Environmentalists will be happy to hear that autumn leaves blanketing the University City neighborhood will now have a more sustainable destination than the trash.
What used to be a weed-infested vacant lot at 43rd and Market streets was revamped to a composting facility called the Dirt Factory. June 20 marked the grand opening celebration, with free dirt ice cream from Little Baby’s Ice Cream, and complimentary food and drinks from Dock Street Brewing Co. and Four Worlds Bakery.
Due to University City’s vast tree canopy, a large portion of the trash from October to December consist of leaves, according to University City District Manager of Policy and Research Seth Budick.
“It’s kind of tragic for all of that good, organic material to end up in the trash,” he said.
UCD has hosted composting workshops and sustainability events, but “we wanted to try to do something more,” Budick said. “We have all these people who want to compost but maybe don’t have access to compost bins or a backyard.”
After gaining permission from the property owner to use the site, the Dirt Factory obtained two Earth Tub composters from Penn at a low cost. These Earth Tubs can hold up to 3,200 pounds of material and were previously used at the Moravian Court and Sansom Street retail at 34th and Walnut streets.
Penn’s Environmental Sustainability Coordinator Dan Garofalo considered this sale a “win-win-win for the University, the Sansom Street stakeholders and UCD,” since Penn is currently testing a food composter called BioBin in that location.
“We would never have been able to afford these bins ourselves,” Budwick said. “This allows us to do high capacity composting.”
The Dirt Factory will be open Wednesdays from 5 p.m. to 6 p.m. for drop-off of kitchen scraps, food waste, leaves and other compostable materials. “We don’t know well enough what the demand is going to be yet, so we’re starting off small,” he said.
Gardeners and other interested locals would then be placed on a waiting list, and compost would be distributed among them.
“We wanted to make this site available for the community for free…[not a] facility that you can only use if you were paying another party to pick up your material when you live right next door,” Budwick said.
Penn has no intention of using the Dirt Factory, since it “has other composting pilots anticipated in the near future,” Garofalo wrote in an e-mail. Penn already composted leaves on campus and currently uses it as “top-dressing for gardens,” so none of it goes to landfill.
The Dirt Factory also intends to encourage sustainability by hosting educational events on residential-scale composting systems, worm composting and monthly gardening workshops.
“Last year we probably programmed over 50 sustainability-themed events,” said UCD Communications Manager Mark Christman. “We did everything from canning workshops to…having your own bee hives.”
Despite the benefits of this facility, it is only temporary.
“We totally expect to have to vacate at one point,” said Budwick, explaining that the site still belongs to the property owner. He expects the Dirt Factory to clear out anywhere between two to five years, so a generator is currently being used to power the facility.
“Urban land in University City is at a premium and I’m not surprised that the UCD sees a higher and better use for the land currently being used by the Dirt Factory,” Garofalo wrote. “I could see housing, retail or offices there in five years.”
Budwick does not see this as a problem, since “the consequence to this is we can look at reproducing this model elsewhere in the neighborhood.”
He added that “we would love to have another one of these until there’s a larger city-wide composting program…[until then] we would want to enable as many people to compost as we can.”