Composting Grows, 1 Step at a Time

Tim Hartney, left, Kevin Doby and Nadine Wolff dispose of organic waste from Greenmarket farmers at a GrowNYC drop-off on the Upper East Side.
Tim Hartney, left, Kevin Doby and Nadine Wolff dispose of organic waste from Greenmarket farmers at a GrowNYC drop-off on the Upper East Side.

Article and photos by Yulia McClamrock

At 5 a.m. on a fall Sunday, Kevin Doby eats breakfast, hops on a bicycle and rides from Brooklyn to GrowNYC’s Greenmarket on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. He sets up his orange tent and by 9 a.m. the drop-off location he mans on East 92nd Street and First Avenue is ready to accept food scraps.

“It’s kind of just a waiting game. And I guess the job can stop there, but…” said Doby who has been employed at GrowNYC for a year and previously volunteered there for two years. “It is important to be passionate about it. Because if you are not, I guess this job could look like you are dealing with food scraps and trash, but it’s a lot more to that.”

Drop-off locations for food scraps, a starting point for composting, are part of former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Zero Waste goal, originated in 2013. Collected food waste is transferred to city composting facilities in Rikers Island; Parkchester, in the Bronx, and Inwood, in upper Manhattan. Nonprofits including the New York Restoration Project and the Lower East Side Ecology Center also decompose organic waste, as do small composting centers such as Sure We Can and Vokashi in Brooklyn. These recycling centers work with local restaurants, residents, community gardens and public schools to turn their waste into compost.

Some food scraps are delivered in plastic bags; a separate trash bag for them is nearby.
Some food scraps are delivered in plastic bags; a separate trash bag for them is nearby.

Once food waste is turned into compost, it is distributed to local community gardens, larger parks including Central Park and the New York Botanical Garden, and is used as soil fertilizer. NYRP gives away its compost; some community organizations such as BK ROT, in the Bushwick area of Brooklyn, sell their compost and use the funds to provide employment for young people who collect food scraps by bicycle from local coffee shops, residents and restaurants.

Cynthia Hu shucks corn that she just bought at the Greenmarket on the Upper East Side.
Cynthia Hu shucks corn that she just bought at the Greenmarket on the Upper East Side.

Now, with winter on its way, the drop-off site on 92nd Street, along with more than a half of GrowNYC 40 drop-off locations, will be closed.

“Can you imagine? Six months of interruption!” said Sarah Gallagher, an activist at Upper Green Side, a local community organization. “We would love to have drop-off year around. It is people’s desire. Even though six months is not happening, yet, once it will, they will get the swing of it.”

The winter break, when most city greenmarkets go on hiatus, slows down the fledgling composting movement in a city of eight million residents who produce 11,000 tons of waste a day.

Some people store scraps in plastic containers, then dump the scraps at a drop-off.
Some people store scraps in plastic containers, then dump the scraps at a drop-off.

“I have to travel to Union Square Greenmarket during the winter,” said Iowa native Nadine Wolff , who has been composting for 10 years. She added with laughter, “At my family’s farm it was composting, but it was not called that. It was just ‘put in a garden.’”

Others, like Cynthia Hu, give up their composting practices during the off-season.

“In the winter it’s just garbage,” Hu said sadly. “I am from Taiwan. We don’t have enough land and supplies there, so we cherish every part of the land. In Taiwan, we cannot find the place to bury the garbage.”

The city and nonprofits place drop boxes throughout the five boroughs
The city and nonprofits place drop boxes throughout the five boroughs

The city’s Department of Sanitation budget for this year is $503 million, according to the preliminary budget of the City Council, and $393 million, is spent on waste disposal. In contrast to the 11,000 tons of waste collected, only 2,000 tons of organic and recycling waste is picked up. Each year, more than four million tons of solid waste is transferred to landfills in Virginia, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

For New York City and elsewhere, the stakes are very high. Organic waste in landfills releases greenhouse gases, including methane, a leading cause of global warming. Used thoughtfully, organic waste can become a part of the circle of life like it has been on farms for centuries.

Organic waste is proven to be nutritious supplements for soil. It is also a source of renewable energy. Since food scraps on the landfill produce gas already, if used in right facilities it can provide electricity and natural gas to heat homes.

The city is trying to improve the situation. In 2012 the Sanitation Department started the NYC Organics Collection and in 2015 was able to involve more than 500,000 residents. But even if people are willing to participate, collection is difficult to coordinate with building management due to cost and maintenance of organic waste bins.

And some residents worry that bins attract rats and insects, no small concern in a city with so many rats. Organic bins, however, can and should be securely closed. Food scraps, which usually end up in regular trash bins cause, more of an odorous smell, and, as such, attracts more rodents.

And those food scraps should be composted, because they cause greenhouse gases. The scraps should be placed in separate bins and dropped at the drop-off locations. The smaller bins, if not provided by building management, can be bought at NYC Compost Project or online.

compost_doby-with-composters_editWorm bins are also available, ideal for home-based composting. Worms can eat only green organic waste –no meat or dairy products. Some New Yorkers, like Karia Schlader, collects food scraps, preferably in biodegradable paper bags or freezable plastic bags, then bring them to a drop-off center.

“We freeze our food scraps; we’ve been doing it consistently for couple of years now,” said Schlader, while emptying her plastic bags with a help of her 2- and 5-year-olds. “We are trying to live by an example. The fact that they see us doing this, I hope it will be a part of what they know what people do and should do.”

Embedding composting in an urban population takes time, requiring education and patience. The city’s goal is to include a food-scrap bin in every residential and business building by 2030. For now, though, drop-off sites are the only options for most New Yorkers.

In the short run, New York City plans to have a drop-off on every block. Currently, however, Manhattan has only 28 and only 19 will remain open through the winter.

The situation is no better in other boroughs. Brooklyn will have 16 of its 21 locations open, Queens 14 of its 18 Of  the Bronx’s 11 locations, four will remain open for the winter, as will four of Staten Island’s seven. “Every neighborhood has to make its own case, and it’s up to us to say, ‘Hey, we’ve got five bins we can do it, we got a huge neighborhood here, we can do many more,’” said Gallagher, anticipating conversations with City Council members, the Sanitation Department and others. “We just have to keep making noise.”

While both local government and nonprofits offer information on what kind of organic waste can be accepted at drop-off sites, some people don’t follow the rules, leaving meat and bones, which can’t be accepted.

“When I worked at the Bronx location, people don’t know as much about composting as here, on the Upper East Side. They will put their plastic bags in there,” said Tim Hartney, a recent volunteer at GrowNYC. “And you would have to explain like, ‘Oh no, plastic does not decompose and stuff like that.’ In the city, people don’t know what biodegradable means, which is a little bit scary. So, if you don’t know that, how are you going to know what composting is?”

Meanwhile, at his Upper East Side drop-off post, Kevin Doby said: “As Carl Sagan wrote, there is no plan B because there is no planet B. This is the only home that we have. This is it. We all live here and take the resources from here. This place is given to us everything we ever needed. So at least what we can do is to be protective of it and do our part.”

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