BROOKLYN, N.Y. — Lillian Summers grows rosemary, daikon and curly kale in a formerly abandoned lot in Bedford-Stuyvesant, powered by recycled food waste. By chopping up a balance of nitrogen-rich kitchen scraps, or “greens,” and carbon-rich materials like dried leaves, or “browns,” and slowly cycling the mixture through four bins, Summers and her neighbors create a soil-like substance that smells earthy and sweet.
Composting — a controlled decay of organic material into nutrient-rich fertilizer over weeks or months — sustains this New York City community garden. It is one of the most effective ways local governments can help combat climate change, experts say, while protecting public health. Separating food scraps means fewer rats scavenging on sidewalks. And finished compost can help heal city soil contaminated by industrial activities in parks, gardens and playgrounds.
But the vast majority of New York City’s 3,500 tons per day of organic waste gets carted out of the city to landfills, where it emits methane — a greenhouse gas that is 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide in the first decade after it enters the atmosphere. Robin Nagle, the “anthropologist-in-residence” for the New York City Sanitation Department (DSNY), notes that even while New Yorkers trip over garbage on the street daily, its impact is largely invisible. She thinks trash instead “should be an essential concern of all of us all the time.”
While city composting programs have been stop-and-go due to budget cuts, grass-roots efforts have filled the gaps. New York City’s compost community includes close to 200 community gardens registered with NYC Parks, “micro haulers,” who collect compost on bikes, hip-hop educators and a pug named Rocky. All are fighting for accessible local collection services and processing facilities.
It has been a long haul. In the 1980s, before recycling was mandated in New York City, Christine Datz-Romero and her husband Clyde converted 15,000 square feet of rubble-filled lots in the Lower East Side into a space for community recycling. In 1990, the newly named Lower East Side Ecology Center began to tend compost piles with neighbors’ fruit and vegetable peelings and food waste from local businesses.
Lillian Summers opens the gate of 100 Quincy. The garden coordinator, Summers helped turn an abandoned lot into a community garden 10 years ago. She and others, including volunteers like Gracia Echeverria, compost an estimated 150 pounds of food scraps a week. (Rengim Mutevellioglu)
The Center began collecting food scraps at the largest farmers market in the city, an effort that the nonprofit GrowNYC has since expanded, and the city’s sanitation department established the NYC Compost Project in 1993 to collect food waste around the city.
“Sometimes,” Datz-Romero notes, “it just takes someone to start something and then other people go, ‘Wow, we can do that too.’ ”
This May, New York City Council members introduced a bill to mandate universal curbside composting by the end of 2023 and another to guarantee a minimum of three organics drop-off sites in each district (they are currently concentrated unevenly). Businesses of a certain size are required by law to separate organics, but residents must still opt-in to composting. The program is only available in seven of the 59 community boards throughout the city, and less than 4 percent of households participate.
Mayor Eric Adams initially campaigned on mandatory composting, but suspended the organics program’s planned expansion earlier this year on the grounds of low participation, cutting $18 million from its budget. Compost advocates counter that without a universal program, the convenience and awareness that will ensure high engagement cannot exist.
After significant pushback from advocacy groups and the City Council, Mayor Adams added back nearly the full amount previously cut for 2023. In a statement, his office wrote, “To fully address climate change and secure our collective future, we must significantly reduce New York City’s waste in an efficient and effective way. Our sustainability work couldn’t be more urgent, which is why Mayor Adams added nearly $20 million in organics funding in Fiscal Year 2023, allowing us to expand compost collection to all New York City schools, nearly doubling the size of the school program that exists today.”
In August, city officials announced a new pilot program in the fall that will offer optional weekly food and yard waste pickups to all Queens residents — including automatic delivery of bins to buildings with more than 10 units. These tenants previously had to rely on opt-ins from building managers, many of whom were reluctant because they assumed that separating food waste would attract more rats, when in reality sealed containers are harder to get into than plastic bags.
Adams has not yet committed to expanding this program to the rest of New York City, but a veto-proof majority of the City Council supports doing so.
“What we’d really like for this program is for Queens to show the rest of the city that this can be done effectively, that people will participate," said DSNY Commissioner Jessica Tisch. “I believe that New Yorkers want to do the right thing," she added. “And if we make it easy enough for them, they will do the right thing."
A key part of that will be outreach.
Summers recalls how about 10 years ago, her neighbor went door-to-door asking people if they would participate, and one household refused immediately. “It was so foreign to them,” she realized. As a retired third-grade teacher, Summers says it is crucial to start compost education in schools. “Kids will push you to do certain things.”
Most community gardens do not have the machinery nor heat necessary to break down meat, dairy, and other organics that larger facilities do. That is why Summers applies for a composting brown bin every time DSNY puts out a call for requests. A decade in, she has yet to receive one.
Deniz Vurmaz, compost sales representative, and April Hurley, grant writer and community educator at Greenfeen Organix, shovel yard waste into a bin. Synergi Urban Garden 2.0 uses Greenfeen Organix's finished compost to nurture its produce. (Rengim Mutevellioglu)
In the meantime, a handful of “microhaulers” have emerged to fill the city’s gaps, starting nearly 10 years ago with BK ROT, which hires local youths to collect food scraps by e-bike from homes and establishments not serviced by the city. To date, the business has diverted about 936,000 pounds of food waste from landfills and turned it into 427,000 pounds of compost.
Another such small business is GreenFeen OrganiX, a worker-owned cooperative founded by lifelong Bronx resident Dior St. Hillaire, who is also a co-director of BK ROT. She first came across compost as a kid at camp. When she started taking farming courses as an adult, she was struck by the fact that the conversation always centered on farm-to-table, but never on table back to farm.
“We’re out here encouraging all these habits like healthy eating, and then people are putting it in the trash. It’s such a disconnect,” St. Hillaire observes. “I think capitalism teaches us to be linear. I wanted to close the other part of the circle.”
GreenFeen OrganiX collects food scraps from individuals and businesses, processes compost in the public Synergi Urban Garden 2.0 and distributes it to local farms. “The impact is really being able to have a space where people in the Bronx can come and touch compost and learn about it in a way that just feels fun and is relatable,” says St. Hillaire.
Rocky the pug, the mascot for Reyes and Tedesco’s composting efforts, sits on top of compost bins. The bins, located in the parking lot of the Most Precious Blood Parish, a Catholic Church, are available to locals 24 hours each day and seven days a week. (Rengim Mutevellioglu)
Another local composting operation is Astoria Pug, an Instagram account run by Lou Reyes and Caren Tedesco. When lockdown began in 2020 and the couple’s local drop-off site suspended operations, food scraps began to pile up “in the freezer, in the fridge, in planters, in buckets, in plastic bags.”
Guessing that neighbors might be facing a similar dilemma, Reyes and Tedesco used their senior pug Rocky’s Instagram to post a call for collections. They ended up with 700 pounds the first weekend, too much for the community garden they found online to process alone. Now Reyes works for Big Reuse, a nonprofit funded by DSNY that processes the close to 4,000 pounds of food scraps that he and Tedesco collect each week.
Still, that is a fraction of what could be collected in Queens if curbside services were available. The ultimate goal is for there to be “something in place for everybody, not just for a few,” Tedesco says. “I feel very desperate to be honest, because doing this we understand the size of the undertaking, and it’s not something that just volunteers can do.”
Reyes muses that in February, universal composting felt “pie-in-the-sky.” Now, though, he feels like they are right on the cusp.
Council member Shahana Hanif, the lead sponsor of the legislation that would mandate universal residential composting, says that going forward, smaller initiatives are crucial “as a legislator to lean on, to better understand how we should be scaling up.”
To St. Hillaire, the education piece is ongoing and cyclical, like compost itself.
“It’s really about creating that ecosystem of people who live in the environment and so they can work in the environment and then they steward the environment.”