Across the country, municipalities are engaging citizens in composting as a means of reducing the waste stream. Anywhere from 15 percent to 30 percent of trash being hauled to landfills is organic matter that could be composted and returned to the soil. There's no reason why the piles of scraps we produce in the coarse of cooking meals can't be recycled to enrich our soil, make more food, and help reduce greenhouse gases. It's a perfect trifecta in which people and the planet win.
So you might think we here in the nation's capitol would be on the cutting edge of the composting movement. As head of a local gardening organization in the District of Columbia, I routinely field questions from citizens eager to compost their kitchen scraps. Even non-gardeners are looking for ways they can do the planet a good turn. So where is the city's compost?
We caught up with the District's head of public works, William Howland, at a recent community and garden club meeting where he was speaking on the subject of recycling. We asked the question and learned that the District of Columbia--our nation's capitol, now presided over by a young mayor who swears we are going to be a green city--has no municipal composting program and none on the horizon.
What about all those leaves the city collects in the fall--10 tons of leaves? According to Howland, these were routinely trucked off to landfills in years past. Recently, there was a pilot program to compost leaves on city property in the Maryland suburbs. A project to compost leaves collaboratively with the University of the District of Columbia at a facility in Beltsville, MD, is being discussed.
Still, local garden legend tells of a municipal compost pile somewhere near the Capital. No sooner did I report on the local blogs that the District has no compost than a local gardener shouts back that this long-rumored compost pile does in fact exist. It has an address. I am soon in hot pursuit.
And now I can tell the world that the nation's capitol does, indeed, possess a pile of what gardeners call "leaf mold," meaning the composted remains of leaves collected in the fall. We're not exactly sure where it comes from. And having finally located it, I can say that there has never been a compost heap more difficult to find or more completely obscured from public view.
This pile is next to a public works vehicle garage and trash dumping site at New Jersey Avenue and K Street SE, a scene of scruffy industrial buildings and dusty lots wedged between an elevated freeway, a busy commuter route and some railway tracks. Since it is not far from an area where development is being spurred by the addition of a new baseball stadium, there are also, oddly, spanking-new apartment buildings rising overhead as well.
I thought I had landed in an outtake from "The French Connection." Before me stood a vast collection of dump trucks, snow plows, salt spreaders and street cleaning vehicles. The lot was jammed with private vehicles as well, yet not a human being in sight. I circled, probed, and circled again looking for this compost. I discovered that to get into the lot, I had to choose one of two ramps leading into and through a rather scary looking brick building lorded over by a tall smoke stack.
Finally I spotted two men working on a water tanker.
"Where's the compost?" I asked.
"There! Over there," they said, pointing to a big, yellow front-end loader off in the distance.
I drove to the spot and, sure enough, there in a far corner of the lot were three different piles of material: sand, mulch and a dark, rich-looking compost. The front-end loader was blocking the path into the area. I had to take my 1997 Toyota Corolla "off road" to get closer.
So here's a picture of what the District of Columbia's compost (or "leaf mold") looks like. Good stuff, if you can get past the bottle caps, pieces of plastic trash bags and other debris that come with it. I returned the following day to fill a trash can and some 5-gallon buckets. It's time to top off the garden containers at my daughter's charter school.
It was a moment of personal triumph: I had finally tracked down our own local, publicly financed compost. And it's free!
But I can't help being nagged by a persistent question: Can't we do better?