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The Dirt 

NOLA Green Roots' compost program saves landfill waste and turns restaurant and household trash into rich fertilizer

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Gambit has kept you apprised of just how busy Joseph Brock has been the past couple of years. When we first met Brock in 2010, he was laying soil at his first large-scale community garden, the Wise Words Community Garden near Tulane and Carrollton avenues. Over the last two years, he's orchestrated urban renewal campaigns by building more community gardens and making his customers understand how easy, affordable and accessible fresh food can be. Now he's giving them the dirt — literally, with a composting program he says is the city's best.

  From his office above an auto repair shop on Tulane Avenue, Brock enters a few more keystrokes into his gardening database (software he designed himself) before he sprints out the door and into the NOLA Green Roots store. Chrome racks display jars of pickles and sauces, boxes of onions and packages of fertilizer, "homemade" from Brock's across-the-street garden, the first of several urban gardens in the NOLA Green Roots assembly. The neighboring garden's massive, wood-lined composting boxes house several months' worth of compost — pre-consumer food waste like orange peels, coffee grounds, potato skins and other organic material that otherwise would end up in a landfill, where their nutrients are wasted in bags of garbage. Brock's program picks up compost bins from participants and brings them to the garden, where the contents are weighed on a scale. That information is entered into a database, which can summarize how much each restaurant or household is saving from the landfill.

  "I don't think anyone knows what it means, 'What's composting?'" Brock says. "We're thinking about waste, a new way of doing things."

  Brock waves and honks the horn of his Dodge Ram 1500 truck on his route from Mid-City to the CBD at rush hour. A parade on Canal Street is slowing down Brock's otherwise perfected, block-by-block efficiency in this compost pickup. He started the day at 4 a.m., when he typically does his pickups. "It's like a paper route," he says.

  Shadowing Brock is Loyola University student Wolfgang Klein, a member of the university's community action program (LUCAP), which is partnering with NOLA Green Roots. At each stop, full bins are loaded into the truck bed and replaced with fresh empty ones. Brock explains to Klein a very specific method of loading and unloading. "You want it to look like you never knew it was there," he says. One restaurant's bin, a 64-gallon container on wheels, is full to its top. "That was landfill," Brock says with a smile.

  Restaurant bins are picked up three times a week. On this ride, after bin pickups at five restaurants, Brock collects more than 1,000 pounds of compostable material. Since the program started earlier this year, Brock says he has picked up nearly 20,000 pounds of compostable waste. Over a three-month process, that waste gradually is broken down and converted to compost ("It's like making wine," he says. "The longer it sits, the better") and put back into the soil. Some is used in NOLA Green Roots gardens and the rest is packaged in 18-pound bags and sold at the store.

  "I'm a nerd," Brock says back at his office. Brock, who graduated from Loyola with a degree in forensic science, shows how rainwater collection barrels packed with compost are aerated to "get all the molecules working" to promote cell and bacteria growth. According to the LSU AgCenter, 20 percent to 30 percent of landfill waste is made up of organic materials. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates only 2.8 percent of organic materials were turned over for compost in 2010.

  There currently are a dozen restaurants, ranging from fine dining establishments to neighborhood diners, enrolled in Brock's service. Restaurants pay a monthly $50 fee to participate. Loyola University implemented the program for its campus, but Brock would like to see a citywide composting effort. "We need to do this jointly," he says, adding that households composting individually would benefit from joining with others — and that's where NOLA Green Roots steps in, he says. "We can do a lot more. ... I'd love for City Hall to take a closer look at what we're doing."

  The NOLA Green Roots store opens to the public Jan. 3, but a members-only soft opening is Dec. 30. The store will stock fresh fruits and vegetables, eggs, mushrooms and other goods from the gardens. Customers will have to line up at the door, and the shelves will stock only what's fresh that day. "Our motto is, 'Our shelves are empty,'" Brock says.

For more information on NOLA Green Roots, visit www.nolagreenroots.com.

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