Adi Talwar

On a recent Wednesday morning, Kathryn Robling processing organic kitchen waste for composting at a Harlem Grown-owned community garden located at 77 West 127 street. Robling is an Organics Recovery Coordinator with the Lower East Side Ecology Center.

Amid the Wednesday morning rush, Harlemites hurrying to nearby train stations pause near the corner of 127th Street and Malcolm X Boulevard and hand paper bags stuffed with apple cores, coffee grounds and other food scraps to Kathryn Robling and Lia Lucero – liaisons for the city’s ambitious composting initiative – who chat with curious neighbors and drop the decomposing refuse into three rectangular bins.

During a recent rush-hour shift, the two women wore brown caps branded with the name of their employer – the NYC Compost Project Hosted by the Lower East Side Ecology Center – and gripped heavy-duty ice choppers, which they occasionally used to mix the scraps at the commuter composting site.

Robling and Lucero dragged the brimming bins around the corner to Harlem Grown’s 127th Street Farm and Greenhouse and deposited the organic waste in larger containers so the material could begin the first phase of the composting process. Later, Robling traveled to Washington Heights to teach “What’s In My Bin?”, a regular class designed to educate community members and provide support for new composters in Northern Manhattan.

The various locations and participants involved in the day’s activities – the drop-off spot convenient for commuters who compost, the local nonprofit’s urban garden, the uptown organic waste workshop, the city-sponsored program with the long-winded name – demonstrate the diverse strategies and various local initiatives the city depends on to engage potential composters and meet its ambitious goal of sending zero waste to landfills by 2030.

A network of partner organizations and a patchwork of local gardens and grassroots initiatives build community buy-in and educate – sometimes even employ – residents of high-density, low-income neighborhoods as the city seeks to more effectively expand beyond the relatively wealthy, residential enclaves where brown bins have become a familiar sight.

“There’s not going to be one monolithic strategy. We have a multiplicity of strategies,” says Debbie Sheintoch, a deputy director at the Department of Sanitation’s Bureau of Recycling and Sustainability. “We build relationships with community partners, we start working with community boards and civic groups. In terms of areas that are primarily high-rise and being serviced later, we are growing food scrap drop-off sites.”

A 2013 Sanitation report found that New Yorkers generate 1.1 million tons of organic waste suitable for composting each year, an amount that comprises 31 percent of total residential refuse – nearly as much as all recyclable paper, plastic and glass combined. Rather than institute a top-down policy for collecting and processing the organic material, the city supplements the existing organic waste infrastructure in each community as it rolls out curbside pickup.

In large suburban swaths of the outer boroughs, buildings with fewer than ten units automatically receive a brown bin. The Department of Sanitation requires all buildings in Manhattan and all buildings with ten or more units in the other boroughs to apply for participation. Sanitation works with building management to overcome challenges like organizing a large number of tenants, ensuring buy-in from building maintenance and creating a sustainable procedure – especially since pizza crusts and eggshells attract pests if left to rot in a tub next to the stairwell trash chute.

By June 2015, the pilot pickup program that began in residential Staten Island in 2013 had collected 15,850 tons of organic waste from 137,000 households and 700 schools. At that point, the program had expanded to Park Slope, Middle Village, Riverdale and other residential neighborhoods where few buildings exceed nine units.

In March, the city announced that curbside collection would reach 3.3 million people by the end of 2017. The city plans to expand the program to every neighborhood by the end of 2018, which means community gardens and city-sponsored organizations will continue to play a pivotal role in reaching households and neighborhoods not yet served by the program – including areas with a high concentration of NYCHA developments.

Partnerships a plenty

There are seven NYC Compost Project host sites, one at each of the four outerborough botanical gardens and the Lower East Side Ecology Center – Manhattan lacks a botanical garden – along with programs that partner with organizations Earth Matter and Big Reuse. Funded by the Department of Sanitation, each host site collects food scraps, processes organics, provides operational support to community programs and runs education campaigns.

Renee Crowley, the project manager at the NYC Compost Project hosted by the Lower East Side Ecology Center, says the challenge in educating those unfamiliar with composting is consistent across the city: Regardless of income level, New Yorkers resist the rats and repulsive stench of rotting refuse they fear food scraps will generate.

“When you’re standing there with a bucket of food waste or when you use the terminology of ‘food scrap drop-off site,’ people may see that and not know what that means,” Crowley says. “Then people say, ‘Why should I compost? It’s gross and smelly and it doesn’t really matter.’”

To answer those questions, the host sites support education efforts – information tables and drop-off sites at busy intersections, school-based composting activities and partnerships with local nonprofits – throughout the city, with a renewed focus on higher-density areas like the South Bronx, Eastern Brooklyn and Northern Manhattan where lower-income residents tend to reside.

The Department of Sanitation recently joined forces with the Food Bank For New York City, which handled 73 million pounds of food last year, to encourage other organizations to collect organic waste.

At an information table at the recent NYC Food Waste Fair, the Food Bank’s food sourcing director Lee Cheney said the organization’s Community Kitchen on West 116th Street – which serves breakfast and lunch to local senior citizens and dinner to anyone in need of a hot meal – recently launched its own composting program. The Department of Sanitation provided organic waste receptacles and collects the food scraps at least once a week. The kitchen integrates food scrap separation into the existing recycling system and houses the organic waste in a separate room inside the Community Kitchen facility. As part of the program, the Food Bank conducts an outreach campaign and provides composting bins to the nonprofit agencies it serves.

The role of community gardens

Taqwa Community Farm – a verdant strip of Parks Department property surrounded by empty lots, old wooden homes and brick apartment complexes – has served Highbridge for more than two decades. Purple flowers creep up the chain link fence near a poster detailing compostable materials and, inside, children play on a bright plastic playground while neighbors tend vegetables and chickens.

Taqwa serves as a vital gathering space and organic education center for community members who reside atop a steep hill above Yankee Stadium, says Kadeesha Williams, an urban agriculturist with the New York Botanical Garden’s Bronx Green-Up initiative and the granddaughter of Taqwa’s founder and caretaker.

Though Highbridge is eligible for Sanitation compost pick-up, limited buy-in among tenants and building management in hundreds of high-rises poses an obstacle to broad collection.

Williams says neighbors drop off their food scraps at Taqwa in order to earn discounts at the garden’s farm stand and to feel more connected to the shared space.

“Composting is a way to include people in the overall process of gardening,” she says. “It’s an interesting conversation starter and it allows people to have a way to contribute to the garden.”

Such grassroots efforts help prepare communities for Sanitation’s curbside pickup expansion and can motivate individuals and building management to apply for brown bins, says Jodie Colón, project manager for the NYC Compost Project Hosted by the New York Botanical Garden, which runs workshops at Taqwa through their Bronx GreenUp program.

“A lot of people grew up in apartments so we’re trying to engage people in learning about the natural environment,” Colón says. “Along with creating healthy soil and plants, composting creates healthy people who become aware of the impact they can make through small actions.”

Sanitation funds four full-time staff members at the New York Botanical Garden to support community composting efforts. Like other NYC Compost Project host sites, the New York Botanical Garden offers a certificate program for master composters who later serve as ambassadors by educating neighbors and spearheading local projects, Colón says.

Compost collection at the Queensbridge Houses

In 2007, master composters helped create a food scrap collection and processing project at a community garden in Western Queens. After expanding to include several area gardens, the group earned a grant from a local investor and partnered with the recycling organization Big Reuse to increase collection and processing capacity. In 2011, they opened a processing site beneath the Queensborough Bridge. Sanitation agreed to fund the operation, thus creating the NYC Compost Project Hosted By Big Reuse, which operates fourteen community drop-off locations in addition to its processing facility.

On August 1, the project will launch its newest food scrap drop-off and education station outside the 21st Street-Queensbridge F Train stop at the Queensbridge Houses – the city’s largest public housing development – says Project Manager Leah Retherford.

“We definitely want to involve communities that are not currently served and Queensbridge is really important because they’re the processing facility’s closest neighbors,” Retherford says. “Ultimately, the people who use our drop-offs become ambassadors and are key for educating neighbors.”

NYCHA, which launched a system-wide recycling program two years ago, does not currently participate in Sanitation’s composting initiative and lacks the capacity to institutionalize composting, say multiple Sanitation administrators. Though NYCHA has not yet implemented a system-wide composting program, the agency has sponsored smaller initiatives in some communities. There are four NYCHA community farms staffed by young tenants who participate in the Green City Force AmeriCorps program, says NYCHA director Vlada Kenniff.  The farms generated more than 3,000 pounds of compostable organic material last year, Kenniff says. 

The new drop-off location will enable residents to connect with the origin of their food and the potential for renewal, Retherford says.

“Small-scale processing is an education because recycling can be abstract – you don’t know where the material is going or what it’s becoming,” she says. “Composting makes the case for all types of recycling. You take food scraps, something that doesn’t have value, and see it turn into something valuable.”

Grassroots composting under the M train

Wedged between a pawn shop and an empty police parking lot in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood, the fertile Know Waste Lands park on Myrtle Avenue in Bushwick serves as the latest compost processing site for BK ROT. The organization employs young community residents – primarily people of color raised in the neighborhood — who pick up food scraps by bicycle and manually marshal the organics through various phases of the composting process.

As high school student Chris Palacios rotated a heap of nearly ripe compost, Victor Ibarra, who grew up in Bushwick and has worked with BK ROT for five years, returned to the site towing a tub of food scraps from a Williamsburg coffee shop. BK ROT pays its young employees by charging local businesses a pick-up fee and earning grants from corporations and community investment organizations.

“What’s been amazing is the presence and leadership of young folks who grew up in Bushwick in this space,” says cofounder Sandra Nurse. “With rising rents, intentional displacement of low-income and black and brown families, racial profiling by police, and huge unemployment for local youth, we have co-created a safe space where their leadership is centered.”

Nurse and fellow cofounder Renée Peperone say BK ROT focuses on commercial composting but remains a resource for neighborhood residents who await curbside collection – the city plans to extend pick-up to Bushwick and Bedford Stuyvesant by the end of 2018.

Peperone says the garden facilitates interactions among new and longtime residents while preserving a space for young people of color who may sense limited opportunities or restricted access in the neighborhood they grew up in.

“Composting is about shifting how we relate to food, to each other and to communities,” she says. “It’s a radical and powerful act.”

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CityPlate, City Limits’ series on food policy, is supported by the Laurie M. Tisch Illumination Fund. City Limits is solely responsible for the content.