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Meet PA’s first urban composting on city parkland: Philly’s new public-private composting partnership
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Meet PA’s first urban composting on city parkland: Philly’s new public-private composting partnership

Parks and Recreation is teaming up with a local composting company to collect food scraps from 1 million meals served annually to children.

On a humid day following a week of rain, the smell of composting food waste hung in the air off Rising Sun Avenue, where the city of Philadelphia announced on Tuesday its private partnership with a first-of-its-kind facility for Pennsylvania.

Just a stone’s throw from Tacony Creek in the Lawncrest section of Philadelphia, the city now has a facility where it can send the food scraps collected from nearly a million meals each year served to children at Parks & Recreation’s 150-plus rec centers. In exchange for free composting of roughly 150 tons of city waste each year (once fully operational), Philadelphia has given Bennett Compost the keys to a former Parks & Recreation maintenance facility where it can compost materials from both the city and its private customers.

Mayor Kenney Bennett Compost
Mayor Jim Kenney speaks at a press conference on June 27, 2023

As part of the agreement, Parks & Recreation will receive 75 cubic yards of finished compost each spring to distribute among its network of community gardens and orchards.

The public-private partnership offers a window into an approach that could serve as an example for other municipalities seeking to minimize waste and increase their sustainability.

“This is a model that could be replicable,” Natalie Walker, Parks & Recreation’s sustainability director, said. “There’s plenty of food waste out there that needs to be composted, so the opportunities are endless.”

compost

Mayor Jim Kenney called the facility “a great example of what can happen when we find innovative ways to work together,” noting that food represents 17 percent of the city’s waste. Waste reduction promotes the goal of environmental justice by limiting the use of landfills and incinerators that negatively impact air and water quality, often in Black and brown neighborhoods, he added.

To establish the facility, the city and Bennett had to work with the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection to develop a permit that would allow a small-scale composting operation on city parkland. Permits existed for large-scale facilities and farms, according to Tim Bennett, co-owner of Bennett Compost. But when the city began looking for a way to begin turning food waste into usable soil several years ago, the state didn’t allow for an operation quite like this one.

With the permit now established, capping the facility at 500 tons of food waste per year, Philadelphia can showcase the benefits of community-scale composting for municipalities around the state and country that have a similar interest. A representative of Delaware County was in attendance Tuesday to see the facility and learn about how it could be replicated, Walker said, and both Bennett and the city have spoken with other local governments about the new facility, whose doors opened last November to begin accepting food waste.

Compost facility opening
Ribbon cutting at Rising Sun Avenue on Tuesday, June 27, 2023

“Now that this is here, the hope is the city will do more of these sites, other municipalities will do more of these sites, private operators will do more of these sites, and there will be partnerships between all three of these,” Bennett said. “That will build a robust composting infrastructure that is locally based and able to handle things in a local fashion that isn’t dependent on a giant site or giant company to manage it.”

Bennett Compost has 24 employees—a number that has grown significantly with the addition of its new facility.

“We had space and a need for composting, but we needed expertise from someone who could staff the site,” Walker said. “It’s a model that really works well. Bennett does what they do best, and we do what we do best.”

Food (and composting) education is a key to success

As of now, pickups are being made at 52 of the city’s rec centers; over the next five years, the project will expand to include the remaining 100-plus. Through a $45,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the city is also working to educate children at those rec centers about composting and the food system. Kenney said rec centers are “a natural place to look when it comes to food waste reduction” and emphasized the importance of raising young people’s awareness about sustainable practices.

a bin of worms being shown of by Jen Mastalerz, co-owner of Bennett Compost
A bin of worms being shown of by Jen Mastalerz, co-owner of Bennett Compost

“It really gives them an opportunity to connect with their food and not only understand what happens to their food at the end of its life but also where it comes from in the beginning,” Walker said.

For Bennett, the partnership with Parks & Recreation applies some of the lessons learned from the failure nearly a decade ago of a large-scale composting operation in Wilmington, Delaware. The site was set up to receive up to 600 tons of food waste each day, but hundreds of odor complaints and issues with contamination at the facility resulted in its permit not being renewed and composting in the region being thrown into turmoil, Bennett said.

Rather than receiving complaints from its neighbors, the facility on Rising Sun Avenue has formed relationships with them. Jennifer Mastalerz, Bennett Compost’s co-owner, said the company is working to build a garden for residents of the Philadelphia Housing Authority’s nearby Hill Creek Apartments.

Although the facility took years to get up and running, its presence – and the permit that allows it – could set the stage for more like it in the near future.

Photos by Ben Seal


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