It started as a Gold Award project for teenager Monica Orozco, a St. Agnes Academy student and member of the Girls Scouts of the USA.
Now the Heights community effort to turn waste into a renewable resource is spreading across Houston.
The free, weekly compost drop-off events that have been held every Wednesday since mid-April at the Heights Fire Station – a collaboration between Orozco, Zero Waste Houston and the Houston Heights Association – will continue through Nov. 24 as part of a City of Houston pilot program that starts this week. Food waste and other compostable materials will be collected from 5-7 p.m. every Wednesday at the fire station, 107 W. 12th St.
As part of the program, spearheaded by Houston City Council member Sallie Alcorn, compostable materials also will be collected from 9-11 a.m. every Saturday through Nov. 27 at the Kashmere Gardens Multi-Service Center, 4802 Lockwood Dr., and at the Houston Botanic Garden, 1 Botanic Ln. Zero Waste Houston will continue handling the collection in the Heights and also in Kashmere Gardens, while Heights-based Moonshot Compost will collect materials at the botanic garden.
“It’s really a continuation of what (Orozco) started there in the Heights,” Alcorn said. “The Heights has led the way.”
Alcorn said the city does not have the resources to pursue a permanent, publicly funded composting program, so the idea behind the pilot is to educate city residents about the benefits of composting and encourage them to take on the practice at their homes or enlist private companies such as Moonshot and Zero Waste, which offer residential pickup services for a fee. After a few months of composting her food waste at home, Alcorn said she has significantly reduced the overall amount of trash she has.
Instead of sending food waste to a landfill, where it breaks down and releases methane – a greenhouse gas and significant pollutant in the Earth’s atmosphere – composting it recycles the scraps into nutrient-rich soil that can be used for planting and gardening.
Zero Waste Houston founder Leo Brito said he’s continuing to offer the drop-off service for free, because it’s a way to promote his business and also because he believes in the cause.
“It is promising. I feel excited,” he said. “It is a very happy day, because this is only the beginning, and it’s only going to grow from here on out.”
Brito said the weekly events in the Heights have helped him grow his customer base in the neighborhood from about 25 to 50. He also said the drop-off events have diverted more than 12,000 pounds of food waste from a landfill, with more than 1,000 people participating during the last six months.
Emily Guyre, the executive director of the Houston Heights Association, said it was a “no-brainer” to include the Heights as part of the city’s composting pilot program. She also said she’s glad community members will be able to continue dropping off their food waste at the same time at the same place on the same day of the week.
“I think we’ll just keep doing it so long as Zero Waste Houston wants to,” Guyre said. “If they want to maintain it, we’re happy to let them utilize the fire station. I know the community really appreciates having something that’s free.”
Alcorn said Trees for Houston, a nonprofit that is constructing its new headquarters in Oak Forest at 2001 W. 34th St., is donating 40 trees to each collection site that can be taken home by participants in the composting program.
Alcorn said dropping off compostable waste – which includes food and also non-edibles such as newspaper, flowers, vegetarian pet bedding and wood ash – also comes with an inherent benefit to the environment. She said the three landfills used by the city are projected to fill up in 37 years, and that’s if their current capacity is expanded.
She called that a “scary” thought and said the “clock is ticking.”
“The launch of the city’s first-ever composting pilot program is an exciting step forward for conservation and cost savings for residents – mitigating future costs and reducing waste sent to landfills that are nearing end of life,” said Houston City Council member Abbie Kamin, who serves the Heights and collaborated with Alcorn on the pilot program. “Huge kudos to council member Sallie Alcorn for spearheading this.”
Alcorn said she first got the idea from friend Brian Platt, the city manager in Kansas City, Missouri, who implemented a composting program during his previous stint as the city manager in Jersey City, New Jersey. Then, when she heard about the initiative in the Heights that was started by Orozco, Alcorn said she became more inspired and started putting the program in place with the blessing of Mayor Sylvester Turner and the cooperation of the city’s Solid Waste Management Department as well as Administration and Regulatory Affairs.
Orozco previously said she got the composting idea from the City of West University Place, which conducted an eight-week pilot program from Dec. 5 through Jan. 23 in collaboration with Zero Waste Houston. That effort continued with subsequent weekly drop-offs at Demo’s Automotive Center in Rice Village.
Orozco’s effort in the Heights had legs as well. The program was initially set to end in early June, but it was extended indefinitely because of its success.
“She gets tons of credit for this,” Alcorn said of Orozco. “Every time that people at the city tried to make this too complicated, I would say, ‘Hey look, we’ve got a girl scout out there who’s been highly successful. She didn’t have to jump through any hoops. She just went out there and did it.’ I loved using her as a way to simplify a bureaucratic process.
“Government sometimes overthinks things,” Alcorn added. “I think this is just a simple, easy way to introduce this to Houston. Hopefully it takes off, and I hope people keep doing it.”