Returning home from helping his dad refurbish furniture thrown away by others, Michael Martinez would smell the aroma of pozole fill the air and his heart, one of his favorite dishes his mother would make from the vegetables grown in her garden. Having parents who utilized the earth and refurbished the forgotten, Martinez aimed to share those teachings and ultimately founded LA Compost. 

Composting is recycling old and decaying food scraps to bring natural nutrients into the soil in order to make it healthier. According to CalRecycle, food thrown away in landfills adds to organic waste that emits methane, a super pollutant that is 84 times more damaging to the environment than carbon dioxide. 

The Los Angeles-based organization was created by Martinez in 2013 after he graduated from the University of Southern California with a master’s degree in education. Martinez said that he hopes to call upon his education to help heal the environment and to teach others in the Latino community to respect the earth. 

“Now it’s just thinking beyond ourselves, recognizing that things don’t just disappear and communities are harmed and impacted by our choices,” said Martinez. “So it’s what we can do to create value and create beautiful chances in life? One of those things is composting.”

The composting process could take hours to break down food waste and mix materials.
The composting process could take hours to layer food waste and add materials. Photo by Nova Blanco-Rico.

LA Compost currently has 43 community compost locations where community members drop off food scraps for processing into compost as well as 10 locations in LA farmer’s markets. The work done by the organization has led to hundreds of thousands of pounds of organics being diverted from landfills each year. Martinez said that the California Senate Bill 1383 was a big help in their mission. The bill became law last January and requires state residents and businesses to recycle organic waste in an effort to reduce 75% of greenhouse emissions from organic waste by 2025. 

To fulfill LA Compost’s mission, Martinez partnered with other organizations, including the Los Angeles Neighborhood Land Trust, GrowGood, Inc. and Cottonwood Urban Farm. These groups help in creating sustainable farms for composting to be utilized in growing crops for the community in LA County.

The job is big, he says, and because there are not a lot of other Latinos in the field with similar roles, Martinez often doubts his capabilities and wherewithal.

“I feel there’s always just the inevitable, self-doubt, imposter syndrome and just feeling you aren’t qualified enough to be leading something of this magnitude,” Martinez said. “Despite a lack of education and experience or not looking at others in the room, it crept in. But in reality, it was our ancestors who started this; it’s what they did naturally for the earth. I’m just leaning into my lineage of restoration workers and earth workers in a different way.”

Paola Reyes, LA Compost’s community engagement coordinator, is using her Latinx culture and its intertwined relationship with reusing, recycling and composting for the organization. 

“It’s something super familiar to me. The nonprofit sector in Mexico is not as developed as it is here in the United States. So coming from Mexico to [America],  it was a habit that my mom and my grandmother gave me since they did not waste food and actually did not waste anything,” Reyes said. “I’ve always been drawn by that idea of how to work locally, keeping things in harmony with the territory we’re living in. I think it was something that I was missing back home. I grew up seeing my family not wasting materials because everything has a purpose all the time. So that’s the world that I want to live in. And I feel LA Compost is a great example of that ideal.” 

Volunteers Noemi Gomez (left) and Kyle Cavazos (right) join in the process of composting by breaking down organics with shovels.
Team. members Noemi Gomez (left) and Kyle Cavazos join in the process of composting by breaking down organics with shovels. Photo by Nova Blanco-Rico.

Reyes said that she was inspired and motivated by the work Martinez was doing, creating a community network and a place to better the environment. Her goal as community engagement coordinator is to help Martinez build connections with communities through guidance and support in composting. 

Elena Lopez joined LA Compost in 2018 as a communication manager, where she supports communication efforts across all programs of the organization, from social media to newsletters, media partnerships and their website. 

“I felt there was a lot of interest [in composting] really building and growing, and it’s just continued to grow. So being able to work with the other team members to meet the need and the demand of people starting to want to participate more, being interested in [composting], and also seeing how conferencing is important when it comes to mitigating climate change and restoring soil [is gratifying],” said Lopez. “It’s been great and I think it has taught me a lot about working as a team, working in certain communities in LA, because we are not in just one area. We’re all across LA County and learning about the different dynamics that play in various areas of the county and all the different jurisdictions.”

Lopez works behind the scenes at LA Compost in managing the educational material on their website and making sure organization participants follow guidelines in composting, along with communicating with volunteers and people requesting information through the group’s website. She also coordinates the Compost Cultivator Training program, a five-month on-the-field internship for individuals interested in deepening their understanding of community composting. One of the most important objectives for Martinez, Lopez and Reyes is to create a community that cares about its environment and is willing to participate in its healing. 

To accomplish this, Martinez said that he goes out often to help volunteers in the composting process, to help in the work and to build bonds with the community helpers. He takes a hands-on approach, grabbing a shovel and churning different piles of organic material in the process of composting.

Even as the founder and executive director of LA Compost Martinez, still goes out and helps in the process of composting. He first-hand ensures the importance of their volunteer work in order to create an environment that is built on support and care. Inspired by his parents and his culture, Martinez aims to make Los Angeles a healthier place through composting.

“We drink water and we go eat food. The soil of the earth impacts all two of those things. And there are those that came before us that have improved and worked on systems and those who continue to work on improving systems,” Martinez said. “And there’s an opportunity for us to continue to water the seeds that our ancestors planted for us as well.”

For more information about LA Compost, check out the organization’s Instagram at @lacompost and their website.

Nova Blanco-Rico is about to graduate with a degree in journalism from California State University, Dominguez Hills and is a freelancer for CALÓ NEWS.