This is the second in a series, “Harm City,” about environmental justice and climate adaptation in Baltimore’s neighborhoods.
Marvin Hayes pulled up outside a beige brick home in Baltimore’s Mount Washington neighborhood in his white cargo van to collect the bucket of food scraps his client had left on the front steps.
He hopped out of the van and launched into his choreographed routine: He fetched the bucket, emptied it in the big composting bins in the back of the van, tied a new green bag to the bucket and placed it back on the steps.
He then hopped back into the driver’s seat, closed the door behind him and, in the side mirror, registered that two white teenage boys he’d seen walking down the sidewalk had suddenly veered into the street and come up behind his van.
It was all in a day’s work.
He had begun his route for collecting compost that Saturday at 7 a.m. at his house in West Baltimore’s Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood where Hayes, 50, a stout Black man with short hair and a scruffy beard, had grown up. His father was a computer draftsman, his mother an insurance claims processor. He lives a stone’s throw from where police chased Freddie Grey, a Black teenager, who died of injuries suffered in police custody in 2015.
Hayes graduated from nearby Frederick Douglas High School, majored in recreation at community college in Kingsville and, eight years ago, found his calling when he started the Baltimore Compost Collective. In composting, Hayes sees a revolution — a better way of life for Baltimore’s Black community that can help fight what he calls “food apartheid” and end the city’s reliance on a giant, polluting waste-to-energy incinerator and fight climate change.
“It’s the soil enhancer, black gold, which comes from the food scraps I collect and compost. It sequesters carbon and is used as fertilizer to grow food,” he said, dressed in dark blue jeans, a black baseball cap, brown shades, a hoodie and a sweatshirt emblazoned with the company logo — a shovel and a heap of fertilized soil.
“We’re going to spread some compost love in this city,” Hayes said, pulling away from the curb, explaining that he had coined catch words like “compost fever” and “compost love” to get people excited.
He had 60-odd customers to visit on a route that would take him through some of the city’s most affluent neighborhoods. First stop — the farmers market on East 33rd Street in Waverly, in north central Baltimore.
He ordered his favorite mango sticky rice, curry puffs and spiced Thai tea as he chatted up the owner, a clean-shaven Asian man. “He gives me free Thai tea every time I come here. He knows my order,” Hayes said.
Soon, he made his way toward the back of the market to a compost drop-off site where neighborhood residents had brought their food scraps.
“Hey, how are you doing this morning?” he asked an elderly woman in black pants and a blue T-shirt who had come to drop off her scraps.
Seeing people taking part and diverting their food waste from landfills and the giant, city-contracted waste-to-energy incinerator in Westport near Interstate 95 made him feel happy. “So, thank you for doing that,” he said to the woman, taking a couple of steps backward before heading out.
“I’ve been coming to the farmers market for more than 10 years. So, it’s like my little piece of joy,” he said gleefully, holding his breakfast. He prided himself on successfully lobbying the city to open the compost kiosk there.
A 2018 study by the Baltimore Office of Sustainability found that an estimated 40% of food is wasted in the United States each year, with 99 million acres — or 28% of all cropland — losing long-term soil productivity.
The report found that adding compost to soil to improve quality and structure is particularly helpful in Baltimore, where “much of the urban soil is severely contaminated with lead and other heavy metals.” It said that “compost-amended soil can reduce contamination of urban pollutants by an astounding 60 to 95 percent,” and protected “against the danger associated with lead in urban soils.” It is estimated that around 7,000 tons, or 3.5%, of organic waste generated in the city is diverted for composting, according to 2021 waste diversion data.
The 2018 study mentioned the Filbert Street Community Garden in South Baltimore’s Curtis Bay neighborhood as having benefited from using rich, black composted soil from Hayes’ collective. Occupying a one-acre plot inside a chain link fence, with colorful murals splashed on the side walls of animal sheds, the garden is home to several goats and a bee farm and rows of raised beds where residents grow vegetables for a modest fee.
Hayes felt that partnering with the Filbert Street garden and growing his composting business has provided moments of relief, recognition and a way for him to plow ahead with a sense of purpose and identity. “It’s like an environmental oasis where I’m able to educate people about composting and its environmental benefits,” he said, as he headed for Cedarcroft, a wealthy neighborhood in North Baltimore known for its distinctive and historic architecture.
Almost an hour passed as he wound his way through the neighborhood, picking up food scraps from home after home.
“This is Baltimore City, man,” he said, soaking in the green, breezy cityscape with a tree canopy overhead. “This gives me inspiration when I’m writing poetry. It calms and inspires me. This is a peaceful ride.”
He turned up his favorite reggae tune, thinking about his next getaway to Jamaica and glancing at manicured lawns along the roadside.
The smell of rotting food wafted into the front compartment of the Ford E-Transit van from the rear, where compost bins would rumble from time to time as the van picked up speed or came to a stop. When he hopped out of the van to make pickups, he greeted residents out walking their dogs or enjoying a pleasant breezy day.
He reminisced about how he started out over a decade ago, running a compost drop-off program for about 10 people. “And then when we got past 25, I started doing curbside compost pickup. It was just about educating and talking to people, letting them know what you’re doing and why you’re doing it,” he said.
Last year, Hayes bought an electric cargo van with support from his friends so that he could have a zero-emissions vehicle to serve his growing clientele. “We’re the first all-electric fleet. We have a Ford E-Transit Van and we have two new super cargo bikes that we use for collection,” he said.
On a weekly basis, Hayes’ collection service picks up around 1,500 pounds of food waste. Once his compost facility at the Filbert Street Garden reaches maximum capacity, he must take the rest of his food scraps to a bigger organic compost facility in Upper Marlboro in Prince George’s county.
Composting, Hayes said, is a way to fight environmental injustice by diverting food waste away from the waste-to-energy incinerator. “I’m hoping Baltimore City would get its own large-scale composting facility. I’m working everyday for it,” he said.
He’s leading a youth entrepreneurship program, run out of the Filbert Street Garden, and has trained nine people in making residential pickups and managing the food scraps collection service.
He thinks the youths are the key to his success and wants someday to pass the baton to young environmental leaders, armed with composting and organizing skills.
“A lot of people aren’t growing their own food. So that’s why my other campaign is to encourage people of color to grow food along with composting so all that stuff works together in a circle,” he said.
“Compost fever” will one day grip this city and grow beyond it, Hayes believes.
“I’m hoping that one day, before I retire, to be able to shut down the incinerator and move Baltimore City to curbside compost pickup,” he said.
In 2011, then-Gov Martin O’Malley signed legislation making the electricity generated from burning trash a “tier one” renewable energy on par with wind, solar and geothermal, even though such plants emit large amounts of lead, mercury and other harmful pollutants into the air.
To this day, Baltimore remains heavily invested in waste-to-energy incinerators, having signed a new 10-year contract in late 2020, much to the chagrin of environmental advocates like Hayes, who have long advocated for composting as a viable alternative to trash incineration. The City Council had tried in 2021 to impose more stringent air-pollution standards, triggering a lawsuit by the operator and ultimately a settlement, with the operator required to spend $40 million on lowering emissions.
Hayes said he trained the Baltimore Department of Public Works staff and its counterpart in Detroit in managing composting. “Detroit is unique because it shut down one of the oldest and largest incinerators. So, we’re able to partner as cities, to understand how they were able to shut it down and then create a community composting infrastructure,” he said.
It was around 1:30 p.m. on that Saturday in May when Hayes found himself cruising through Mount Washington, a peaceful and wealthy neighborhood in Northwest Baltimore.
Hayes pulled over outside the brick house, performed his dance steps and saw the two white teenagers walking down the sidewalk as he got back into the van. He then saw them quickly veer across the street and come up behind his vehicle.
Something didn’t seem right, and Hayes, quick on his feet, got out of the van, walked around to the back and noticed that one of the teenagers was scrutinizing his license plate, with the other peeking into the back of the van.
“What’s up, guys, how you doing?” Hayes said, trying to put them at ease.
“Yo,” the older of the teenagers replied loudly.
“Yo? I’m 50 years old. I don’t use the yo-word. Shouldn’t put everybody in a cookie cutter. We don’t talk like that. But how you doing today?” Hayes said. “I’m not a yo. I’m just being clear with you. I’m 50 years old. You [are] probably younger than my grandson. So I don’t talk to children the same way I talk to adults, you know.”
The teen tried to interject, but Hayes, without raising his voice or becoming angry, kept on. “I’m just teaching. It’s a teaching moment,” he said after some back and forth. “Have a great day.”
The teens looked at each other and said nothing as Hayes retraced his steps and hopped back into the van and drove off calmly.
“He and his friend went behind to look at the back of the van and see what I’m doing. Because somebody taught them that if you see a Black person in our neighborhood, watch him,” Hayes said, looking left as he made a turn.
“This happens every Sunday — you can ask Kenny,” Hayes said, referring to Kenny Moss, a young associate who helps him on Sundays.
Last year, during one of their Sunday compost collections, Hayes and Moss were followed and threatened by a white man in a truck, Hayes recalled. Hayes later put out a statement about the incident, which one of his customers witnessed and recorded from his front door.
“It’s just sad. It’s 2023 and we shouldn’t be going through the same things especially with all the stuff that has happened like George Floyd. We can begin to learn from that and move forward and do better,” Hayes said.
“We’re gonna kill the hate through love,
“We’re gonna kill all the hate through compost.”
Then he burst into laughter.
From out of nowhere, a chipmunk scampered across the street. “Hey, that’s a good sign,” Hayes said, with a smile, pointing to three rabbits hopping through a wooded yard to the right, wondering if he would ever have known the area if he didn’t have residential customers.
“I’ve lived in the city for 50 years and I would never have known that someone had a functioning fruit orchard in this community. So peaceful. I would love to have a tiny house up here somewhere,” he said, stealing a quick glimpse as he passed the lush green garden with apple and pomegranate trees facing Oakshire Road in Mount Washington and lofty pines disappearing into the tree canopy.
It was after 3 p.m. when Hayes started to head back toward West Baltimore. The manicured lawns soon gave way to rows of dilapidated and abandoned buildings on Pennsylvania Avenue, home to one of the largest open-air drug markets in the city, with sidewalks littered and overflowing with trash.
“Look at the filth. Look at the dirt. I live in Baltimore City just like everybody else, and pay my taxes like everyone else. But this is how I have to live,” Hayes said, as he drove past his house in the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood.
“I used to coach basketball to these kids, and now they sell drugs right in front of my house. There’s just so much injustice, man,” he said, his eyes scanning the groups of young Black men on street corners.
“All I have is hope, all of this work that I’ve been doing for the last year is just hoping that we’ll make a change and go from incineration to doing large-scale compost,” Hayes said.
He recalled how Wes Moore, while running for Maryland governor last year with a strong focus on bringing Baltimore back, met him during the primaries and told him that he had caught compost fever.
“I’m hoping that the compost fever will evolve and the governor will come up with a plan to create a large-scale composting facility for Baltimore City. We are the only city in the country that has a landfill and incineration. We don’t have to burn or bury our trash,” he said, pulling up for a quick visit to a community garden and compost drop-off site that he helped set up on North Calvert Street. Most of the city’s trash is now sent to a landfill or burned, and the industry questions whether the city can fully manage its waste through recycling and composting.
From here, he had to drive 40 miles to a Prince George’s County composting facility in Upper Marlboro to drop off about 200 pounds of compost that he had collected on his route. “We’re working on getting a medium- to large-scale composting facility. But I’m not waiting for the city to bring me to the table,” Hayes told a group of volunteers, who nodded in unison.
At least Baltimore City now has a zero waste coordinator at the Department of Public Works, Hayes said, who understands the concept of diverting organic and reusable materials away from waste that would otherwise go to landfill or the incinerator.
“We just have to continue to educate people about composting,” he said, standing next to his van.
Before he headed out, the bins in his van all filled to the brim, he rapped:
“It’ll be a long journey down environmental justice road,
that smokestack creates cleaner, greener energy is what we were told.
In order to shut it down. We must have unity.
So I went on a composting mission with the youth
To feed the soul and feed the community.
We don’t have much time climate change is happening fast.
Composting help reduce harmful greenhouse gas.
In my city environmental racism is dominant,
but when you add compost to the soil
it sequestered carbon and is so good for the climate.”