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Inside the battle to save compost in New York

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I’ve been hauling my leftovers to various neighborhood drop-off points in Brooklyn for a decade, but before working on this story, I never really thought about what would happen to my bags of coffee grounds and stems. of kale after throwing them away. in a collection bin. To find out, on a warm spring afternoon, I joined Dior St. Hillaire at the Synergi Urban Garden in the Bronx.

St. Hillaire handed me a mini fork to tackle my first job: transferring 187 gallons of newly made compost from a plastic digester to a windrow — essentially a glorified heap — where it could aerate. St. Hillaire played hip-hop on his phone and I started shoveling. Forty minutes later, with blisters on both palms, I moved on to the next task: preparing leftover fresh food for processing. This involved scooping up non-compostable waste — like twist ties and those “boring” fruit stickers, as St. Hillaire put it — into buckets and then chopping up the larger pieces to speed their decomposition. Finally, I mixed the scraps with carbon-rich yard waste donated by landscapers.

St. Hillaire normally processes all of her compost herself, with the exception of the occasional help she receives from volunteers. Two days later, my arms and shoulders were still sore. “When we think of it as a ‘volunteer’ effort as opposed to a green job that needs to be paid, it’s about fairness,” she says. “We place less value on the work that gets done on the pitch, and there’s a very delicate and controversial history attached to it.”

Even the question of who gets to compost is its own question of fairness, St. Hillaire says. Being able to take care of the compost is a privilege. St. Hillaire eliminates common barriers to entry by making it easier and faster to attend with its pick-up service. She also educates her community about the importance of compost through hip-hop performances in parks, neighborhood events, festivals and farmers’ markets. “The problem with sustainability is that it’s very Eurocentric,” she says. “It’s really ‘Save the Polar Bears’ and places sustainability as that thing that’s outside of us as opposed to that thing inside of us that we have to interact with for our survival.”

These individual efforts mirror the broader efforts Save Our Compost is undertaking across the city. The idea is to keep composting as community-based as possible and for the city to fairly compensate those involved. The plan also includes a pilot program that would test various solutions for collecting waste from large buildings, including social housing; a proposal for an expert-led study to determine how to more effectively accommodate brown bins on New York City’s limited sidewalk space; and an educational outreach strategy. The moves would pave the way for a possible mandatory food waste collection and a new industrial-scale treatment facility within the city limits. “If we make composting mandatory, companies would be fighting to come to New York to handle the processing,” Brooklyn Borough President Reynoso said.

De Blasio City Hall has not embraced these plans, as evidenced by a surprise announcement the former mayor made during an Earth Day 2021 press conference: “Now, fortunately, we have the resources to bring composting back to the curb! de Blasio said. To an outsider not steeped in the world of trash, this probably felt like a happy resolution to the compost story. But de Blasio’s solution did not address any of the systemic issues that originally plagued New York’s pre-pandemic program.

“I really feel like he just punched us in the face,” Domingo Morales, a master composter (essentially a doctorate in compost, earned through a mix of hands-on training and volunteer hours) told me. ) the day after the announcement. “He axed the program that Bloomberg started in 2013, then just reinstated the same program on Earth Day 2021.”

“People want to do two things: drop off their leftover food and take a picture with Rocky,” says Reyes of Astoria Pug. “We get a lot of complaints if Rocky isn’t there.” (Photo: Rachel Nuwer)

Save Our Compost is counting on the new mayor, Eric Adams, to take the lead on zero waste. “Because Eric Adams is a vegan, we hope he will be receptive to what New York’s compost projects mean for the city,” Reyes said shortly after Adams was elected in November 2021. “However, as of now, his campaign has yet to make meaningful environmental discourse.

The Adams administration declined an interview request for this story. But in late February, the mayor’s office announced planned budget cuts, including suspending the reintroduction and expansion of the composting program, a line item that represents just 0.02% of the city’s overall budget. Adams said The New York Times that the program was “broken”, because participation was too low.

As Wood points out, this just underscores what Save Our Compost has always said. “There are major issues with the composting program not being mandatory,” he says. “It’s just not going to collect enough material, because landlords can’t be forced to listen to their tenants.”

Save Our Compost immediately called an emergency meeting, and city council members plan to push back against the mayor’s draft budget. Sandy Nurse, City Council Member and Sanitation Chair, warned on Twitter that scrapping the composting program will only lead to “more rats tearing up our trash bags” and “a lower quality of life for our city’s most disadvantaged communities.” In March, Nurse held a rally on the steps of Brooklyn Borough Hall, with people in rat costumes, to protest budget cuts.

As the curbside pickup program continues to be held at City Hall, coalition members are moving forward. Reynoso and a member of the city council have proposed two bills that would mandate zero waste by 2030 and lay out plans to get there. With the sudden public craze for waste, composting may very soon become a legal requirement.

New core programs have also taken firm root. Last October, Morales won the $200,000 David Prize, given to New Yorkers with big ideas. He used the funds to build ten new treatment sites in underserved neighborhoods in New York City. “If we want to ensure that our zero waste initiatives can survive a pandemic or a budget cut, they need to be rooted in the community,” Morales says. “I want to see a more united composting culture in New York, where everyone is involved, everyone is equally important.”

The key to success is to convert all New Yorkers to the cause. As with recycling in the 1980s, normalizing composting and entrenching it in the culture of New York and beyond will take time. One way to speed up the process is to reach out to young people: St. Hillaire and her five-year-old daughter recently published a children’s book on composting, and in the summer of 2020 BK Rot launched a young leaders program to his composters and microcarriers, all of whom are young people of color.

But those who are more attached to their burial habits can also be won over. To get her mom, Lisa Mosely, excited about compost, St. Hillaire recently showed her Nate and Hila’s music video, in which she makes a guest appearance as the hungry rap worm. The humor was initially lost on Mosley, who asked St. Hillaire why she was “taking a bite out of that girl’s head.” St. Hillaire patiently explained the message behind the video.

St. Hillaire says she always tries to “support my mom’s learning curve.” And once in a while, Mosley gives her a little bag of frozen leftovers.