It may be finally time to make it official: 2014 is The Year of Composting in NYC. The city’s pilot program is rapidly expanding its service area and many small businesses are developing products and services for transforming our waste into renewable energy and/or much-needed soil replenishment. It seems a consensus is growing among an ever-larger portion of our urban population on the importance of sustainably managing our waste.
We now have more options than ever for ethically disposing of our organic trash. But this embarrassment of riches poses its own problems—with all these options, it would be easy for urban parents new to the organics recycling game to shake their heads and give up.
I myself am relatively new to composting and other methods of repurposing organic waste. Our start in composting, in fact, was directly tied to our decision to start a family; my wife and I both wanted to make conscious decisions together that our children would want to emulate, thus passing down traditions that would do our part to ensure the continuation of our fragile world. My few years of composting hardly make me an expert on the subject, but I would like, at the very least, to provide a beginner’s list of ways to recycle and repurpose our scraps.
We are fortunate to be in one of the pilot zones for the City’s Organics Collection program (we call it the Brown Bin Initiative), spearheaded by NYC Deputy Commissioner for Recycling and Sustainability Ron Gonen. I listened to Gonen, whose previous experience is mostly in the private sector, describe the program in a panel discussion at the Just Food Conference in April mostly in terms of the cash it would save the city in waste disposal ($300 million of the city’s annual budget is currently devoted to filling and maintaining landfills). As if to prove his point, he has recently left his position to open a private fund designed to underwrite large municipal composting projects.
The Brown Bin Initiative has had mixed success on our block. Our landlord and super had decided to just ignore the bins, even stacking piles of garbage on top of them, since they are not yet obligated by the city to use them. We gently told them that we were in fact using them, and they acquiesced on the condition that we move them out to the curb. We placed them prominently alongside the other recycling cans, and have noticed them filling up fairly quickly with other tenants’ organics. Over the past few weeks the borders of the Brown Bin Initiative have expanded in all directions, so something must be going well.
If you are not currently in one of the Brown Bin zones, fear not! Another, perhaps more rewarding option is to find your nearest community garden, and ask if they do composting. Ever since Christine Datz-Romero began the Lower East Side Ecology Project in 1987 by providing receptacles for organics and other recyclables outside the then-seedy old tenement buildings and organizing volunteers to bring them to the local community garden she’d started on 7th Street, the city’s community gardens have been at the vanguard of popularizing composting. A great benefit of this method is that you can freely take the seasoned compost from most community gardens for your own garden or window box. Almost all the city’s community gardens now have steward-run composting programs, and if they don’t they’re probably waiting for someone like you to start one. Here’s an easy online way to find a community garden near you.
There are also an increasing number of options for going it alone with your composting. I’ve had quite a few friend who compost with worms—the technical name is vermicomposting—with uniformly positive experiences. I haven’t done it, but this method seems especially suited to families since, you know, kids love worms (though, admittedly, you may not). You can get an apartment-friendly kit for under $100, or if you have a bit of yard space and are handier than I am, you can make your own.
I’ve also recently discovered a new-to-me method of apartment composting that involves pickling (yes, pickling!) scraps before composting, significantly expediting the process. Vandra Thorburn developed Vokashi Eco-Living Compost Service in 2009 from a Japanese method, building a business model that provides the materials and service to make composting as simple as filling a covered paint bucket in your apartment. Vokashi, which won PowerUp Business Plan grant from Brooklyn Public Library in 2010, also assumes responsibility for picking up and repurposing the compost in conjunction with local communities.
These are some of the main ways of getting started. The key is finding a method or combination of methods, that works for you and fits into our larger sustainable ecosystem. The most important reason composting is gaining in popularity is that the short-sighted system of waste disposal we’ve developed over the last 150 years isn’t working. Fresh Kills on Staten Island is on the cusp of a 30-year restoration project after holding the dubious distinction of Only Dump You Can See From Outer Space, an average of twelve feet of sludge sit at the bottom of Hudson estuary, and this is rapidly growing in the Pacific Ocean.
The good news: It’s not too late. Combined with inorganics recycling (plastic, glass, metal, paper), composting is another important way to lessen our impact on the environment, so that hopefully our kids can inherit a planet, not in decline, but in recovery.