Frank Byrne talks about Musser Park like it’s his unofficial front yard — 3.1 acres of mostly greenspace just across from his Lancaster City home, where for years he’s been able to look out and see children playing as other visitors rest on benches or take leisurely strolls.
“It’s a beautiful park,” Byrne said.
But recently, he’s become fixated on what he sees as a challenge to that beauty, a 4-foot-by-12-foot wooden box that’s been placed in the park for use as a publicly accessible composting bin.
According to organizers and city officials, the bin serves as a new amenity that could inspire conservation by offering an environmentally friendly way to dispose of organic household waste.
Still, Byrne maintains it should have been placed elsewhere. He’s leading something like a one-man campaign against the bin in the park at the intersection of East Chestnut and North Lime streets.
“I strongly support environmentalism and favor the benefits of composting. However, some environmentalists in their haste to protect our environment ... overlook the negative implications of their good ideas,” he said. “It destroys the bucolic ambience of a public park.”
Initially, leaders of a local volunteer stewardship group, the Musser Park Civic Association, also opposed the bin’s placement, according to Secretary Ellen Campbell.
“We couldn’t visualize where it could go and not be in the line of sight of people,” she said, also citing concerns about appearance. “The park isn’t that huge.”
Part of a larger effort
The bin is part of a larger effort by a group called Lancaster Composting Co-ops, which was formed last year to promote composting as an alternative to simply trashing organic waste, including fruit and vegetable scraps, leaves and nonglossy paper and cardboard. The group is supported by city officials.
Through composting, organic waste decomposes to form a nutrient-rich, soil-like substance that can be used as fertilizer in gardens while also saving landfill space and reducing related pollution that would come with simply throwing that material in the trash.
That’s according to Eve Bratman, a coordinator of the co-ops group, which is now led by volunteers, who hope to install similar bins at walkable sites throughout the city. Another has already been installed at a city recycling drop-off center at 850 New Holland Ave., she said.
The plan is that centralized locations will provide opportunities to residents who do not have the backyard space or know-how to create their own bins, Bratman said.
“Composting, for residents in our city, is useful as a way of reducing our contributions to waste that would otherwise be incinerated or go to a landfill,” she said.
Musser Park’s centralized location seemed like a good spot, said Bratman, who recently resigned as chair of Lancaster City’s Planning Commission when she moved out of the city. So members of the co-ops group began to meet with local stakeholders. Specifically, they spoke with leadership at the Musser Park Civic Association, Bratman said.
Campbell remembered those talks, recalling how composting organizers described the bin, offering assurances that it would be nearly smell-proof and designed to keep out animals and other pests. That’s been true, she said.
Already, composting is widely practiced in many bigger cities, including Washington D.C., where a similar program served as a model for the Lancaster plan, Bratman said.
“Nationwide there is a trend and a consumer demand for this sort of thing,” she said.
Fears of a potential eyesore
As Campbell remembers it, the park association’s leaders were impressed by the plan but ultimately believed that a bin could become an eyesore if placed in Musser Park — a belief they expressed to compost organizers.
“We were concerned that people would maybe see it as a giant trash can,” she said.
Months had passed since those discussions, and then a few days before this year’s April 22 Earth Day holiday, park association leaders were surprised to learn that the bin was being installed in an open space between Musser Park’s playground and Marion Street — an area that Campbell described as “extremely visible.”
In fact, it was so visible that association leadership felt it was necessary to petition Bratman and city officials to have it moved, Campbell said.
Days later, the bin was moved to its current location, tucked largely out of sight behind a number of trees near the park’s northeastern entrance at North Shippen and East Chestnut streets, she said.
“It’s not terribly obnoxious where it is right now,” Campbell said.
The bin’s placement was authorized by Stephen A. Campbell, the city’s public works director, who is not related to the park association’s Ellen Campbell.
“It is not a permanent edifice, and basically at present is a demonstration project to gauge the efficacy of doing such things elsewhere in the city,” Stephen Campbell said in an email.
Later he elaborated: “The long-term vision for this project is to make composting a viable reality for all residents of the City of Lancaster through establishing neighborhood-scale compost bins with the support of a broad base of volunteer leadership.”
Stephen Campbell said that model seems like the most financially and logistically feasible for widespread composting in Lancaster.
Bratman said the local program’s initial funding was an $11,000 grant from Franklin & Marshall College, where she is an assistant professor of Environmental Studies. Organizers hoped the grant would initially be enough to cover the cost of placing about a half dozen bins — made mostly from wood with wire sides and a corrugated metal lid.
A recent spike in lumber prices may limit that scope, Bratman said, though a third site is currently being sought in the southwestern part of the city.
Currently, the program supports about 60 resident members, she said. Membership is free, but interested residents must sign a user agreement, attend an instructional orientation meeting and agree to participate in scheduled workdays at the sites before they are given access to the bins, which are locked, Bratman said.
‘So good for the earth’
Among those users is Jamie Holland, 29, who moved this spring to the neighborhood from Connecticut, where she had previously practiced composting.
Holland said she was immediately excited to learn about the Lancaster program and to sign up to participate.
“I think composting is important to me because it is so good for the earth,” she said, echoing points about saving landfill space and reducing related pollution. "I want to live in a community that values our earth and our land and not being wasteful.”
She doesn’t understand complaints about the bin’s placement.
“I think they located it really well. It’s in a tucked-away little spot,” Holland said. “I don’t think it disturbs the park for other opportunities.”