The revolution will not be motorized

Arcata Compost Revolutionary Alec Howard picks up a load of food waste at Los Bagels. KLH | Union

Kevin L. Hoover
Mad River Union

ARCATA – Not all the revolutionaries are marching in the streets these days. Some are people-powering themselves around those same streets with what’s left of your dinner, making sure it gets recycled to help save what’s left of the environment.

Though Arcatans have proven themselves enthusiastic home recyclers and composters, there’s a lot more to be done. A 2011 waste audit by the Humboldt Waste Management Authority listed food as the Arcata’s weightiest form of solid waste, at 1.5 million pounds per year.

The reasons that matters are many. First, there’s the appalling waste of nutrients, and then the fuel, expense and corporate patronage involved in transporting the smelly glop to a landfill.

But perhaps most concerning is the methane then created when the food rots. Methane is an extremely potent greenhouse gas, estimated at anywhere between 20 and 100 times more powerful than carbon dioxide.

Alec Howard, Milly Correa and Giuliana Sarto of the Arcata Compost Revolution (ACR) see food waste as a huge problem, but an equally massive opportunity.

Now, they aim to close the compost loop.

“What we do right now with methane is very important,” Howard said. “The warming potential is very high.” Methane, unlike carbon dioxide, realizes its destructive potential in the atmosphere immediately. “Addressing methane gives us time to deal with CO2,” he said.

The whole thing is sort of a pilot project, constrained by ACR’s limited employee pool of three. Howard persons the bike, while Correa focuses on marketing and graphics. But they’re going places – a half-dozen or so, for starters.

Right now, ACR services a handful of downtown Arcata businesses once or twice a week as needed, collecting their food waste and pedaling it by the trailerful to a local farm and garden. The businesses, Howard said, deserve credit for subsidizing the startup with higher initial costs, enabling ACR to expand its route to residential clients.

There’s an educational component too, as Howard shows participating businesses and their customers how to properly separate, dispose of and store the waste. It’s yet another incremental practice Arcatans can build into their routine that will, cumulatively, have a positive impact.

“This is one thing people can do that’s an opportunity to make a difference, and one of the easier things,” Howard said.

It also unplugs Arcata from the corporate machine – Big Garbage – in another small but substantive way.

“What’s cool about this is that it’s hyperlocal and beneficial,” Howard said. “Instead of 2 mpg trucks driving to a landfill, you’re paying people to ride bikes. The money stays here and the material strengthens local food producers. It’s a multitiered effect.”

“All of our efforts are to keep everything local,” Correa said. “People don’t realize how much money leaves our economy. And this way, we keep the nutrients, too.”

Nutrient retention will get a big boost – and ACR a prestigious client – this year when Arcata’s Farmers’ Market joins the compost revolution.

One recipient of Arcata Compost Revolution’s deliveries couldn’t be happier with the new service. Sean Armstrong of Tule Fog Farms cooks incoming compost in a straw bale-insulated containment, a practice he picked up while directing the Campus Center for Appropriate Technology. Tule’s “pie pigs” savor delectable slop from Slice of Humboldt Pie and other ACR clients.

“Alec’s efforts have added to our own, and it’s great fun to see him whizzing down the road on his electric cargo bike with compost and pig food,” Armstrong said.

Arcata Compost Revolution’s efforts are also lauded a ways up the waste chain, at the Humboldt Waste Management Authority. Executive Director Jill Duffy said small-volume compost recycling is both “challenging” and “a big opportunity,” and that Arcata Compost Revolution may have struck upon the optimal, hyperlocal approach to the problem.

“As soon as you get beyond seven miles, it starts getting cost prohibitive,” Duffy said. “What he’s proposing to do is, I think, going to be the long-term answer.”

Howard is running with that same conclusion. “We think we have a way of doing it that’s better than the industrial model,” he said.

ACR charges a nominal per-bucket fee for pickups. For large producers with complicated needs, “we work one-on-one to make it work,” Howard said.

Clients get more than just their vegetable scraps disappeared. “We are developing comprehensive ways of providing services, including training staff, providing public signage, and teaching about our perspective of the best approach to the future of sustainable materials management,” Howard said.

Another benefit is helping forge a disruptilicious new paradigm. “We’re gonna do this differently than everybody in the country,” said Howard, who might be viewed as the Elon Musk of decomposing onions and dank napkins.

A vermiculture aspect might soon be added, and further innovations are to come. “We are in consultation with the best community composters in America,” Howard said.

His hauling rig uses 600 pound capacity cargo trailers with 16-inch wheels Howard calls “the best in the country,” made by Bikes at Work from Iowa and Kanner Karts from Gainesville, Fla. They’re pulled hither and yon by his Trek Lift+ pedal-assist ebike.

ACR  isn’t Howard’s only planetary salvation initiative. He operates the Community Cupboard, providing reusable dishware for major events, and the Mug Library, with real cups. Both aim to put a dent in the waste stream. As a bona fide eco-superhero, the indefatigable Howard’s day job is as a natural resource aide for the City of Arcata, and in his nonexistent spare time he also serves as a boardmember for Zero Waste Humboldt.

But deep in his heart flourishes a fetid flow of compost. He believes it’s “a huge economic opportunity,” and possibly the basis of another kind of California Gold Rush, composed of discarded avocado pits rather than gold nuggets.

Meanwhile, the Arcata Compost Revolution needs support and involvement to attain critical mass. “I would really love the community to get behind this,” Howard said.



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