Connections: Kevin Bacon Compost Equivalents

Sally Brown

Sally Brown
BioCycle May 2013, Vol. 54, No. 5, p. 45

Have a great new business model to make and market beautiful compost — all thanks to the actor, Kevin Bacon. First, you can rest assured this model was not developed after watching too many infomercials on late night television. Second, it does not require any amazing new technologies or large capital investments. And finally, I can promise you that if you use this model both the quality and the markets for your compost products will improve. But before I explain the model, you have to play a game. Here is the part where Kevin Bacon comes in.

How many people separate you from Kevin Bacon? Don’t laugh. This is a well-recognized game — “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” — based on the six degrees of separation concept that no one on Earth is more than six degrees of separation away from Kevin Bacon in terms of acquaintances.

Now play this same game with your compost. How many degrees of separation are there between the people that generate your feedstocks and the people that use your products? While six is the number for the Kevin Bacon version of this game, my business model says that you have to reduce that number to one or zero to have a successful operation. For most places, the people that generate the feedstocks have minimal connection to the end product. Their Kevin Bacon Compost Equivalence number is almost certainly greater than two. These people are likely participating in the organics separation program because it is required or maybe because they got the flyer and want to do the right thing. That doesn’t necessarily guarantee feedstocks with little to no contamination, however. What program participants need is a personal interest motive, i.e., a direct connection has to be established between the people that generate your feedstocks and the compost that those feedstocks produce. Doing this will get you a cleaner, lower contaminant product — and a greatly expanded customer base.

Recently, I attended a workshop as part of Zero Waste week in San Francisco that focused on the importance of enriching soil with compost and broadcasting that message as an integral part of Zero Waste. At the workshop we heard about the benefits of compost for farmers and ranchers and how compost builds soil organic matter and improves soil properties. We learned that there isn’t enough compost produced to supply all of the agricultural land in California. This is all true.

But we also heard about problems with contaminants in the compost, things like plastics and glass. We were told about a facility that, because of those contaminants, made a product that was not suitable for high end users like organic farms. And we heard a lot about resistance to diversion from municipal officials who are much more concerned with short-term election cycles than long-term sustainability. Those problems can kill and have killed compost producers. They can do significant damage to an industry.

A Resource Waiting To Happen

For the first time ever, more people now live in cities than in rural areas. This split is expected to grow over the next several decades. As more and more people are born and raised in cities, the quantities of organic residuals generated will continue to grow. But as more and more people are born and raised away from agricultural areas, their understanding of natural cycles and how these residuals can go from stinky and gross to fertile and sweet smelling will fade. They will want their garbage to go away and may be just as happy with it going to a waste to energy facility as a composting facility. They will mix their plastic with their food waste. Tying the moldy tamales up in the plastic bag means that there is much less of a chance that the salsa will spill on their shoes.

That is unless you reach out to this customer base. If these city dwellers understand that their waste is a resource waiting to happen and that in addition to saving the world, that product will make their garden look fantastic, you will have broad public support and a cleaner product. Kristen McIvor, a former student who I’ve written about before, interviewed gardeners in Seattle and Tacoma, Washington about what they use in their gardens and what happens to their waste. In Seattle, the food and yard waste is composted by Cedar Grove, which has an extensive outreach program. Biosolids are also composted but that product is primarily sold wholesale. The exact opposite happens in Tacoma, where the Tagro biosolids products (a blend of Class A biosolids, sawdust and sand) have been available for home use for two decades and the yard trimmings compost is sold to landscapers.

Here is what the gardeners said. Asked about compost in Seattle: “Oh yes, the yard waste goes for compost, as well as food now…. we’re trying to help our condo recycle more of our food into Cedar Grove.” These same gardeners are using that very same compost in their community garden plots. Community gardeners are a market that Cedar Grove has targeted. That qualifies as direct, i.e., zero Kevin Bacon Compost Equivalents (KBCE). When those same gardeners were asked about biosolids they said: “I’m not exactly sure what happens.” Here we are definitely in the 2 or greater KBCE realm. At the meeting in San Francisco I was asked what it was about Seattle that the participation rate in food waste collection was high and the contaminants were so low. It all goes back to Kevin Bacon.

In Tacoma, Kristen heard the opposite. About the biosolids, people said: “Biosolids in Tacoma are called Tagro — they make a product that you can get free if you go get it. It’s great for making things grow.” Tagro is used broadly across the city, including in community gardens. The product is even more available now as it is sold in bags at local nurseries. Here’s the response about the yard trimmings compost: “I think I know what happens, I’m not sure. I put it in a brown cart and they take it away.” Like the biosolids compost in Seattle, the yard trimmings compost in Tacoma is only available to professionals, not to the people who generate the feedstocks. Last month, the city began offering food waste collection to residents, and distributed brown kitchen buckets (labeled food waste recycling) to households. The separated food waste is added to the yard trimmings cart. Perhaps this would be a good time to start working on bringing down their KBCE for the compost program.

If you show these city dwellers their connection to the product and the process, they will likely improve their separation practices as well. A great way to show the connection is to make the product available to residents. Let them use it, let them take pride in it and they will take ownership of it. Widespread public support and participation will limit the chances of your composting program falling prey to an election cycle. At the San Francisco workshop, we heard an excellent talk by Gerry Gillespie, Chair of Zero Waste Australia. He described a branding program that is used on their green bins — stickers that read City to Soil (www.qcc.nsw.gov.au). Gerry talked about positive reinforcement, providing compostable sacks for all and prize baskets of food for those whose bins are found to be contaminant free. I would qualify this as 1 KBCE — a number that appears to be working.

Finally, there is the burgeoning urban agriculture movement happening in cities. People are concerned about their food supply and are choosing to buy and/or grow local. They are seeking information and asking for compost products. If you don’t do the outreach, many of these groups will start taking your feedstocks out from under you and compost them on their own. If you do the outreach, you can bring your KBCE score way down. Granted the prospect of having thousands of small customers instead of a couple of big ones may seem overwhelming. But with that many customers, the chances of your show getting cancelled will be very slim.

Sally Brown — Research Associate Professor at the University of Washington in Seattle — authors this regular column. Email Dr. Brown at slb@u.washington.edu.

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