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An article series by Kompost Kids and Milwaukee Area Science Advocates

Welcome back the #MakeDirtNotTrash series which describes the efforts of Kompost Kids, Milwaukee Area Science advocates (MASA), and the Bay View Bash moving towards an all-volunteer, near-zerowaste street festival. Check out the previous articles: The Bay View Bash Keeps Trash Out of the Landfill and Our Roots. Volunteers make it possible for us to #MakeDirtNotTrash at the Bay View Bash. YOU can help too.

Who Are the Volunteers?

The Bay View Bash, like Kompost Kids and MASA, is an all-volunteer effort. The one-day street festival takes many hours of planning, organizing, and thousands of  volunteer labor hours to make it happen. People from the neighborhood, as well as folks who just like a great party, pitch in. For the compost-specific tasks, Kompost Kids recruits volunteers from the community who are interested in learning about sustainability and rethinking waste and resource streams.

Some volunteers get together in teams to make the effort more fun. New this year, volunteer teams of ten or more can earn funds towards a project. In 2018, Bay View Montessori and Clement Avenue School have already signed on as a green team to earn funds for their school’s sustainability efforts. There is still time to sign up as a team through Thursday, September 13th, as well as sponsor teams (signage sponsorship due Monday, September 10th) to support the effort.

As discussed in Our Roots, attendees to the event produce literal tons of waste. Critics looking at this issue may say that street festival attendees are part of the problem. But, we see them as part of the solution. An easy way to pitch in is to use the right receptacle at the event. There are bins labeled compost, recycling, and landfill throughout the event. Signage on the receptacles indicates what goes where, but if you’re not sure, ask a compost volunteer. They’ll be easy to identify as this year they’ll be wearing a dark green T-shirt with “Komposter” written on the back. Our team members train volunteers on the spot, so people can sign up as individuals to help compost at anytime. By interacting with attendees, we also hope to shine a light on the issue of waste and bring more awareness to the possibilities of composting.

What Do Volunteers Do at the Bay View Bash?

In order to compost any significant amount of the food waste from a large event like the Bash, the heavy-lifting requires massive people power. Last year, Kompost Kids trained about 45 volunteers to collect and sort an estimated 40 percent (2900 pounds) of all food, recycling, and landfill waste combined. Almost 1600 pounds in 2017 was food and drink waste, and became compost. As volunteers stop sorting in the late evening hours, an estimated 60 percent (4300 pounds) of material, including all material at vendor booths, remained unsorted and therefor landfilled. Of this, MASA volunteers visibly estimated that 38 percent was recyclable given a high percentage of large cardboard boxes as well as loose bottles and cans. Much of the late-night material was in heavy plastic bags bags, so an unknown percentage of the landfill material was food and drink waste.

This year, our goal is to recruit 90 people and process 75 percent of all material. Additionally, MASA volunteers will be tracking the flow of materials throughout the event for improved estimates of compost, recycling, and landfill waste. Kompost Kids volunteers will utilize Sunday as an added day after the Bash to sort late-night materials and ensure that it goes to the right place.

At the beginning of the day, volunteers label receptacles with either compost, recycling, or landfill signs, then cluster them in groups of three so that all options are possible when attendees throw something away.

As the festival kicks into gear, volunteers circulate with wheelbarrows to collect full bags from the landfill and compost receptacles and bring bags back to the Kompost Kids sorting station. Next, they dump bags into the sorting station and return bags without rips to the festival grounds to be reused in a receptacle. Volunteers at the sorting station move items from the dumped bags into correct containers, effectively sorting the materials and avoiding contamination. For example, they place corn cobs in the compost tote, cigarette butts in the landfill tote, and aluminum cans in the recycle tote.

Bagged compostable material, and plastic-free cardboard boxes full of spent compostable beer cups are stored in the trailer of a Kompost Kids long-time volunteer and supporter, Bill Krawczyk. Bill generously lends us the trailer from his landscaping company, Bud ‘n Blossom Landscaping, for the day. He and other Sunday volunteers then drive the compost to Blue Ribbon Organics, a large commercial compost facility in Caledonia, stopping at a highway weigh station before and after to document the weight of materials composted.

Recycle carts are sorted in a similar fashion as bagged material. However, they are too heavy to lift and dump into the sorting station, and anecdotally, attendees seem to be more accurate with where they toss recyclables. However, we’ve found that some visitors don’t know what items the city of Milwaukee recycles. Moreover, most festival-goers don’t yet know how to tell the difference between corn-based plastic and fossil fuel-based plastic (e.g. the dominant form of plastic on the market). As such, volunteers primarily reclaim compostable plastic beer cups from the recycle carts dumped into a kiddie pool on the ground.

When the cups and other necessary items are reclaimed from the kiddie pool, volunteers return recyclables to the large rolling cart. Since the city provides a limited number of recycle carts with an event permit, they fill up fast. Volunteers can join the Kompost Kids board members in compacting the materials down in the cart so there’s enough room to accept recyclables all night.

How Do Volunteers Know What to Compost, Recycle, or Landfill?

Many people are familiar with home composting. At its simplest, you pile up yard waste in a quiet corner and wait. Given time and the help of some industrious microorganisms, you’ll end up with something that looks like dirt: a black humus (not hummus, which is made from chickpeas) you can use to improve your soil. In a way, compost is the butterfly of the waste-management world. It takes time to transform into something beautiful.

But even for people who compost at home, recognizing compostable waste at the festival takes some training. For starters, materials not typically composted at home can be composted at Blue Ribbon Organics. This includes pretty much anything that once was, or came from a living being, such as meat, bones, toothpicks, and corn-based compostable plastics, including straws, cups, and utensils, in addition to plant-based fruit, vegetable, bread, and paper products.

For recycling, Kompost Kids primarily train volunteers in the difference between corn-based plastic and fossil fuel-based plastic (e.g. the dominant form of plastic on the market). In case they need it, we do remind volunteers what items the city of Milwaukee recycles and that items cannot be recycled if they are covered in food. Food covered non-glossy paper products, parchment paper, cardboard, and corn-based plastics can be composted (but not recycled).

Items that are hazardous to the finished compost product — such as pet waste, diapers, sharp objects, cigarette butts, wrappers, cellophane, styrofoam, condiment packets, plastic bags, and conventional wax paper — or are too food-covered to recycle — such as dirty glass, aluminum, glossy paper, or fossil fuel-based plastic — must go to a landfill.

This is something any festival goer can learn by stopping by the Kompost Kids sustainability tent. Kompost Kids aims to teach everyone how to do this, so every festival can be green!

Why Go Through This Labor-Intensive Process?

Contamination is the enemy of recycling and composting. This secondary sorting of materials to remove contaminants is a process that even sophisticated automated recycling facilities rely on human intelligence and senses to do, including for the recyclables in the city of Milwaukee. Additionally, as a neighborhood festival that spans several blocks as opposed to being housed on a closed festival grounds, the Bash is neither a gated nor ticketed event. We fully support this and agree it should be free and open to the community. However, the fact that we cannot control all items entering the trash bins on the Bash festival grounds complicates waste stream management in ways that we couldn’t have imagined or identified prior to hand-sorting all items. These complications are built into the sustainability plan and volunteer process.

As a community fundraiser, the Bash does request “No Carry-Ins” from outside food or drink vendors. That said, we’ve seen food and drink containers from stores and restaurants outside the Bash perimeter who may not use compostable food containers. There will likely be a vendor or two who misses our reminders to use compostable paper and corn-based plastic items to serve food or drink. There is also always random items such as a pair of jeans, stuffed animals, or purses, found in the trash.

As urban dwellers, many of us are so far removed from our waste stream – everything is bagged and carted off – out of sight, out of mind. So when it comes to knowing how materials move through the Milwaukee waste, recycle, and compost stream, there’s still a bit of confusion.

Garden-based composting has a long history in Milwaukee, but composting at this scale and to this extent (e.g. allowance of meat, compostable plastics) is relatively new. Compost Crusader has been collecting post-consumer waste, including meat and compostable plastics, from restaurants for a few years, and operating Milwaukee’s pilot home compost collection program since Fall of 2016. Fossil fuel-based plastics, glass, bags of pet waste, diapers, sharp items, and more can contaminate a stream of waste intended for compost. If that happens, the entire bag has to go to the landfill. We need volunteers to make sure it’s done right!

Many of us are well-intentioned in recycling efforts. Even the most knowledgeable has likely “wish-cycled,” or thrown an item that we think, hope, or wish could be recycled, without knowing if it really can be. A common item is a to-go coffee cup. Unless marked compostable, these should be landfilled. These cups cannot be recycled, and non-compostable cups are lined with fossil fuel-based plastic. Other commonly “wish-cycled” items include cheese-covered pizza boxes, plastic bags, dirty plastic containers, and plastic utensils.

This is why Kompost Kids volunteer training focuses on identifying corn-based versus fossil-fuel-based plastics. It is also why a primary focus of the sustainability plan prioritizes composting as as a larger waste-stream solution. Bash vendors are incentivized to use compostable products, so most of the food and drink containers purchased at the Bash can be composted. In many other festivals , they might be “wish-cycled” and eventually landfilled.

Kompost Kids investigated other processes to minimize contamination and maximize landfill diversion. We found that smaller festivals are able to staff the receptacles and tell people where to toss things, while some use restaurant bus tubs to collect and sort all material. Others, like the Shakori Hills Festival incentivize visitors to sort their trash with a raffle for free festival tickets. Staff at the McCormick Place in Chicago has a “Green Angels” station next to their food court, where people bring their tray to be sorted into the correct bins. The Can’d Aid™ Foundation provides a recycling/composting/trash sorting tent with their “Crush It Grant.” Unfortunately the volume of Bash attendees — about 35,000 between 11am and 10 pm — would overwhelm these solutions. If you’ve seen an interesting way of composting for large crowds, Kompost Kids would love to hear about it.

Composting at the Bash is an amazing place for hands-on education of the public and volunteers about our waste stream. The Kompost Kids sorting station is out in the open so festival goers walking by see sorting in real-time. Composting the Bash also provides a snippet of insight into the single-use waste stream for a group the size of a small town. Given the complicated nature of the size, flow, and openness of the Bash, we know that if composting the Bash is possible, it can happen almost anywhere. Milwaukeens can visibly process and then rethink the waste versus resource stream through Bash composting. It may seem strange that we go through all this mess to compost, but when we switched to hand-sorting all bagged material in 2015, we doubled the impact of what was composted. As we expand our volunteer recruitment, public education, and media and marketing in 2018, we look forward to recording the impact of that additional effort.

So What’s It Really Like?  

Don’t take our word for it, here’s the words from past volunteer, Kat:

“Before the event, I looked at trash differently. It was something to be hidden from sight and smell. But … I began to see trash as something worth looking at, something with value. I saw firsthand the sheer amount of food and other materials that could be saved from going in the landfill … I also found it to be an interesting study of the common items that people consume and a chance to think about how to prevent them from landing in the trash. After repeatedly seeing things like plastic bottle caps and corn cobs, it gets you thinking about ways to better recover these specific items or prevent their use in the first place.”

Here are a few of the adjectives or phrases past volunteers have left with us to describe composting at the Bash: passionate, active, uniquely smelly, efficient, addictive, orderly, pleasing to a person with ocd who likes to organize, communicative, messy, smelly, strange, rewarding, educational, dynamic, inspiring, hypnotic, immersive, entertaining, camaraderie.

Kompost Kids volunteers have said they’ll never look at another plastic water bottle the same way again. Participants walk away—albeit a little dirty—with a new respect keeping items out of our swelling landfills. This is a great opportunity for service learning hours or just stepping up your sustainability cred. Even if you don’t hand-sort materials, the entire process from marketing and media, to asking for sponsorship, to setting up the tent is volunteer-based. We always need people to help photograph or otherwise document the day, spread the word, and invite their friends. Volunteers got us this far to #MakeDirtNotTrash and reclaim tons of organic materials since 2010. YOU should join in the fun.


The Bay View Bash festival raises funds that are directly invested back into the city’s neighborhoods through grants. Kompost Kids Inc. makes compost for the community and educates the public about the benefits of composting. MASA seeks to positively influence public opinion in the areas of Science Education, Public Health, and Sustainability.

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