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NYC: Reaching True Sustainability With Community Composting

"We haven’t yet seen a strong vision articulated by policy makers for the future of community composting."


This episode corresponds to Lesson 4 and Lesson 5 of our online course.

In this episode, of our now bi-weekly podcast show, we focus on urban community composting in New York City and speak to long-time community composter David Buckel from Added Value Red Hook Community Farm in Brooklyn to learn more about the movement and to discuss the importance of supporting urban community composting schemes to achieve true sustainability. We will explore the ways community composting can demonstrate a closed-loop cycle and educate the public about soil health and sustainability, how community composting fits into a larger organics recycling system and is an integral part of that system, the challenges NYC composting face and the opportunities on the horizon.

Thank you to ORBIS for making this episode possible.

As a leader in organic waste recycling, ORBIS has a wide range of plastic curbside organic recycling bins and carts to chose from to help you improve recycling rates, conserve natural resources and help the environment. With value-added educational programming, community outreach and environmental expertise, ORBIS helps communities meet their organic waste diversion goals while improving the health of the planet. For more, visit their website.

Tune in on August 18th for the next exciting episode.

Photo by Gowanus Canal Conservancy






Q: The community composting movement is growing strong in New York at the moment. The DSNY, for example, who started their NYC Compost Project in 1993 to support local composting programs, now support over 200 composting sites and 8 to 10 mid-size operations in the five boroughs, and the collection points for dropping off food scraps at greenmarkets are growing in number: over half of the greenmarket farmer’s markets are outfitted with a drop-off program.

As a long-time community composter currently working at Added Value Redhook Community Farm in Brooklyn, you’re right there on the ground watching all this happening. Can you give me a brief picture of what community composting looks like today?

DB: Quite a bit of it depends upon how you define community composting. There’s an awful lot of things going on in terms of community composting in the city; there’s quite a bit going on in terms of closing the loop, and a lot of that is in the community gardens around the city. Folks will bring their kitchen scraps to their community garden, where they get composted in small systems. What there’s less of is community composting that is defined not only as trying to close the loop as much as possible on organic material, but also engaging the public as much as possible, so that we can promote environmental stewardship.

Q: Community composting has had a long history in New York, hasn’t it?

DB: Community composting has been, to a degree, fairly strong in New York, because of the presence of community gardens around the city; New York City is unusual in having hundreds of community gardens. What’s new for community composting is adding in the public engagement, and trying to make sure that capacity grows more. The community gardens can take organic material to a degree, but at some point it’s just too much for them because their systems are usually quite small. So we’re trying to develop more sites that have bigger capacity and can take more organics.



New York Policy Makers Lack Strong VISION For COMMUNITY COMPOSTING


Q: In terms of a vision for community composting, many (including yourself) are in favour of small-scale, decentralised models that prioritise closing the loop, can you tell me what policy makers have in mind for community composting in the city?

DB: We haven’t yet seen a strong vision articulated by policy makers for the future of community composting. What I have experienced is more helping what already is happening. So, assistance for community gardens and things like that. The Department of Sanitation has been very helpful in terms of developing slightly larger sites that can take more material, but I haven’t seen a vision that essentially articulates where we want to be in the future twenty years from now.

Q: Why do you think that is? We know how challenging it is for them to coordinate all of the different aspects in such a large city, as well as rolling out such a large collection program.

DB: Perhaps they haven’t been challenged enough to realise that this is the sort of thing we will have to confront sooner or later, because, to me, there’s no way to get around the future in terms of closing the loop on the travel of organics. We will, sooner or later, have to find ways to make sure organics are not travelling large distances in order to be processed. We think that’s the kind of vision that has to be articulated at the policy level. And then, everything else comes along with it: even if we optimise community based composting as much as we can, because our cities in the US are so badly designed, there’s no question that we will also need curbside pickup as a municipal function; we’ll also need commercial composting. We’ll need all of those things.

What we’re not seeing is a vision that’s big enough and future-thinking enough to say that we have to optimise community based composting first and foremost, and then pull in all these other elements to best address the organics.



Community Composting In Practice


Q: Before we tackle the bigger issues, can you tell us more about how things work today with community composting: how are the organics are collected & processed?

DB: One of the most exciting things going on in New York City in terms of organics being collected is the farmer’s market collection program. It’s run by a group called Grow NYC, which has several green farmer’s markets around the city, and they have tables where folks can bring their food scraps from home, drop off their food scraps and then buy their food to take home, where they will make food scraps that then go back to the farmer’s market the next week. So it’s a wonderful, local cycle for the organics stream.

The food scraps are distributed to different sites around the city, within the city limits, one of which is where I’ve spent a lot of my time called the Red Hook Community Farm in Brooklyn, New York. And so we will be getting that material from farmers markets in the borough of Brooklyn, closer by. We also maintain tumblers so that community residents who can’t compost at home can walk their food scraps over and put them in the tumblers, and that material will wind up in our larger system over time.

Q: Do you see a lot of people participating in this, or is it gaining in popularity?

DB: It’s growing more and more popular as people hear about it. They’ve just passed the three million pound mark in terms of the collections they have done, so it’s to be quite big of a scale, and they seem to be adding new farmer’s markets every year. So that’s very exciting. Another exciting development is that the Department of Sanitation has begun to support the development of urban farms, and you’ll see a very similar type of magic happening, because at the urban farms they will often have farm stands where they sell locally grown, fresh produce right next to the fields where the produce is grown. So folks, when they come, will bring their food scraps. And this is what happens in Red Hook, Brooklyn, because folks will come and bring their food scraps, drop them off in our tumblers, and then buy some produce at the farm stand and go back home and create a very nice local circle – a closed loop for the organics.

Q: And how is the organic material typically collected from the farmer’s markets and urban gardens?

DB: Well at Added Value’s Red Hook Community Farm, the material is brought to us. So, local residents will walk it or bicycle the material from their homes. And then we get some of the scraps from the Grow NYC farmer’s markets, which is brought to us in plastic bins by a truck. The big difference is that it’s just travelling within Brooklyn, as opposed to having trucks drive on highways and downs streets. We have a smaller truck, as opposed to the bigger trucks that get loaded up and then have to drive outside the city for a distance to transport the material.

Q: One issue we often talk about with organics collection is the contamination rate, and the quality of the organics collected in New York has been described as pristine. Would you agree with that description? What has been your experience?

DB: Well I can’t speak for the city, but what I see happening is that, in terms of the material collected at the farmer’s markets, we’ve very, very clean material that’s being dropped off – in particular because the folks who go to the trouble of collecting their food scraps and bring them to the community sites once a week are very conscientious, and so our level of contaminants are extremely low.



Curbside Organic COLLECTION And COMMUNITY COMPOSTING – Can They Work Together?


Q: With the DSNY managing an ever expanding residential curbside collection scheme for NYC, can community composting be an integral part of the system, or are they at odds with one another?

DB: In my view they are in direct conflict and at great odds in some ways, and it depends upon the vision that is articulated for policy in a city. For example, when I started this work, I talked to some folks in Toronto, who were very active in trying to promote sustainability in regard to how organics were treated in the city. And they had a choice – they had to either support community composting and invest in it as much as possible, or invest their time in trying to develop curbside pickup. They chose curbside pick up, because they felt it could be a bridge to community composting, and they told me that the exact opposite happened.

Because they had never developed a culture of people trying to keep their organics as local as possible, once the curbside started, it was very challenging to get to that culture, because people could just put things on the curb, and they got into the habit of that. So now what they’re looking at is a much longer time-frame for persuading the public that it would be better for their organics to stay much closer to home because it’s more environmentally sustainable.

So in that way, Toronto shows that curbside municipal pickup and community composting can be at odds and in conflict, if there’s no vision of policy that says we need to be developing community composting as much as we possibly can, while at the same time we recognise that not everything can come to community based composting sites – we do also need curbside municipal pickup. But you see, that kind of vision doesn’t see them at odds. That kind of vision says: let’s do what’s most environmentally first, and develop community composting as much as we can,  and then recognise we also have to do curbside municipal pickup, as well as commercial composting. That’s different from what happened in Toronto where it seems it was posed as a choice, one or the other, and now my colleagues up there are saying it will take them so much longer to ever develop community based composting.

Q: That is something to bear in mind when developing policy. Now let’s move on and talk about the benefits of community composting. I’m sure you agree with me in saying that community composting schemes can really make an impact in educating people on organics recycling and the importance of keeping the stream clean?

DB: That’s true. One benefit is that unlike glass or plastic, or metal, it’s much easier for the public to participate in the process when it comes to processing the organics. They can’t as likely do that with glass, metal or paper, but with community composting, they can go very close to their home, contribute to the compost process, and – if it’s a type of a site that places a value on community participation – volunteer in making the compost with their own hands.

That has several benefits. One is that if the material is used in their community, they get much more invested in it, because they see that it’s going to be used for a local urban farm, or for street trees, or a food garden their local public school where kids attend. So there’s a much stronger connection to it, and more dedication and commitment.

But they also just care more about it in general. So one effect, if it’s optimised, is that people will care more about what they’re putting out on the curb as well. So, they may take some to community sites, but if they’re putting some on the curb for pickup, they know the importance of not having contaminants if they’re participated at a community compost site, so they’ll be more careful that way.

Q: On the note of education – how do you draw people in and get them interested?

DB: I’ve never found it hard. On the site at Red Hook Community Farm, as long as you post hours that are consistent – we put hours up on our website so people can check to see when they can volunteer – and we get in touch with the different volunteer groups to let them know what the opportunity is. Very quickly things take off, and the question is not so much, “how do we get people here?, it’s more about “oh, is that too many people?”, or “how do we best manage this so everyone can have a meaningful experience, given how many people are here?”

Q: That’s a great problem to have.

DB: It is, it’s a wonderful problem. But it just further demonstrates the importance of community composting – that there’s a hunger on the part of so many to participate in this type of work.



Job Creation In Small-Scale COMPOSTING Projects


Q: For those out there that might not be convinced of the importance of community composting yet – can you tell us some more benefits you’ve seen?

DB: At the top of the list, it’s better for the environment. It reduces environmentally costly transport by so many trucks on the streets. It better supports local food growing, and it also supports other green projects in communities. So, if folks want to green up their community with more street trees or flower gardens, or food gardens, there’s more compost available locally to do that.

And then here in New York City, after the last hurricane we had, which was so devastating, by building up our urban soils and improving storm water management through community composting, we make ourselves more resilient in the face of climate change. The last hurricane, Hurricane Sandy that came through New York and so devastated us, made that all the more important.

And lastly, over time, if we can develop community composting sufficiently, according to the broad vision of what’s the most sustainable way to live, it will generate jobs. We’re not there yet, but we’re trying – I’m actually running a job training program out at the Red Hook Community Farm, and the movement has to get much bigger in order to start generating jobs.

Q: We’re very interested in creating self-sustaining models that benefit the economy and society as a whole – and this is an area that composting and recycling initiatives have a lot of potential. So apart from growing the community composting movement and the sites themselves, what are your main problems or focuses right now in creating jobs?

DB: One important development we need now – and we’re so ready for this – is the generation of revenue models. I can’t help but say that if community composting is going to be successful, we need some kind of funding stream. The ones that have been developed commercial enterprises don’t work, because the goals are a little different. But on the other hand, community composting can’t be just a none profit endeavour, because you would wind up chasing grants all the time.

And if one sign of success is that there are more composting sites, the problem you have is that the foundation pie (i.e. grants), gets smaller and smaller. So, much like with urban agriculture (at least in the US), the answer has to be to get a little more business-like and pay more attention to generating revenue, so that even when we continue to turn to foundations for grants, we also have some generation of revenue to develop financially sustainable models of operation.

Q: In relation to this, what is the market like for compost at the moment in New York – is it strong?

DB: It is. Before the hurricane we were able to meet the farm’s needs and start to explore some markets, and we found that many buyers are willing to pay a premium – to pay more than they otherwise would because they knew it was locally made compost and they wanted to support that movement. So there was this great, untapped market of people who wanted to support the local economy and keeping things as environmentally sustainable as possible.



Challenges to Overcome: NEGATIVITY and RESTRICTING Laws


Q: New York is a very densely populated area, which I’m sure brings its own unique challenges to community composting. What challenges have you faced in the city?

DB: One is the lack of the broadest vision of where community composting across five, ten, and then ultimately twenty-five, when we want it to be what it should be. So, as a result of that, people too superficially discount community composting with observations like “well, there’s just not enough land”, or, “Well, we can’t divert all of our organics to community composting, so we have to do municipal curbside pickup.

The other thing is existing laws. Not that there was any bad intention in the creation of these laws. In fact, in New York City, some of the most applicable laws were intended to address the problem of organised crime being involved in the hauling industry. And that’s an important mission, but the unintended side-effect was that the laws impede the growth of community composting – particularly with regard to commercial organics. The current law does not allow those organics to flow unimpeded to community based compost sites.

It’s been very discouraging because there are so many young people, in particular, who are very excited to be environmental stewards and to develop bicycle carting businesses, and things of that sort, and they’re deterred from the outset. And quite often they give up and turn to other environmental work. Hopefully we don’t lose them altogether, in terms of environmental work, but it’s sad that their passions get deterred at the outset.

Q: That is very sad. But there is a petition started now to change the laws? 

DB: There is a petition now. Some folks are trying to get food businesses in the city to ask the city legislators to change these laws. The hope is that it will gain some force. But the problem is that there’s a lot of discouragement, because it doesn’t seem like the policy makers are “there”, and without that kind of support it can be overwhelming.

Q: Hopefully it will work out eventually…

DB: Oh, I think it will. Things are gradually changing. One of the big problems we have had is folks who are able to stick with it and keep trying often look for ways to educate themselves about how to be community composters. And unfortunately, up until now, in the compost industry all the educational materials are geared towards commercial folks. The downside of this is that a lot of people who do community composting will go to these trainings, and they’ll come back thinking that the answer to their problems is machines. So  [they think] the way we can get more done is if we have a bucket loader, or we have a grinder. They start thinking the way a large commercial facility would think.

And I can tell you from personal experience that once machines show up at a site, the people disappear. That’s a big problem when folks start reaching for machines, because then the other goal – to engage the public and get them involved – starts to disappear because the machines are there to do the work and the people see themselves as less relevant, and less important.

But we’re just now starting to get some videos out, and some more information out, that is actually for community composters. Instead of coming from the compost industry, which really doesn’t think about community composters, it’s actually coming from community composters themselves. So there’s more material for other community composters to work with, so that they can keep their focus on people and on community. 



Wise Words Of Advice.


Q: For the final question – what advice can you give our listeners who might be starting their own community composting sites where they live?

DB: Yeah, I think I’d say a number of things. One is that it’s important to find the people who are more interested in action than talking – people who’re not afraid to do work with shovels and pitchforks. I think the danger sign would be that instead, people want to talk about doing a bunch of fliers, making a website, developing stickers, and planning out how to get to thirty different restaurants, or fifty different households.

One story I can tell you is that I had a couple of individuals who were very excited about doing this, and that’s the road they went down. They started making all these big, huge plans that were taking months and months of planning. And I said, “Well, why don’t you try doing a pickup from just one restaurant, and getting that process. Just try that for me to see if you can do that, because if you know you can’t do that, then you shouldn’t be making all these plans”. And it turned out they couldn’t do it.

So, for folks who are interested, that’s a good test. And that leads to my second piece of advice, which is to start small. Many people feel like they have to have it all planned out and go big, whereas if you just start with one or two restaurants, or maybe a dozen households – see if you can do that first, and control odours and rats. And if you can, that’s fantastic and you can build up and get bigger. But don’t spend all this time making big plans, when really you’re not able to pull off the practicalities of it all yet.

And then the last thing I would say is to be guided by a strong vision for what you want to achieve, because so many people will tell you all the different obstacles in the way. Like, “There’s not enough land”, you know, “You can’t have odours, you can’t have rats”. When, if there’s a strong vision which says community composting will be what we have to do in the future, because it’s environmentally the most sustainable and keeps the organics as close as possible in the loop…if you just remember that vision when people say all the negative things, you can say “Well, I know that might mean it takes us longer, but we know we’re going to get there”. And then they can keep up their good spirits. They’re on the right side of history!


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