Growing a community composting movement with Deirdre Appel
SoDak Compost founder explains the many environmental benefits of composting and the power of local sustainability initiatives
This post is part of SoDak 350’s monthly “Climate Champions” blog series, where we chat with leaders in our community that are doing great work to build a sustainable future for eastern South Dakota.
This month we had the pleasure of speaking with Deirdre Appel, Founder of SoDak Compost, South Dakota’s first and only community composting nonprofit. SoDak Compost started collecting food scraps in June last year and has big goals to make community composting as accessible and convenient to all of Sioux Falls.
This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Tell us a bit about how SoDak Compost came to be. What led you to found the organization?
I moved to Sioux Falls in June of 2021, coming from Brooklyn, New York. In Brooklyn, I was sort of spoiled with opportunities to recycle food scraps. As part of the city’s composting pilot program, I had a brown bin for food scraps to put out on the sidewalk along with my regular trash bin and recycling bin, and the city’s sanitation trucks would pick it up when they came by. Unfortunately that program was cut during COVID due to budget constraints, but there were still chances to drop off my food waste at a farmer’s market or sign up for a private hauler to come pick it up at my doorstep. So I got into the habit of recycling food scraps just like I would plastic.
When I moved here, I thought surely there would be composting opportunities in this big agricultural state with lots of land. But we moved into an apartment and I found out there was no service for it. There was a lot of interest from people in the community, a lot of people who would compost at home, but no organized service at the time to offer more people living in Sioux Falls a way to compost their food scraps. So it really came out of my own desire to keep this habit going. I spoke to a lot of people in the community, including Holly Meier at the City of Sioux Falls, who was really supportive, and we ended up receiving a Sustainability Grant from the City early on that allowed us to purchase the materials and get the program going. SoDak Compost was incorporated as a nonprofit in January of last year and started collecting our first food scraps in June, so we’ve been in service for about seven months now.
What does this look like for people who participate in the composting program?
As a community composting organization, we offer a drop-off service. We partner with Ironfox Farm, a nonprofit here in Sioux Falls that does farm-to-school education work with Eugene Middle School, who has allowed us to have our composting operations on their site. Participants can drop off food scraps twice a week, on Wednesdays and Saturdays. If they purchase a bucket, they can swap out their full bucket of food scraps with a clean bucket lined with a fresh compostable liner each time they drop off. Since the onset of winter and all this harsh weather, we’ve also left a container near our bins where participants can just drop their food scraps in, so that folks who might not be able to make it during the times when we’re onsite can have a little more flexibility.
SoDak Compost's three-bin composting system
Take us behind the scenes. What does it look like for you and your volunteers who maintain the compost?
We collect food scraps from around 40 households and one business, Songbird Kombucha. In the height of summer, when there’s a lot of fresh produce from farms and gardens - watermelon rinds and corn husks and things like that - altogether they were bringing us around 2,000 pounds of food scraps a month! So it can be labor-intensive in terms of being there on site, weighing and cleaning the buckets, adding them to the containers, and turning the compost pile. We also need to make sure to correctly balance the ratios between “browns” - carbon sources like mulch, sawdust, and leaves - and “greens” - food scraps rich in nitrogen - in order to create the right environment for nature to do its work.
We produced our first batch of fully cured compost in September, about three-and-a-half months after collecting our first banana peel. IronFox Farms used it on their garden beds as they were putting them to rest for winter, and we got to give a lesson for their students at Eugene Middle School on how to apply compost and what it means for giving the garden the fuel and nutrition it needs for the next growing season. In the spring, we’ll have enough compost to offer back to the community if they want to purchase some for their own gardens. I even use some of it on my houseplants!
Sounds like there’s a lot of science involved with composting! What’s one of the most interesting things you’ve learned about the composting process?
There is a lot of science to it - people have PhDs in soil science and the chemistry behind composting! Just reading about it, it’s easy to get bogged down in the science side of it, but that complexity shouldn’t hold anyone back. You can absolutely compost on your own without needing to know every detail of how it’s happening.
One life lesson from the compost pile that I’ve taken away is this idea of a balanced ecosystem. Too much of anything will be a bad thing, but nature is amazing in the ways that it can equalize and balance out if it has too much of one thing or another. For example, we kind of nerd out over worms, because they’re really wonderful for composting and do so much for the soil by breaking down organic matter. But they also live in this balance where if there’s enough food and nutrients in their environment, they’ll reproduce, and if there’s not enough, they’ll cut back in order to not overpopulate. These are really simple beings, right - just worms in the soil. And yet they’re really sophisticated in the sense that they don’t take too much and do their job to maintain a balance in their environment.
I love that - it’s such a great lesson for maintaining balance both on a personal level and on a larger ecological scale. How does composting play a role in contributing to our ecological balance when it comes to things like climate change?
One on hand, composting is a solution to the food waste problem. In the United States, about 30 to 40 percent of food ends up getting thrown out - either because we’re buying too much, portions are too big, or we don’t have the right systems in place to preserve or redistribute food. It’s important to create solutions that prevent some of that food from being thrown out in the first place, but composting can serve as a kind of band-aid for dealing with some of that waste and is an effective solution for dealing with food scraps and waste that can’t be prevented.
On the other hand, composting also has an important connection to the climate change crisis. When food waste or other organic matter ends up in a landfill, it breaks down in an oxygen-free environment, which causes the release of methane, a really potent greenhouse gas. With all the organic matter going into our waste stream, landfills have become the third leading producer of methane, after fossil fuels and livestock. So food really should never go to a landfill, because it will have these huge negative impacts for our environment and for future generations.
Also, landfills are finite - at some point they fill up and need some sort of expansion or addition, which is very expensive and uses a lot of land. So diverting food waste to compost helps make sure we’re slowing that process down and not filling up our landfills too fast, while also decreasing our greenhouse gas production.
Finally, compost is a great, nutrient-rich additive that’s super beneficial for soil health. Soil is so important for the health of our environment, and compost can help prevent soil erosion and even help sequester carbon in the ground. So this simple, naturally-occurring process can benefit the earth in so many ways.
SoDak Compost providing composting services at the Big Sioux River & Sustainability Summit
What are some things you’d like to see in the future to get more people composting? What needs to happen in Sioux Falls or South Dakota as a whole that could help folks lead more sustainable lifestyles, especially when it comes to dealing with food waste?
A big part of it is awareness and partnerships. We’re a small organization, but the fact that we’ve been able to partner with another organization like IronFox Farm and their network of students has been really great. I think these initiatives that Sioux Falls is beginning to push for, like the Urban Agriculture Coalition and the Sustainability Summit, all present opportunities that allow like-minded people who are trying to start their own initiatives - even at a very small level - to connect and amplify their efforts, and that’s really important.
Also, from what I’ve seen, there are a lot of folks in the service industry - restaurants, small cafes, things like that - who are trying to be more local in their food selection and want to be part of the farm-to-table movement, who want to also take it one step further and starting composting as well. But we’re a small organization, so we couldn’t service them at this stage. So looking for more volunteers and donations to help us grow is important.
I think there’s so much opportunity here in Sioux Falls, with so many smaller initiatives that are really exciting. So whatever the city or the private sector can do to help those get off the ground - like small grants for seed funding or competitions for sustainability ideas - can make all the difference for small organizations with great ideas that are just getting started. And I think helping these small initiatives get off the ground would be a win for us all.
What are some next steps for your organization? Is there anything that you’re especially looking forward to in 2023?
We’ve hit every goal that we set for ourselves so far, and our next big goal for 2023 is to expand and find a new location to start composting in addition to IronFox Farms. A new location would allow us to invite more participants and partner with another small business. So right now we’re in that search for another location, with the goal to find one by spring. We’re also hoping to partner with community gardens or other areas in town that are conveniently located - like a space for people to drop off food scraps at the Falls Park Farmers Market. Last year was a lot of learning, but it gave us the opportunity to prove that this model works really well, and we hope we can expand it to more spaces this year.