areas. Once a week, for $50/month, we pick up and change out a 32-gallon bin at each restaurant with the green waste brought to three sites and composted: a local urban homesteader, Paradise Park Community Garden, and the Be the Change Project’s neighborhood gardens. Each restaurant has already expressed an interest in doing more pickups each week.
Waste Laws: Waste Management currently has the one contract on solid waste and recycling collection in Reno through 2027. Green waste is in another category and while WM has the option to collect it, they only do so in a limited capacity and reluctantly as of now. To us, this is a great opportunity to build a local business in support of climate and justice work!
Why Compost and Why Bikes? Because both are amazing! When looking at solutions to the climate crisis, this pairing is a perfect match. For starters, compost is the foundation of healthy soil and healthy soil is the foundation for healthy people, plants, animals, and water. Right now, almost all of Reno’s compostable waste (nearly 50% of all waste!) goes to the landfill.
By creating compost we build soil & reap these benefits:
• Water retention for drought prevention
• Filtration of runoff
• Sequestration of CO2
• Support of healthier local food & agriculture
• Lengthen landfill life
Bikes are low-tech, low-cost, highly efficient & people-friendly. Using bikes yields these benefits:
• No carbon pollution from noisy trucks moving waste miles away
• Enhanced bike culture in the city
• More money goes to people instead of big machines
Vision and Next Steps
• To grow the RRR by adding loops throughout the city with decentralized composting sites at residences, community gardens, parks, and vacant land
• To expand into residential pick-up
• To create a central composting station to handle deliveries and large single-source inputs
• To establish a worker’s cooperative as we grow
• To create a perks/rewards program (see the Compost Pedallers) linking residential customers with local businesses
• To guide the city of Reno in becoming a zero waste city that fully supports local composting operations
So far, so good. We collected our first ton of waste at week four. Right now, the greens go to a community garden in Reno and to our project where we use it for the gardens on our homestead and our neighborhood community garden. To expand we’ll need more locations at which to make compost, or, better and simpler yet, more people to just receive the green waste and make their own compost piles. This has been a challenge so far. As we grow, our hope is to also sell some finished product.
Check out the Reno Rot Riders website for more information.
Kyle Chandler-Isacksen is a tinkerer, natural builder, and community organizer in Reno, Nevada. He and his family run the Be the Change Project, a fossil fuel-, car-, and electricity-free urban homestead and learning space dedicated to service and simplicity and inspired by the principles of Gandhian Integral Nonviolence. They were honored as one of MOTHER’s Homesteaders of the Year in 2013. Read all of his MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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