L.A. Compost: Bike group turns restaurant waste into garden gold

Michael Martinez and Michelle Davilla of L.A. Compost make their rounds in West Covina once a week — he on a Cannondale hybrid, she on a single-speed. Both have cargo trailers attached to their bikes’ frames.

They stop first at a restaurant called Señor Baja, where a kitchen worker brings out two buckets of refuse, mainly cabbage used in the fish tacos.

At the nearby One Veg World vegan restaurant, they get a rainbow of scraps: papaya, avocado, carrots, greens. Owner Nancy Tran exchanges two five-gallon plastic buckets for fresh empties (plastic pickle containers recycled from In-N-Out).

“We compost ourselves but we always have extra,” she says. “Gallons a week.”

PHOTOS: Riding with L.A. Compost

Martinez and his brother, David, started L.A. Compost in September, copying a pedal-powered compost service in Gainesville, Fla., that diverts tons of restaurant green waste from local landfills. Central to both services: volunteer composting cyclists, who are turning a garden chore into recreation.

The Martinez brothers also have added a focus on schools. Michael recently completed an arts in education master’s degree at USC and is working through the UC Cooperative Extension’s master gardener class in East L.A. A two-year stint teaching at an inner-city school in Miami sparked the idea of enlisting high schoolers to haul green waste by bike and to learn how to compost, with the product eventually going to a school garden.

In Whittier, Baldwin Park and Covina, other L.A. Compost teams collect kitchen trimmings from local restaurants using bikes outfitted with cargo trailers that can carry 150 pounds. The green waste is added to L.A. Compost bins, 3-by-3-foot boxes made out of scrap lumber and wire mesh.

After a few months, finished compost is sifted and scooped into small burlap bags, then sold at farmers markets like boutique shade-grown coffee. The mixture is light and scentless, a rich top dressing rather than something with which to fill a raised bed. Unlike most soil amendments, each bag is labeled with the origin of its ingredients. This is hyper-local compost.

For now the Martinez brothers are relying on friends and family who ride and compost in the eastern San Gabriel Valley, but they're moving west. L.A. Compost bins are going in at the new Elysian Valley Community Garden.

Back at the Martinez family home, Michael chops up the Señor Baja cabbage before adding it to a compost bin — another 80 pounds or so of fresh, free ingredients. The basic recipe is half green, half brown (fallen leaves raked from the street, for example). Everything is chopped and shredded as much as possible and the bin turned regularly.

The pedal-powered, DIY spirit of L.A. Compost isn’t intended to compete with industrial suppliers who make compost by the yard. Rather, it’s a way to introduce composting to teenagers who already may ride bikes, have a garden at their school and are looking for an activity to add on college applications.

“We’re trying to bring a model of a pedal-powered movement onto campus,” Michael Martinez says. “Community service and internship opportunities lead to social and mentorship skills.” Besides, he adds, biking is something the kids already do.


For more information on L.A. Compost, go to its website, www.wastetofood.com. L.A. Compost sells its soil amendment at the Covina Farmers Market, 5 to 9 p.m. Fridays, and at the West Covina Farmers Market, 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturdays.

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