At 9 a.m. on Fridays, Mark Haprov and a team of volunteers pull on their gloves, walk across a row of mulch piles and dig their hands into a bed of woodchips.
They blanket alternating layers of orange rinds, dry leaves and green waste atop a pile Haprov affectionately calls a “compost lasagna” that spans 20 yards.
Despite pounds of decomposing food waste from weeks prior, the only smell wafting through the air is that of earthen dust thrown up by their shovels and rakes.
Layer by layer, this waste will be decomposed by fungi in the soil. When Haprov stumbles upon a milky white, fungi-rich pile of woodchips, the team gets excited.
“Check this out!” he yelled from across the pile. “Look at this pile with all this fungi in there. That is beautiful.”
Volunteer Denice Thoman chuckled. “In September, I never thought I’d be saying, ‘That’s some good-looking dirt.’”
Led by Haprov, the team makes up the grassroots group Long Beach Community Compost. Their goal: reduce organic waste one “compost lasagna” at a time.
Long Beach Community Compost began on an empty lot near the Michelle Obama Library. Haprov, a UC master gardener, was volunteering at the library’s garden and had a tough time sourcing compost for the garden’s raised beds.
He noticed an empty lot nearby. The unleased lot on the corner of Atlantic Avenue and East 59th Street was nothing out of the ordinary— an undeveloped dirt patch speckled with gravel and weeds. But a pile of woodchips atop the lot piqued his interest.
Haprov saw an opportunity in those woodchips— a potential breeding ground for fungi that could decompose green waste and solve their compost problem.
“Somebody had just come and unloaded wood chips and left them there. They’d been there pretty much undisturbed for over a year,” he said. “I’m like, Oh my gosh, a pile of wood chips, you know, that gets a little bit of moisture from rain or sun, there’s gonna be a lot of fungal activity in that.”
To test his theory, Haprov created a “compost volcano.” He dug a hole into the center of the woodchip pile and filled it with food waste. If he was right, the fungi in the woodchips would decompose the green waste and turn it into nutrient-rich compost.
“Within a week, the stuff was gone,” he said. “The fungus just ate it up like crazy. I was amazed. I didn’t think it would be that fast.”
After consulting with library and neighborhood stakeholders, his composting project was approved. Volunteers started rolling in.
However, the Michelle Obama Library composting project was short-lived.
“We didn’t know at the time, but it turns out that there’s a political difference between the residents of that area and the council office,” he said.
Though the composting project found success, he said the City had plans to develop the parcel of land into a park. The District 9 office did not respond for comment before publication.
He said their composting project was a threat to development; “The longer we’re there, the harder it is to move us.”
Haprov reached out to find a new location. After bouncing around different city departments, he landed at an empty mulch yard in Willow Springs Park, a treasure trove of the fundamental building blocks of a successful compost.
After consulting with the Los Angeles County Health Department, the City spread out the mulch pile to accommodate the project.
Long Beach Community Compost volunteer Kirk Kunihiro pours donated brussels sprouts into a pile of orange rinds donated by Mother’s Market. The team alternates layers of brown waste and green waste to create a “compost lasagna.” (Emma DiMaggio | Signal Tribune)
When green waste is diverted from landfills, it reduces emissions that contribute to global warming
Last month, the Long Beach City Council approved the Climate Action and Adaptation Plan, a commitment to reduce the City’s 2030 greenhouse gas emissions by 40% compared to 1990 levels.
One of the plan’s many objectives is to collect green waste for composting or clean energy generation.
If the City can divert 75% of food scraps and green waste from landfills, Long Beach could reduce its emissions by an estimated 39,730 metric tons of carbon dioxide.
Nationwide, food waste makes up 24% of all municipal solid waste sent to landfills. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 63.1 million tons of food waste were generated in commercial, institutional and residential sectors in 2018.
Of this waste, 55.9% ended up in landfills. The amount of food waste sent to landfills has nearly tripled since 1960.
Kirk Kunihiro is a volunteer at Long Beach Community Compost and co-founder of the ReCREATE Waste Collaborative. For nearly a decade, he’s worked as a waste consultant assisting cities in rolling out organics recycling projects.
When food waste or organic waste goes to a landfill, it breaks down from anaerobic bacteria, which converts all that material into methane, he explained.
Methane has a 100-year global warming potential 25 times that of carbon dioxide, according to the United Nations Economic Council for Europe. Measured over a 20-year period, methane is 84 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.
In Long Beach, waste is incinerated, meaning it doesn’t create mass amounts of methane. However, incinerating organic waste creates a closed-loop system.
“Burning this specific material is probably not as bad as burning plastics for sure, but then you’re basically removing this material from the natural cycle of decomposition and return to nutrients. The end of the circle,” Kunihiro said. “It should be a loop.”
The State of California has already made composting a priority. In 2016, former Gov. Jerry Brown signed Senate Bill 1383, California’s Short-Lived Climate Pollutant Reduction Strategy.
The bill requires local governments to compost or recycle food scraps, yard trimmings and organic waste by providing curbside compost collection services to residents and businesses by 2022.
“Every other city around here has three bins: trash, recycling and a green bin for yard waste,” Kunihiro said. “Because we have to roll out a third bin, it’s a huge, huge, huge, monumental task.”
Composting: A Step-by-Step Visual Guide
- Step 1: Residents can drop off their green waste in bins near the entrance of Farm Lot 59. Organic waste should be separate from any plastics or trash bags.
- Step 2: Volunteers gather green waste to be transported to the compost pile. Here, volunteer Kurk Kunihiro pours green waste into a bin. Residents can freeze their compost to prevent household odors, as Long Beach Community Compost only accepts organic waste on composting days.
- Step 3: Volunteers pour green waste into the compost pile and rake it out to create an even layer.
- Step 4: Volunteers layer green waste and dry brown waste, like leaves and cardboard, to prevent the pile from becoming too moist.
- Step 5: Volunteers continue alternating between green waste and dry brown waste to create the “compost lasagna.”
Decomposition: gross or glorious?
One of the greatest challenges that Long Beach Community Compost faces is debunking myths about compost. Since decomposition is the main component of composting, it’s often associated with bad odors and increased wildlife.
“Our job is to change [those perceptions] one individual at a time,” Haprov said. “To say, ‘Hey look, what do you smell when you come in here? What have you found? Do you see any wild animal life? Tell me what the negatives are, and we’ll teach you about that.’”
Unlike landfills, compost piles are powered by aerobic bacteria that depend on oxygen to survive. As long as the piles are turned regularly, they won’t give off the ammonia smell associated with landfills.
Haprov’s layering technique, alternating dry brown waste and moist green waste, further reduces any potential odors.
Local businesses have signed on to Long Beach Community Compost’s mission. Their piles are full of orange rinds from Mother’s Market and leftover food from local food distributors like Long Beach Greater Mutual Aid and the Democratic Socialists of America.
In the past, they’ve received leftover hops from local breweries. Soon, they hope to partner with a local Chipotle to handle some of their food waste. Though he’s eager to receive more waste, he knows that his humble composting project won’t be enough to process organics anywhere near an industrial scale.
“Our goal is every neighborhood in Long Beach, every block has a way to compost,” Haprov said. “That would be ideal.”
For now, their small operation remains focused on education.
Correction: This story was changed to clarify the drop-off location for green waste, as well as the nature by which Mark Haprov began using the Willow Springs Park mulch yard for his composting project.