Soil Cycles fosters sustainable waste collecting system

Story by Mary Landy

Photos by Charlotte Ward

The only stop on Wednesdays is Heritage Bakery and Café at 212 South Main Street. Kristen Grimshaw pulls up to the back of the bakery around 8:30 a.m. on a lime green bike with a trailer hitched to the back. On the trailer is a silver bin, ready for the morning routine.

Grimshaw is one of the cyclists for Soil Cycles, a compost pick-up program that got its start after Harrisonburg’s recycling program ended in April, 2018.

Yellow buckets and green bags are outside the bakery, filled with a multicolored mix of eggshells, avocados and coffee grounds. There is no smell to the food waste being bagged and placed on the trailer, and Grimshaw works quickly in the cold to clean the bins and replace the bags behind Heritage.

“It’s stuck,” Grimshaw says as she pulls on the top of one of the buckets. “That’s always fun on cold mornings… it feels like your fingers might break off.”

Shortly after the recycling program in Harrisonburg ended after its recycling company cancelled the contract, Nidhi Vinod, a student at Eastern Mennonite University, began collecting all of the food waste from La Morena, where she worked. She composted it through EMU’s composting program and used bike trailers from EMU and collected the food waste every other day.

“That’s where the idea for Soil Cycles started,” said Amelia Morrison, a co-founder of the program. “It was Nidhi, myself, and Taylor Evans — that was the original Soil Cycles team.”

Morrison became involved with the idea through her internship at Vine and Fig in downtown Harrisonburg. She wanted to confront the issue of food waste and approaching it through a composting program was the best option. Her original plan was to “see the world” after her internship ended, but she says she now plans on staying with the program.

“I feel like I found that thing that I was going abroad to look for. I found that community and inspiration and that…life-changing thing,” Morrison said.

Soil Cycles has changed and evolved since its beginning. EMU was a major support system while the program grew, allowing the team to use its bike trailers and compost through its program.

The original official subscriber to the program was Heritage Bakery and Café, operating initially on a three-month free trial. Though the owner had some hesitations, the trial period informed several key factors: the compost didn’t smell, the pickup was easy, and it wouldn’t significantly slow down service or work flow to separate compostable waste.

Soil Cycles now boasts ten residential subscribers and several restaurant participants. The program costs 25 dollars per month for residents. For restaurants, the cost is based on pounds per month of waste. As the Soil Cycles team modifies and improves its methods, growth becomes a stronger option.

“We are fine-tuning our model, and we’re getting new requests every day,” Morrison says.

The program, according to Morrison, has also attracted young people along with established residents in Harrisonburg, making up approximately half of the Soil Cycles participants.

When anyone decides to participate in Soil Cycles, they are supplied with enough five-gallon buckets to sustain their food waste for pickup either weekly for residents, or every-other-day for restaurants.

Beau Floyd, the head chef at Food Bar Food, is one of the restaurant-based subscribers to Soil Cycles. They began working with Soil Cycles in February of this year.

“Working in the kitchen for years and just throwing things away that I know don’t really need to be thrown away,” Floyd said, “it starts to build on you, and when I learned about Soil Cycles I thought, ‘Maybe we could do something about it.’”

The first week that Food Bar Food worked with Soil Cycles, they put out eighty pounds of food waste. Floyd is hoping that Food Bar Food can set an example for other restaurants considering the ways in which they can reduce their impact on the environment.

“It makes me feel hopeful that other restaurants will start to see and maybe pick it up if they can see the evidence that it’s a feasible thing to do,” Floyd said.

After the food waste is composted, Soil Cycles returns the finished compost to the subscriber. If that subscriber doesn’t have any need for compost, they can donate the compost back to local farms for use in agriculture.

“We’re in a very broken cycle where all of this food waste that’s going out isn’t coming back in for local food systems,” Morrison said. “One of our goals is to normalize composting because food waste is a resource. Normalization is a huge hurdle, but … once people start to catch on to the idea, it’s like a domino effect.”

The Soil Cycles organizers want to grow their presence through their website and community outreach, and are looking to expand to fifty subscribers by the end of the calendar year. Another major goal is to create meaningful employment for those who are currently running Soil Cycles on a volunteer basis.

“When you subscribe to soil cycles you are also supporting the building of meaningful employment opportunities for the community,” Brian Nixon, the communications coordinator for Soil Cycles, said. “We’re really focused on getting people established and getting service to them. We want to make them happy and grow from there,” he added.

Part of that growth involves the hope for an expansion throughout the municipality to help all of Harrisonburg reduce its footprint on the earth. Their current team consists of Morrison, Vinod and four volunteer staff who handle different aspects of the program. The long-term vision for Soil Cycles isn’t only in the statistics or economics.

“Our goal is to get people thinking about their waste and their consumption, and that means reducing their waste to a scale that can be managed by a fleet of bicycles,” Morrison says, pausing to smile just a little more. “And that is a pretty radical concept when you think about it.”

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