University City District grows its Dirt Factory composting efforts

Early this summer New York City announced a plan to launch a citywide composting initiative similar to existing programs in San Francisco, Seattle and Portland. Philly, the city that has a hard enough time getting people to put their trash in trash cans and not in storm drains, might not be ready for required composting quite yet. But one organization, University City District (UCD), is making moves to increase composting in its neighborhood, and because University City is in many ways a microcosm of the city, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is looking to learn from its efforts.

Just last year UCD launched The Dirt Factory, a community composting facility located on a formerly vacant lot at 4308 Market Street. There, area residents and businesses can drop off food scraps, leaves and other organic waste. Then two solar powered Earth Tub compost units turn 500-600 gallons of food waste and an equal amount of leaves into healthy compost in roughly 30 days. 

Now, UCD has teamed up with the EPA to expand its composting and waste reduction efforts and to encourage more University City constituents to do the same. This June UCD and the Children’s Hospital of Pennsylvania (CHOP) formally signed on to the EPA’s Food Recovery Challenge, a voluntary commitment to track and reduce food waste.  

UCD will achieve this, in large part, by expanding and promoting The Dirt Factory’s composting efforts. 

Keeping it (food waste) local

The Food Recovery Challenge pushes those who sign on to divert their surplus food waste from landfills, whether that means buying less food in the first place, donating excess or composting the leftover scraps. 

At The Dirt Factory, UCD will focus on the compost element. In the next year, UCD wants to double the number of households and businesses that are diverting their organic waste. Seth Budick, policy and research manager at UCD, said he hopes the program will hit critical mass and take on a life of its own. 

At the moment the Dirt Factory has about 50 composting households, some of which have as many as six people. UCD is also taking drop offs from Bennett Compost, a Philly-based compost pick-up service. Right now Bennett Compost drops off scraps from roughly 145 households. 

“As long as we have the extra capacity, we’re happy to take a portion of his material that’s generated in the neighborhood,” Budick said. 

But capacity is a looming issue.

“We have a fair amount of capacity right now, but it is diminishing every day,” Budick said. “… Every week there are at least a couple new people showing up.” 

The Dirt Factory today is squeezed on one lot between a residential property and a used car lot. To expand UCD would likely need to set up similar facilities at other sites, but because the earth tubs The Dirt Factory currently use are cost prohibitive to purchase new, UCD and EPA are working together to figure out what other sites might work and what kind of partners and technology an expanded Dirt Factory could utilize. 

“There’s no question that ultimately there is room for at least one or maybe two more similar scale facilities in the neighborhood and maybe more than that,” Budick said. 

Working with the EPA

When UCD first got a call from the EPA about The Dirt Factory, the organization was worried it was doing something wrong. Instead UCD found out the EPA wanted to help.

“From the beginning they were excited about the program and wanted to figure out what they could do to support us, and [they] did provide important environmental guidance,” Budick said. 

The EPA provided permitting guidance and helped craft a regulatory framework for The Dirt Factory, which is still somewhat of a national precedent. Budick said the EPA tends to focus on classes of organic waste sources, things like sport stadiums and hospitals, rather than on an urban level, so the agency was excited to do something on the community scale. 

In many ways University City is a microcosm of the city, so the EPA is interested in working with UCD to see how the Dirt Factory might work with multiple constituents to reduce organic waste and keep as much of it in the neighborhood has possible. 

Is citywide composting in the cards for Philly?

While Budick hopes The Dirt Factory becomes obsolete because the city starts picking up compost curbside, he does not see that happening anytime soon. He said UCD would not be investing as much money into The Dirt Factory if curbside pickup seemed like a near future outcome. 

“I think that this idea of kind of doing neighborhood scale operations, not municipal scale but bigger than backyards, seems like a pretty effective way of bridging the gap,” Budick said. 

In University City, composting has become “a physical manifestation of the neighborhood’s commitment to sustainability,” Budick said. Across town the New Kensington CDC and Sustainable 19125 have launched a similar community-based program, the Compost Co-op. 

In this form, composting has more than environmental and economic benefits alone. 

“I think there are advantages to what we’re doing even beyond the composting itself,” Budick said. “We call it a community composting facility, and it really is a community facility. It’s a great way of bringing people together.”

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