Compost Coalition aims to make vacant lot a model of sustainability

“It all changed when I started looking at my banana peel differently.”

Haley Preston, founder and lead organizer of the Desert Community Compost Coalition, said the moment she connected the small act of composting a banana peel with the larger need to address climate change and hunger, something clicked.

“In that banana peel is the power to draw carbon out of the air,” she said Wednesday during a Zoom call. “It’s also the ability to create food system security and restore healthy ecosystems.”

Preston has been trying hard to make the connection between small acts and larger benefits since January. That’s when the Coalition was awarded a grant from CalRecycle  that allows its 70 members to begin working with communities throughout the Coachella Valley to establish community composting sites. She hopes the first of those sites will be at the Coyote Run II Apartments on North Sunrise Way.

If all goes as planned, the 2,300-square-foot lot, currently designated as green space by the city, will eventually produce thousands of pounds of compost for gardeners and fresh food for the community each week. Residents throughout the city will be encouraged to bring not only banana peels, but other food waste to the lot, where that waste will be used to create what Preston described as “gold” — rich soil on what is otherwise barren desert land.

The Coalition has tools, funds, and support from city officials and state policymakers. All they need now is the official green light from the Parks and Recreation Department that the land is theirs to use.

No matter when that moment happens, her group has no plans to stop with the Palm Springs location.

“The hope is for it to be a model so that every other city in this Valley can copy it,” she said, adding that the strong reception in Palm Springs drove the group to start here. “We decided to go where we were wanted first.”

The need is there — not only in Palm Springs and the Coachella Valley, but also statewide. In January 2022, new policies take effect requiring all California cities to reduce their organic waste going to landfills by 75 percent. The policies are needed, said Preston, to help the state do its part to help reduce the more than 80 billion tons of methane coming from landfills in the United States.

“In order to do that, cities have been scrambling to implement public services that will address this requirement,” Preston said. “However, changes like this take awhile. They also take a village, which is where community composting comes in. Our Coalition can meet this need at a more rapid pace than the waste industry.”

The waste industry is slowly warming to the idea. Where it once assumed less material headed to landfills meant less profits, often acting as a roadblock to groups like Preston’s, she said it now recognizes its vital role in addressing the issue.

“Small organic resource recovery runners and self-haulers have had obstacles in the past in California,” she said. “That’s because waste haulers are in the waste business. Over time, that has shifted. In major cities, those haulers now have exemption clauses that provide for resource recovery runners to transport, process. and distribute compost.”

What may need more work, she added, is promoting the idea of composting. Preston’s group plans to do that work not only through community outreach, but through educating children in schools about the importance of reducing the amount of waste trucked to landfills.

“There is still a stigma around composting,” Preston acknowledged. “There is not enough education about what happens when you take that material and put it in a green bin or an industrial composter. That’s not the worst thing to do, but it does nothing to engage the community. It’s out of sight, out of mind. And there is no education, no questioning about what do we do with it after that?

“What community composting does is it gives people a hyperlocal choice and it closes the food loop system. It makes food a resource and not a waste. It has value. We take that material and turn it into soil. We’ve lost 60 percent of the world’s topsoil, and without that there’s nothing to eat.”

More information: To connect with the Desert Community Compost Coalition, visit their Facebook page here, or email Preston at [email protected]

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