Composting for the Future

Inside a youth-led compost collective, or “the Wakanda of South Baltimore”


Marvin Hayes works in one of the most toxic neighborhoods in Baltimore city. “Curtis Bay is polluted by the emissions from I-895, a chemical company, a coal company, a kerosene company, and three incinerators,” he said.

Burning trash creates carbon dioxide. Burying it creates methane gas. “With the burning and burying being done in Curtis Bay, Brooklyn, Cherry Hill, Federal Hill, and downtown Baltimore, it’s costing $55 million in health damages,” he added.

For the last three years, Marvin has been working to reverse those statistics — empowering youth along the way.

“Of Baltimore’s municipal trash, 80% can be composted, recycled, or reused. So we are spreading the news that composting is the alternative to trash incineration.”

Marvin is the program manager of the Baltimore Compost Collective, a youth-led food scrap collection service that, under the umbrella of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and United Workers, serves the communities of Brooklyn, Curtis Bay, Federal Hill, Locust Point, and Riverside. When he began, there were just five customers. Today, there are 78.

Each week, the Baltimore Compost Collective, diverts between 400 and 500 pounds of food scraps from being incinerated or buried, becoming a model for the city. “We’re hoping to be that compost caboose that pushes this city towards zero waste,” Marvin said.

Food scraps are collected every Sunday morning in five-gallon buckets that are brought to the Filbert Street Community Garden to turn into a soil enhancer. Customers pay just $5 a week for the service.

“If you have healthy soil, you have healthy produce. We turn the compost into black gold soil enhancer for those residents with raised beds in the garden, so they are able to grow their own food.”

The Filbert Street Community Garden was created by OSI Community Fellow Jason Reed, who saw an abandoned lot in a largely disenfranchised neighborhood. “The residents there essentially live in a food-insecure neighborhood, and they don’t have any green space to grow food,” Marvin said. “[Jason] took this acre of property that was a dumping ground, filled with mattresses, bottles, and tires, and turned it into a garden.”

Nowadays, Marvin spends a lot of time there, composting and holding workshops for students in the community. “I call it the Wakanda of South Baltimore,” he said. “We don’t make Vibranium, but we do make a Filbert Street Leaf Gold, and we can make Goldenrod honey.” Students also learn about agriculture and livestock. There are chicken, goats, ducks, geese, feral cats, and bees in the garden: “It’s such an amazing living classroom.”

Marvin hires youth from the local Benjamin Franklin High School and trains them in small-scale composting. Over the past three years, seven high schoolers have participated in the collective. All of them graduated and, Marvin noted, two of them are still doing environmental and social justice work. Another just released a zero-waste lunch plan with Ben Franklin High School.

A Career Paved by Food Scraps

“I was first introduced to composting when I went to Outward Bound and was asked to throw my scraps in the woods and bury them. I said that we don’t deal with our scraps like that in West Baltimore,” Marvin recalled.

Since then, he has taken composting training and become a master composter. After running a vermiculture workshop at the Boys and Girls Club of Metropolitan Baltimore, he took home the worms that no one wanted. “As much as they scream and wiggle, everybody wants to touch them. Everybody wants to pick them up and to see the amazing job that they do with food scraps and the beautiful castings that they leave behind.”

Marvin has been working with and managing youth programs for over 20 years, beginning as a driver. As a 2019 OSI Fellow, he is using his fellowship to spread the word about composting in his community. “I educate people about zero-waste with a focus on anti-incineration because we don’t have to burns trash anymore. It’s 2020.”

His vision for the future is one in which Baltimore adopts large-scale composting. “We would have curbside side compost pick-up. When you put out your recyclables, you put out your compost bucket. It will be taken to a facility where young people and ex-offenders and disenfranchised residents of Baltimore city can have jobs and help move Baltimore towards zero-waste and fight to shut down all the incinerators in the United States.”

Teaching the Next Generation

Marvin’s work, and the enthusiasm behind it, goes beyond just finding a new stream for Baltimore’s trash. It’s about giving kids and teens the tools they need to be successful.

“My youth are trained in entrepreneurship, life skills, career development, and small-scale composting. We’re giving young people from the disenfranchised area of Curtis Bay an opportunity to learn composting and earn a living wage.”

Kenneth Moss, an 11th grader at Ben Franklin High School, has been a youth composter with the program from the last year, after a volunteer day at the garden. Now, he works 10 to 15 hours a week with the collective.

Marvin couldn’t help but rave about him: “Kenneth has received honor awards for the second semester of school. He takes care of and cleans his block. He makes calls to 311 about illegal dumping in his area.”

Last year, after Kenneth gave Baltimore city councilman Zeke Cohen a tour of the garden, he became an intern at the mayor’s office, where he helped Cohen’s constituents with their 311 calls and also honed his photography skills.

Councilmember Zeke Cohen gets a tour of the Filbert Street Garden

“Through his experience running a small-scale compost collection service, Kenny started his own photography business,” Marvin said. “And meanwhile, he’s teaching youth from his neighborhood small-scale composting in the same garden that he grew his first tomato in.”

On a recent Friday, Kenneth taught over 20 of his classmates about the merits of composting. “He has come such a long way from where he started.”

When he isn’t working, Kenneth is taking pictures and playing around with the chickens. He composts at home and has his own raised bed at the garden, where he grows tomatoes, oregano, thyme, watermelon, okra, carrots, and ginger.

“We want to recycle, reuse, and repurpose,” Kenneth said about his mission with the collective. “We want to bring all our community members in and teach them about composting and the black gold soil enhancer that we make for residents that don’t have access to it.”

Marvin hopes that Kenneth will soon take over the Baltimore Compost Collective so that he can move on to another community and build another one from the ground up.

One of Kenneth’s photos, taken at the Filbert Street Garden

“The youth are the next generation,” he said. “I’m going to leave this planet for Kenny and his children one day. So why not train him on a more sustainable way to create green infrastructure and create green jobs for Baltimore and let him take ownership? That’s his program. I’m just there to support him.”

“I think it’s so important as leaders for Baltimore city that we pass that torch and we inspire tomorrow’s environmental justice and social justice leaders to take us to the next level.”

The Legacy of Composting in Baltimore

“When I first started picking up food scraps in Federal Hill, on the crime website, I was the guy going around stealing buckets out of people’s backyards and putting them in this orange bin,” Marvin said.

“We turned that into that negative into a positive. Now, when we get looks, we ask people, ‘Do you compost? Do you know about compost?’ And we go around and knock on people’s doors.”

The collective undoubtedly changed Kenneth’s outlook on his career. It even took another youth composter all the way to Atlanta to speak at the National Compost Conference. His mother, who had worked at the airport for years, had never been on a plane.

“He didn’t even know it was possible to travel to different places. He was looking at the board [at the airport] and seeing all these destinations and I told him, ‘All you have to do is buy a ticket and you could go any of those places,’” Marvin said.

“We just don’t rescue food scraps. We rescue young people by giving them opportunities. That’s what it’s about. If you want to save the young people of Baltimore city, you have to give them an opportunity. I believe young people can do anything if they’re supported.”

Contribute to the Baltimore Compost Collective’s latest fundraiser here.