June Newsletter - Guest Article: Using Community Composting to Address Illegal Dumping in Stanton Heights by Mike Sturges

The current stewardship of the green space at the intersection of Stanton Ave. and Woodbine St. in Stanton Heights started with a compost pile.  When I purchased my house in Stanton Heights in 2009, I quickly found that I was in need of a way to responsibly address my yard waste.  I asked a neighbor what they did and was told to “wait until there aren’t any cars coming, carry it across the street and dump it over the hill in the greenspace”—the classic Pittsburgh answer. I walked across the street and found that in addition to a huge pile of grass clippings and brush, there were tires, buckets, flowerpots and bottles.  As a long time volunteer with Allegheny CleanWays, I was no stranger to illegal dumps, but I started to wonder if there was a way to get people to only dump natural items. 

I began the experiment by removing the garbage and then started turning the pile. While realizing that by adding to the pile, I would technically be dumping, I justified my actions because the pile was staying the same size; by turning the pile, the material was breaking down faster, and I was taking some of the rich compost for our flowerbeds. Every couple of days, I found that more piles of clippings showed up, and it became a game to stay on top of turning it under. Each week, I removed dumped garbage. Before long, word of the compost heap spread, and others began taking some of the compost for their yards.   

The Stanton Heights Community Composting Program was legitimized in April 2012, when Comcast built the compost finishing bins as a part of Comcast Cares Day.  When talk began about a community park on the space, I offered to help organize a large scale illegal dump clean up on the site and suggested that a portion of the space continue to be used for a community composting program--knowing that since my neighbors found the heap to be useful, the greater community would, too.  At this time, we decided to designate this space as an Urban EcoStewards site to ensure its stewardship into the future. 

Two years later, this composting program, maintained by Urban EcoSteward volunteers, helps responsibly funnel landscaping and yard waste, helps prevent dumping at other sites and provides community members with compost to use in their yards. 

Bringing Everyone TogetherCommunity members utilize the service year round, dropping off grass clippings in the spring and leaves in the fall.  The modest signage provides brief directions regarding the process as well as contact information.  With the exception of the occasional pop bottle or potato chip bag, the majority of those who utilize the program have been very cooperative and have appreciated having a conveniently located place to take leaves, grass clippings and small brush.  

Impressive Waste Reduction. During warm months, compost that is almost finished is moved into the bins. Composted vegetation shrinks by more than 50 percent; from October 2012 through September 2013, over 60 wheelbarrows (360 cubic ft.) of finished compost have been removed from the heap and used by our community members.  
Benefits to the CommunityThe compost from this program is never sold, but since the closest home store sells 1 cubic foot of compost for about $4 a bag, there has been approximately $1440 in compost donated to the community in 2013. This soil is used in backyard gardening of community members, allowing people to grow healthful food from piles of debris once considered to be an eyesore. The soil has also been used for plantings to further beautify the greenspace. 
Preventing Illegal Dumping.  In a single year, the heap has prevented at least 30 yards of landscaping debris from being dumped or bagged for a landfill—that’s over 15 pickup trucks full of landscaping debris that has been recycled responsibly and sustainably. In addition to addressing the landscaping debris, to date, we have removed over 22 tons of concrete, over a ton of scrap metal, over 104 bags of garbageover 55 bags of invasive plants and over 46 tires from the site and surrounding streets. We have also planted 25 trees to ensure that would-be-dumpers know that this space is cared for.  

The SuccessIn responsibly funneling and addressing the landscaping debris of the neighborhood, we have seen a sharp decrease in illegal dumping, we have made soil for community members to use, and we have further beautified this space and our neighborhood. 

Continued Challenges.  The success of the composting program depends on volunteers working with the heap consistently.  An unattended compost pile could easily turn back into an illegal dump site. As word gets out about the compost heap, we have seen an increase in volume of materials in general as well as an increase in brush and branches that are not as easily composted. This year, a community member has offered to rent a chipper to deal with the excess brush, and the wood chips will be available for community use.  We still see some dumping of landscaping debris in other parts of the greenspace but much less than before.     

Future Directions Should the plans for the community parklet on the space come to fruition, the stewardship infrastructure will already be in place in addition to access to rich compost and mulch to use in the parklet. With committed volunteers, it is our belief that similar programs could work in other communities, reducing dumping and waste while encouraging the self-reliance of backyard gardening through access to excellent compost.