How a Land Use Agency Increases Compost Applications

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Courtesy of BioCycle Magazine

Untitled Document A Mecklenburg County office in Charlotte, North Carolina reaches out in many ways to get more residents active in composting and compost use.

HERE at the Mecklenburg County Land Use & Environmental Services Agency - Solid Waste Management Division in North Carolina, we spend much time (and compost) on our Piedmont Landscape and Naturescape Training (PLANT) program. We encourage people to have sustainable environments, use compost and good management practices. Our mission is to promote wise management of natural resources through responsible stewardship, working in partnership with individuals, neighborhoods, schools, community organizations and government.

We figured these are the things to work on with our in-house and fellow agencies … to promote programs where it fits with yard care and other programs we address. It has become a holistic approach to working with the community. Our goals are: Reducing yard waste disposal and chemicals for household hazardous waste disposal; Preventing pollution of air, soil, surface water and groundwater; Encouraging naturescaping with native plants; Water conservation; Plant diversity and wildlife enhancement; Prevention of exotic pest plants establishment; and Improving riparian buffer areas.

The program is available to the public, groups and anybody who is interested. We work with them and go to their locations, and we also have locations that we have established with the Parks and Recreation division, nature centers, and other places we think would be a good fit to set up and do a compost demonstration area. If it is county government property, we maintain it; otherwise it is maintained by the entity that has requested it. We set up an area and we hold the workshops there. It is ideal for when you are working with Community Gardens. Most of the gardens, not all of them, are on park and recreation land.

PRACTICES WE PROMOTE

The practices we are promoting are pretty straight up. A lot of people get spooked about yard care. They can read something, but reading it and doing it can be two different things. With PLANT, you get out there and you start to compost, learning by doing and you can run back to your book too. Whether it's composting or any of the other yard care topics, the benefits for homeowners is that they are learning to save time, work and money. Different people that you are working with will have a different reason for wanting to come to your program. You have to figure “hooks and bait out” and try to promote them all on an equal level to get as many people as possible interested.

A four-hour training plant workshop is available to the public year-round. A yard care system that is environmentally friendly, aesthetically pleasing, low maintenance and low budget is taught.
Yard care practices include: Composting - hands on techniques; Grasscycling - lawn alternatives and mulching techniques; Soil stewardship - erosion prevention and soil testing; Toxicity reduction - chemical alternatives, beneficial insects, water quality benefits, disposal of chemicals. Naturescaping includes: Regional native plants; Preventing exotic pest plants; and Habitat gardening-beneficial wildlife practices.

WORKING WITH SCHOOLS AND LANDSCAPERS

Third grade students in North Carolina are required to learn composting. We also work with sixth graders who do soil studies and plants. Then you get into the high schools where there are a lot of groups with whom you can work. Business opportunities are out there. You can work with nurseries; garden centers; producers of compost, soil amendments and mulches; lawn maintenance companies; professional gardeners and landscape consultants, designers, architects and horticulturists.

The landscape architects and consultants - you'd be surprised how little they know about the soil matrix. They may know about plants, the hardscaping, how to do the concrete, but they may not know a whole lot about the soil. Be prepared to explain it and give the benefits of your product if you are looking at compost or whether you are looking to promote decreasing the amount of tonnage (plant material)that you have to deal with. A lot of the tonnage is coming from invasive plants that are established here. One-third to one-half of the waste that we receive at our facilities are invasive plants, so we decided that is something we need to educate people about.

We really push the partnership aspect. We run on a very tight budget, and are able to do a lot of public outreach through partnerships, environmental groups, and urban community groups. The key to the whole thing is partnering and extending your information throughout the whole community. Through our PLANT partnerships, we work closely with other departments to: Develop and promote training of staff, speakers and presenters; Provide resource research materials, literature, books, etc.; Advertise workshops through water bill inserts, news releases, newsletters, flyers, paid advertising, neighborhood associations, etc.; and Develop pilot projects emphasizing native plants, composting, water conservation, etc.

These are the key things we are trying to get through with our four-hour class that the public attends. They sign up and pay a $10 fee. (We started out free. Nobody thinks there is any value in anything you give away free, so we started charging $10 and our classes stay full.) It's cheap, inexpensive and at $10 per family, they get a wire compost bin, hands-on training and we also offer a book on yard care called PLANT. They don't have to memorize everything in class - they have a resource to fall back on. The key thing is, they are in the class and learn hands-on how to do it. It takes a lot of the fear away from it, and when it is hands-on, they remember it better and they'll continue practicing the behaviors that you are trying to set up.

We've partnered with North Carolina Wildlife Federation to create habitats. We cross train their volunteers and they cross train us. Again, partnerships are critical. We have a Master Composters program which is a 40 hour technical class. We train 25 people, once a year. They come to class two hours per week. They spend one Saturday a month for four months where they go out and take tours and we show them how the composting facility works. We take them to the MRF and show them how the recycling works. They then turn around and give us back 50 hours of volunteer time. They do projects in the community, whether it is working with schools, churches, etc. They can create it. They have the ability to figure out what project they want on their own. A lot of people get incredibly creative with what they want to do when they finish our class. Then on the other hand, you have some people who are not very creative; they may simply help me stuff envelopes and give hours back that way. Either way, we wind up benefiting with volunteer time. They can man booths when we have shows - they are just a phenomenal group of people to work with and they are all very creative and come up with great outreach to the public.

MASTER COMPOSTERS

A grant was obtained from the North Carolina Department of Natural Resources, Division of Pollution Prevention and Assistance to pilot a new program called MCPLANT (Master Composters). The goal is to educate 25 participants each year to expand the PLANT program to reach the public through developing projects; All volunteers complete a 12-week training course; and The Master Composters will then volunteer 50 hours each to various projects that enhance the quality of life in the region through home, neighborhood and school workshops.

One of the programs we worked on was to develop a native plant list for the Carolinas. It is a generic list. There is nothing endangered, all are commonly available plants. The list includes trees all the way to aquatic plants. Then we went to UNC Chapel Hill, where Johnny Randall's group has an exotic pest plant list, and we copied what they already had created. You don't have to reinvent the wheel here. There is a lot of good stuff out there. Get permission and use their materials.

The native plant program has been extremely successful. People like it because it leads to water conservation, and they don't need a lot of chemicals to keep the plants healthy - a very cost-effective landscaping program. Every nursery has some native plants, but they are not labeled as to being native or not. We are educating the consumer what to look for before they go shopping. They go hunting plants wherever they happen to go shopping on a routine basis. Then they are not suckered into buying things that the hardware stores sell in mass in spring. In the Carolinas, by spring it is usually too late to be planting trees. They are going to do planting at the proper planting time which will be in the fall because they had that information and they know when to shop and what to shop for ahead of time. Ultimately, that is a huge cost savings to the consumer.

We do continuing education programs for teachers. We have CEU's available. They can take the class, and they get credit for it. We also do a twice a year training programs for teachers and are in the process of partnering with the local colleges to do different types of training programs. Partner with your school teachers and let the teachers then work with the kids. We have 160+ schools in our county. We do occasionally go to schools and work with the students, but by and large it is more effective use of resources to work with the teachers.
We have 11 Community Gardens - nine of them are brand new that opened the spring of 2005 through the Park and Recreation Division. We have partnered very close with them through Don Boekelheide, who is the liaison and runs that particular part of the PLANT program.

Ann Gill is the Waste Reduction Specialist in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, who is actively involved in master composter training, school food waste programs, and landscaping. She can be contacted via e-mail at gillda@co.mecklenburg.nc.us

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