Maintaining Decomposure

A compost pile at the Lower East Side Ecology Center in Manhattan. Photo by Amy-Howden Chapman
A compost pile at the Lower East Side Ecology Center in Manhattan. Photo by Amy-Howden Chapman

Some things are built to last; others are designed for obsolescence. Still fewer things are made to actually break down. Where linear economies produce persistent waste, composting — a process through which natural decomposition and human know-how combine to create nutrient-rich soils — models an alternative approach to the life, death, and life-after-death of all sorts of materials. Compost may be a powerful metaphor for more circular urban ecologies, but in New York City, the ability to literally recycle organic materials — from kitchen scraps to garden trimmings to newspapers — has faced an uphill climb. After decades of steadily expanding services such as a curbside pickup, largely in partnership with community-based and non-profit organizations, the Department of Sanitation’s composting program was swiftly and dramatically slashed from the municipal budget at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. What might have been a foreboding signal of the City’s commitments to sustainability in the face of austerity is, hopefully, reversing course: Mayor de Blasio recently announced that curbside pickup would resume in August, while other composting programs would be expanded in October. But even as brown bins make a comeback, questions remain about what this expansion will mean for neighbors across the city who have taken composting into their own hands. More waste diverted from the landfill at its source means less waste being trucked through or to environmental justice communities; the benefits of a localized and distributed system of community composting could be felt citywide, and further afield. Below, Shanti Escalante-De Mattei listens to community composters tell the story of a difficult year, and how the stakes of an equitable composting system stretch far beyond the pile.

In most municipal waste systems, trash is dumped into giant, subterranean garbage bags — landfills lined with several layers of plastic. In this environment, a mix of everything under the sun undergoes an inverted rotting: between a lack of oxygen, and the addition of inorganic materials, waste simply cannot break down into soil. Instead, these landfills produce intensive greenhouse gases like methane and toxic liquids. This system doesn’t just pollute; it perpetuates environmental racism, as trash is shipped through and to Black and brown communities across the United States, polluting the air and leading to increased asthma rates.

The alternative to this situation would be to divert one-third of urban waste, comprising organic materials — food scraps, brown paper bags, yard clippings — and let it rot in a controlled, aerated environment (tossed and turned with pitchforks or a tumbler) until it becomes dirt. When a community composts these materials on a hyperlocal level, access to green space expands (composting sites often double as gardens), waste trucking is cut down (community composting is typically hauled on bikes or dropped off by pedestrians) and neighbors are brought together with a common purpose. Composting seems too good to be true. Yet it truly is alchemical.

While cities such as San Francisco and Seattle have achieved a lot with their municipal composting services — which are industrial and large-scale — New York City’s government has instead given communities the tools and resources they need to compost on a smaller-scale. The city’s Department of Sanitation (DSNY) began its Compost Project back in the early 1990s, providing a hotline for composting programs, creating demonstration sites, and most notably, starting a Master Composter Certificate Course. The certificate program provides classroom instruction in compost science and training in urban compost system design, requiring hours of community service and resulting in an independent project that prepares students to become community leaders capable of training people themselves. Many master composters, as they’re called after completing the program, go on to found new, independent community composting sites.

The New York City Master Composter Manual, via the NYC Compost Project. Click <a href=https://www1.nyc.gov/assets/dsny/docs/about_nyc-master-composter-manual-mcm_0815.pdf>here</a> to download.
The New York City Master Composter Manual, via the NYC Compost Project. Click here to download.

Despite New York City’s forward-thinking track record of supporting composting on both the municipal and community level, funding for these programs — nearly $26 million in total — was the first thing to be cut when COVID-19 hit. Curbside pick-up of brown bins, drop-off sites, and educational programs, among other services, were discontinued. For Tok Michelle Oyewole, the policy and communications organizer for the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance, the City’s shortsightedness was disappointing. “A fraction of the hundred-million-dollar overtime budget [for the NYPD] would have funded [the composting] program a few times over,” Oyewole says. “It was just a total blow to morale.” In response, Oyewole teamed up with the Lower East Side Ecology Center (LESEC) and Big Reuse — two composting programs that were partners in the City-led Compost Project — as well as environmental activists and concerned citizens to start the Save Our Compost coalition. After protesting, petitioning, hosting community town halls, and speaking with government officials, the coalition was able to restore $2.86 million of the composting budget: a lifeline, but not nearly enough. Only a few drop-off sites run by City partners have been reopened, and the curbside program is on hold (the Mayor announced on Earth Day that curbside composting would resume in October 2021).

While municipal programs stop and start, community composting sites — some previously City-sponsored programs, along with independent operations — have been quietly doing the work of improving their communities by providing access to soil making, gardening, and composting education and services for years now, often on a volunteer basis, and many without government funding. Since the composting budget was slashed, these small-scale sites have been providing space where people can drop off food waste. Inundated with scraps, organizations such as BK Rot, GreenFeen Organix, and 45th Street Composters, along with LESEC, which helps community compost programs manage overflow, are consistently hitting capacity every week. These community composting sites have nonetheless found creative ways to scale up, from offering new services and partnering with nonprofits, to finding, and even seizing, new land to compost on. Community composters have been building greener communities with limited resources for decades, and as New York begins to recover and rebuild from a sad and difficult year, they can also be a key part of how the City revitalizes its approach to green jobs and quality of life.

A 2019 BRIC TV profile of BK Rot.

In North and Central Brooklyn, residents can pay along a sliding scale (on average, $7.50 a week) to have their compost picked up by BK Rot, a micro-hauling compost business based in Bushwick. BK Rot employees cart food scraps on solar powered e-trikes to a 3,600 square foot garden off of the Myrtle-Wyckoff M subway station, near the (currently closed) Bossa Nova Civic Club and down the street from an L Train Vintage clothing store. People within walking distance can drop off their compost for free on Sundays if they help process the food scraps, or they can bring a donation with them to support BK Rot workers cutting up scraps and turning the piles.

Ceci Pineda is BK Rot’s Executive Director and a graduate of the City’s Master Composter Certificate Course. They describe the organization’s founding in 2012 as a “response to the lack of composting options, high youth unemployment rates, and the reality that there is so much harmful waste infrastructure concentrated in North Brooklyn.” Co-founders Sandy Nurse and Renee Peperone saw a way to address these issues by employing local 16 to 25-year-olds to pick up residential and commercial organic waste. Making sure that these jobs go to community members who need them is an important part of BK Rot’s mission: “We put a lot of thought into who we are prioritizing for these opportunities — people who have had barriers to work are the ones who should receive these more accessible positions, or people who’ve been impacted by the waste system in New York.” Instead of creating emissions through waste trucking, BK Rot creates an avenue for environmental justice by providing work that attempts to undo these burdens through clean waste hauling and access to green space.

Photos by Amy Howden-Chapman
Photos by Amy Howden-Chapman

For years, BK Rot has handled all of the organics it collects, but demand soared after the budget cuts. Pineda said in February, “This past week we reached an all-time record for our own food scraps collecting. We got around 1,600 pounds within a three-hour window, whereas in 2015, 400 to 500 pounds was our average.” This was just from their drop-off site; now, they partner with Big Reuse to help with this overflow of materials. Unfortunately, Big Reuse now faces eviction by the Parks Department, on whose land the organization processes food scraps. As a result, BK Rot may have to start turning away people who want their waste composted.

GreenFeen Organix, a worker-owned micro-hauling service in Longwood, is one of few composting services available in the Bronx. Founder Dior St. Hillaire says her business has also been picking up the City’s slack: “We’re giving people the option!” She started GreenFeen in 2014 to bring jobs back to her community in the city’s poorest borough. St. Hillaire had been working with trash for a long time, picking through waste sitting on the curb or at local bookstores and re-selling or repurposing it so it wouldn’t end up in a landfill. After taking the Master Composter Certificate Course, she saw an opportunity to provide a new model for the waste industry through worker-owned, organic-waste hauling and composting. GreenFeen provides a number of services, and though residents can pay to have their compost picked up three times a week, St. Hillaire encourages members to hold onto their compost a little longer by providing a bokashi composting system for the home. “We’re helping people be more responsible for their own waste, as opposed to it being this ‘out of sight, out of mind’ kind of mentality.”

An NYC Compost Project streetside educational pop-up provides information on home composting systems in Queens, 2011. Photo by Inhabitat via <a href=https://www.flickr.com/photos/inhabitat/6152920575/in/photolist-anL7H3-anHjW6-5LP6c1-anHjVv-5Lx6qK-5LJRiD-anHjS8-anHjR6-anL7Vq-anHjRD-8EjbUH-anHjLX-anL7SA-anHjHt-anHjN2-anHjTv-anL7Gy-anL7LY-anL7QG-anHjKX-dg1quJ-5LP6aA-5LP67j-5LJRkn-5LP68o-2kWCTSk-2kWtPdF-2kWtPh8-2kWCTQM-2kWtPec-2kWtPeC-2kWyr3z-2kWCTSA-2kWCTQ6-2kWtPgg-2kWyr58-2kWBfkY-2kWCTrW/>Flickr</a>, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
An NYC Compost Project streetside educational pop-up provides information on home composting systems in Queens, 2011. Photo by Inhabitat via Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Education is at the forefront of all of St. Hillaire’s work, whether it’s sending a memo to a building she services about the contaminants found in their bins, or chatting up people who pass by the composting site about her work and the positive impact of composting. Community composters have been vital for educating residents and businesses on not just how to compost properly, but also how to appreciate the community benefits it provides. Yet the city’s micro-haulers feel like they have to constantly fight for recognition. Even after eight years in the business, Ceci Pineda says, “We’re constantly having to carve out our space.”

How can the City support small micro-haulers? In Dior St. Hillaire’s ideal vision, “the City says to GreenFeen, ‘Here’s a piece of land to work on, what do you have in your budget to help develop this out?’” But St. Hillaire sees this as a symbiotic relationship, not a one-way street. “It also looks like us [having the connections] to bring people in from the community. The stakeholders have to be more than just a non-profit organization. It has to be grassroots organizers, worker-owned cooperatives, local business, the stakeholders, the synergy of agencies and institutions,” she says.

The entrance to the LESEC’s compost yard.
The entrance to the LESEC’s compost yard.
A small garden sits amidst compost piles at the LESEC compost yard. Photos by Amy Howden-Chapman
A small garden sits amidst compost piles at the LESEC compost yard. Photos by Amy Howden-Chapman

Supporting community composting has been a vital part of the City’s strategy for years now. Yet the municipal programs had hit major obstacles even before the budget cuts (contamination — or people putting the wrong materials in brown bins — was a major issue in particular). In general, cities with successful municipal composting programs have invested a lot in education: San Francisco, for instance, hired auditors to look through individual composting and recycling bins to ascertain whether people were dividing their waste properly. New York has no such program in place. Renee Crowley, Deputy Director of LESEC, says that the education component was always supposed to come from community composters. “The motivation to fund [LESEC, Big Reuse, and the Compost Project] was that through our outreach and education, we’d be able to get more New Yorkers comfortable with composting, and then they would be more likely to participate in the curbside composting program.”

LESEC has enjoyed a collaborative relationship with the City for about 20 years, but as a City-funded organization, they too were hit hard by the budget cuts. “Last spring was a tornado of uncertainty,” says Crowley. Still, she feels very positive about the City’s legacy of funding community composting. “Whenever I work with folks on a national level, I’m reminded of how unique New York is, and the opportunities that we have available to us here.” LESEC, which had existed since the 1980s, was still a small, volunteer-run program servicing the Lower East Side exclusively when the Master Composter Certificate Course started, initially hosted by the New York’s botanical gardens. Because Manhattan didn’t have a botanical garden of its own, the City teamed up with LESEC to provide a space for training in that borough. Following that successful collaboration, LESEC was folded into the City’s composting programs and started receiving funding, which helped expand compost drop-off services across Manhattan. Crowley points out that Big Reuse had a similar trajectory as a volunteer-run community composting center, started by a Master Composter graduate, which then became a City-funded partner.

The edge of the LESEC compost yard, with the East River in the background.
The edge of the LESEC compost yard, with the East River in the background.
Volunteers at work at the LESEC compost yard. Photos by Amy Howden-Chapman
Volunteers at work at the LESEC compost yard. Photos by Amy Howden-Chapman

This history of collaboration, unfortunately, is at risk. There already aren’t enough entities like LESEC that can take on larger scale composting within New York, says Crowley, citing the Bronx in particular as a borough that lacks a higher-capacity site. Matters are made worse by the fact that the largest community composters in the city, LESEC and Big Reuse, are both currently fighting eviction from NYC Parks land at a time when community composters most need access to more space, as is the case for BK Rot. Despite this unique period of increased demand falling on community composters, the Parks Department claims they need these composting sites for expanded parking capacity. Why the Parks Department wouldn’t want to support composting initiatives remains puzzling for composters around the city. And if the City can’t or won’t provide space, who will?

Volunteer composters at the Smiling Hogshead Ranch, a farm and community garden that was founded by guerilla gardeners in Long Island City, Queens saw the increased demand for community composting sites during the pandemic and decided to do what they had done once before: seize abandoned land and turn it into a community green space. After identifying a lot about a mile away from the Ranch that has been sitting empty for years, they clipped the lock on the chain link fence and started accepting food-scrap drop-offs and composting them on site. “Resistance is Fertile,” now called 45th Street Composters, was born.

45th Street Composters documented their takeover of an empty lot in Sunnyside, Queens on Instagram in late June 2020.

“My freezer was bursting with food scraps and I just didn’t want to throw them away,” says Alexa Lehoczki, a volunteer at 45th Street. “Then I heard through a neighbor about this group who was starting a little composting project in Sunnyside and I was thrilled.” Lehoczki, who had worked as a landscaper for many years, enjoyed the access to a green space and began volunteering there regularly. This engagement evolved into a more central role in the informal organization as she began attending monthly meetings with the people who kept the composting site running.

By June, the property owner found out what was happening, after which they immediately threw up “No Trespassing” signs and installed new locks. 45th Street Composters started collecting scraps on the sidewalk in front of the lot and biking them down to Smiling Hogshead Ranch. Over the summer, volunteers biked 800 – 1000 pounds of food scraps per week to the Ranch as they continued to try to find a way back into the lot. They also got in touch with Sunnyside Community Services, a non-profit that supports community-based initiatives like senior care, college preparedness, and pre-K. The non-profit has a good relationship with the lot’s landlord and agreed to act as an intermediary. After a few tense months of negotiations, the parties found terms of agreement in which Sunnyside Community Services would pay insurance on the lot, along with an honorary lease of $10 a month. 45th Street Composters were let back on the land in October 2020, and they have a year-long lease on the promise that they don’t plant anything in the ground.

Photo by Amy Howden-Chapman
Photo by Amy Howden-Chapman

“It’s bittersweet,” Lehoczki says, because while she felt incredibly fulfilled by the experience of claiming land for the community, the future remains uncertain — their hard work could disappear at the end of this lease. In the meantime, 45th Street has more volunteers than they know what to do with. While the desire to participate is heartening, Lehoczki recognizes what most other community composters have eventually figured out: that there is entirely too much unpaid work being done. “Say it’s 80 hours a week of in-person work, plus all the planning.” Like St. Hillaire, Lehoczki sees land access, materials support, and wages to employ needy volunteers as a way the City could help, but she doesn’t have much faith in the municipal government. “What I’ve been learning from this group of people is that we can come together and agree to do something and help our communities. Maybe it has to be more of a grassroots movement than relying on the City,” she says.

“It would be very difficult to imagine all of New York’s organic waste being processed within [its borders], but I really do think that as much as possible the City should be attempting to increase local processing capacity,” Ceci Pineda says. “All around there are so many opportunities for collaboration if the City would see us as a viable option.” Beyond access to land and materials, recognition and involvement in government planning, and funding for wages, many community composters also support the proposed CORE (Community Organics and Recycling Empowerment) Act. Sponsored by City Council Members Keith Powers and Antonio Reynoso, the legislation would require three drop-off sites per community district for both composting and e-waste.

Though local government has long depended on community composters to educate the public, the City’s leadership hasn’t yet invited community composters to share their expertise in developing plans to resume composting services, much less for a just transition to a zero-waste and carbon-neutral city. Each community composting site — intrinsically linked to activism around environmental racism, climate change, and urban democracy — brings the city closer to a green and equitable future. They provide space for congregation and education, as volunteers turn compost piles, correct residents when they make mistakes, and plant gardens using the soil they’ve made themselves. These centers have the potential to turn places of asthma-inducing waste trucking into centers for green jobs and ecological restoration. Many community composting centers actively transform abandoned lots into flourishing green spaces. How can turning lead into gold compare with turning cement into a garden?

Shanti Escalante-De Mattei is a staff writer for ARTnews and an Ann Friedman Freelancing Fellow. A recent graduate of New York University’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study, where she conducted original research on agriculture and land management, Escalante has long been interested in community access to green space. You can find more of her thoughts and writing on Twitter, Instagram, and her personal website.

The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.

Comments

May 13, 2021

This article makes it sound like Smiling Hogshead Ranch members clipped a lock on private property. This is not true. Hogshead members supported this direct action by supplying plants, compost signage, infrastructure and information and some chose to join their neighbors in planting flowers but Ranch members were not involved in other parts of this guerrilla action. That said, we are thankful to whomever did clip the lock and leave it open that morning.