The Fringes of Composting

Alvaro Luken
Draft · Unlisted

NYU Gallatin School of Individualized Study

Written by: Akeel Howell, Sam Cheng, Josi Riederer and Alvaro Luken Luna

Compost pile ruined by plastics that made their way through the entire composting process, New York City.

Compost. It’s dirty and it’s smelly. Yet why is composting important? About 30% of the country’s waste stream is made up of organic material. In New York City, 20% of our food waste sits in landfills. In spite of increasing efforts to implement composting operations across the country, massive amounts of food waste continue to end up in our landfills. For example, in 2015 only 2.1 millions tons of about 39.7 million tons of food waste were composted. That is less than 6% percent! This is despite the fact that compost is incredibly effective for reducing landfill waste and combating pollution.

Facts and Figures about Waste and Recycling, EPA.

Beginning in 2013, the New York Department of Sanitation (DSNY) decided to take on a curbside collection composting program as a way to reduce the already extensive amount of food waste that ends up in landfills. The curbside composting program currently serves 3.5 million residents, and was expected to serve all of New York City by the end of 2018. This plan was not carried out however, as the Department halted the expansion of their program last spring. The reason? Only 10.6% of organic waste was actually being collected for compost. The other 89% percent was still being sent to landfills. The DSNY is currently struggling to familiarize its community with composting, challenged with needing to conceptualize how we view compost and the idea of having to separate our organic waste.

Maintaining a composting operation in an urban space is difficult. The logistical challenges that arise can also be applied to composting in other types of living environments, yet they are much more concentrated in an urban setting:

  1. Space: It is difficult to acquire a space commensurate with the amount of food waste you plan on composting and one that is friendly to decomposition odors. Unless there is a landfill-sized space available, scaling operations up will become extremely expensive and difficult.
  2. Transportation: Moving the raw organics from their multiple points of collection into a centralized refinery involves the use of heavy-load vehicles, emissions of CO2, labor training costs and more. This also means organization of logistics such as time and pick-up schedules, designated pick-up zones and more labor to account for these.
  3. Physical Infrastructure: For example, brown recollection bins. Add-ons might include freezers, which means electricity, and access to brown matter (leaves, branches, wood chips). For labor, specific equipment for dealing with raw organics such as, and importantly, safety gear for the body to protect the worker from any health hazards that exist in this interaction.
  4. Time: The natural process takes time! Composting is a long-term commitment. A compost pile about the size of a station wagon can take about 2–3 months in the ideal conditions (ie. 140°).
  5. Labor: To account for collection, maintenance of the space in which you compost and works that support the natural process such as monitoring inputs and the balance of nitrogen-to-carbon in the compost piles. Regularly turning and mixing the compost piles usually involves heavy manual labor or help from mechanical equipment.
  6. Education: It is a great challenge to educate a large urban population on composting and normalizing the practice of separating organic waste. Without proper design or constant surveillance of the inputs, it is likely you will get as much un-compostable trash as compostable organics in your composting pile (see first and last picture).
  7. Culture: Changing common conceptions, or misconceptions, surrounding food waste involves changing set human behaviors, such as regarding food waste as ‘garbage’ or ‘discard. This also might require higher-level items such as public policy changes and greater synergy and communication between municipal-level actors such as, in New York, the DSNY, building owners/management companies and community groups like the LES Ecology Center, featured below.
  8. Pests: You will attract and can expect multiple kinds of critters in your composting. These can be fruit flies or worms, natural actors that are friendly to the composting process — but you can also get bigger and unexpected visits from others. This depends on the contents of your compost pile as well.
  9. Product: What to do with the piles of nutrient-rich compost, or dirt, produced?

Composting is not an easy process and not everyone can do it at this stage where there is still not enough practical infrastructure, especially for people living in a concentrated urban environment like New York City. Adapting human behavior to reflect wanted actions so as to reduce food waste can be very difficult to do without proper focus on all the challenges outlined above. A good place to start is friendly user design. Infrastructure that is designed with all of these considerations set forth as an integral part of the design process can provide a way to streamline the end-to-end process and make it more efficient and easy for all actors involved. Thus, if less food waste is to go to landfills and more towards composting operations (in an efficient way), innovation around user design in the composting process and its endpoints is a necessity.

Example of a compost recollection bin that is user-friendly. LES Ecology Center.

NYC Composting

In New York City, for instance, much of the composting activity is coordinated through 42 Greenmarkets spread across the five boroughs, which operate one to three times per week. The EPA provides information which clearly displays a stunning connection between the value system of a consumerist society and a sudden but steady ascension in food waste tonnage. Since the 1980s, there has been a sharp increase in the amount of food waste heading to landfills, with little increase in the amount of composted products. While it is the case that relative to traditional waste management methods such as landfilling, compost programs are a brand new addition to the organic waste management arsenal, having only been implemented in New York City in the late 1900s. The amount of food items in municipal solid waste, as a percentage of the total amount of food waste generated has since increased at a rate higher than that of the amount of food waste which ends up in landfills — this is despite the explosive hike in the volume of food generated with increasing quantities of municipal solid waste between 1980 and 2015.

Before tackling the challenge of a more expansive citywide system of organics collection and composting, we wanted to consider the oft-neglected but increasingly demonstrated value of localized collective approaches to urban sustainability. It is absolutely necessary that local communities spearhead action to address urban environmental issues, especially when upper-level governing bodies are slow to take action. Given the political and technical obstacles faced by city officials to institute organic waste management programs, we find it pertinent to explore the potential of hyper-local grassroots efforts and community-based projects surrounding compost to promote community engagement and resilience while demonstrating the compelling ability of such initiatives to scale-up into larger institutional changes.

We had the privilege of touring the facilities at the Lower East Side Ecology Center on April 23, 2019, and speaking with Renee Crowley, Compost Project Manager at the nonprofit organization. The Lower East Side of Manhattan is no stranger to progressive urban activism, whether it be around affordable housing or radical gardening. Situated in a vibrant neighborhood with a rich history of grassroots organizing, the LES Ecology Center has been at the heart of community building and organizing since 1987. Committed to promoting forward-thinking approaches in urban sustainability, environmental stewardship, and educational programming, the Ecology Center has served as a pioneering model for other groups to organize and innovate around urban environmental objectives, whether it be recycling, electronic waste management, and of course, composting.

Initially expanding into community composting in 1990, the LES Ecology Center moved its main operations in 1998 to its current location in the East River Park, developing Manhattan’s first in-vessel compost system in which all their food scrap materials, collected from eight locations around the borough, is now processed. After three months of decomposition, curing, and screening, the finished compost makes it way back to the community, either as nutrient-rich organic material for local gardens and urban farms or as part of the Ecology Center’s potting soil mix, sold at the Union Square Greenmarket.

But the work that the Ecology Center does around compost is not just limited to its daily operations in the compost yard. “We’re not only responsible for collecting eight tons of organic waste each week and turning that into compost, but we also host workshops; we’re currently in the midst of teaching our Master Composter course. We are also technical assistance providers to community gardens and schools who have their own composting operations,” says Crowley.

What is perhaps most impressive about the Ecology Center is the organization’s steadfast commitment to uniting the goals of both urban sustainability and community empowerment through innovative uses of urban space and by leveraging natural ecosystem processes. The success of the organization’s composting program reflects a true dedication to (re)shaping urban ecologies and integrating economic circularity and regenerative ecological principles into community programs, offering a small — but non trivial — glimpse into the potency of localized solutions to address environmental issues and to generate lasting community engagement. Crowley says, “Since our market is so targeted, people who are participating in our drop-off sites are voluntarily opting in because they want to do the right thing.” In transforming unsuspecting urban spaces into refuges of green space and sites of ecological regeneration, the Ecology Center consistently demonstrates how rethinking food waste as resource can dramatically improve the quality of urban life and create invaluable community wealth.

Lower East Side Ecology Center Compost Yard, New York City.

In order to understand how much cities can rely on community composting, we spoke with Dr. Samantha MacBride on April 26, 2019, author of Recycling Reconsidered: The Present Failure and Future Promise of Environmental Action in the United States. MacBride told us that despite her admiration for community groups like the LES Ecology Center,

“Unfortunately, it does not have the capacity even if it were done even more extensively than it is now, and it’s pretty expensive throughout New York City, in terms of scale because of the density of population in New York City. There’s just no way that community composting can absorb enough organic waste to make a dent in that. It’s definitely important, and it’s probably the best means of composting on a pound-for-pound level, but if you want to integrate composting into urban sanitation, it has to be at a larger scale as well.”

Community level composting simply cannot successfully absorb all of a city’s food waste due to their already limited capacity in dense urban spaces. That being said, such small-scale success of implementing compost in an urban environment should not be ignored when trying to institute organics collection on a city-wide scale.

New York City has the infrastructure to take on the city’s food-waste-turned-compost. For example, McEnroe’s Organic Farm in the Hudson Valley, which produces about 16,000 yards of compost a year, accepts the city’s compost. According to Dr. MacBride, there are many other farms with the capacity to accept compost. Due to the extreme density and high population of New York City, not all organic waste can be used to fertilize soil. For Dr. MacBride and others, “sending organic material to anaerobic digestion for extraction of methane, followed by aerobic composting of the digestate mixed with yard waste to produce compost is the best option.” This is already being done at the Newtown Creek Wastewater Management Facility in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, where their digester eggs are being used to break down organic material into biogas. A benefit of these is that they require less space than traditional composting and produce energy that can be fed back into pipelines or be used to power buildings. Despite being more expensive than traditional composting methods, anaerobic digestion is still significantly cheaper than bringing food waste into landfills. Even with the available infrastructure to take on municipal level composting, the need to have active participation from the community is essential for its success.

Thus, drawing from the values behind the small-scale LES Ecology Center composting program can help us radically envision what large-scale organics collection could look like and how it can consequently transform waste management in urban environments. Composting ultimately brings together pressing urban and environmental objectives from diverting organic materials from the waste stream, to restoring degraded soils, to building community wealth in underserved neighborhoods. While composting infrastructure is not cheap, nor is it by any means simple to implement on any scale, it is nonetheless an important commitment and long-term investment that we must make.

‘Treasures’ found in compost, New York City.

What can we do as individuals? It is actually quite easy to reap the benefits of composting! In an urban space, there is often the concern that composting in a small living space will be an unpleasantly pungent experience. While a very valid concern, this can be easily fixed by keeping organic waste in the freezer or in sealed and filtered countertop compost bins. When those bins are full, New York City residents can drop them off in the brown DSNY compost bins (those who are not currently enrolled in collection can request a bin for your building here) or bring it to your local community garden or farmers market. For those living outside of New York City, you can find where to compost on the zero waste site, Litterless.