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Save Those Scraps! New York City is Expanding its Composting Program

HOST INTRO: New York City has a lot of waste. And most of it, is food waste. Last year, the Department of Sanitation collected nearly 30,000 tons of banana peels, coffee grounds and expired lettuce. And the city is expanding its composting program. But not mandating it. If it did, it could be collecting 40 times that. As the program stands now, few people are participating. And environmentalists are hoping to get that number up. Meira Gebel reports.

(Union Square Greenmarket ambi)


Every Wednesday for the last two years, Milinda Moore has been dropping off her food scraps in one of the nine gray bins on the far east side of Union Square. Opening up a plastic bag, she describes what’s inside.


Let’s see… some red cabbage, I used to like make tacos, and alfalfa sprouts I sprouted in my kitchen. 

A full bin filled with food scraps at Union Square Greenmarket on E 17th St & Union Square on Wednesday, April 25. Photo by Meira Gebel.


These gray bins are not meant for your empty coffee cup. Inside you’ll find banana peels, brown egg shells or even a perfectly edible head of broccoli. These are compost bins. For Moore, composting just makes sense.

(sounds of Moore dumping her compost into the bin)


 I’d been reading zero waste blogs was like why don’t I just do this. And so I always have an appointment in Union Square on Wednesday. So I just make it part of my routine to drop it off on Wednesdays. 


And that’s where Angel Gonzalez comes in. At 11 a.m. everyday, he picks up the gray compost bins from Union Square and drives them to the Lower East Side Ecology Center—one of nearly a dozen facilities in the city that process food waste.

(birds around Lower East Side Ecology Center)


I basically process a lot of the material that we get from all our food scraps drop off sites around the city.


The facility’s compost yard is located at the bottom of Manhattan, just over the freeway, on the waterfront. In the middle, there’s a line of five-foot-tall white bins. He dumps the gray bins into the white bins and out fall rotten apples, moldy oranges and pizza crusts. And it smells.

Nine composting bins located on the western side of Union Square. Composting bins are placed near the Union Square Greenmarket every Monday, Wednesday and Saturday. Some New Yorkers make it a routine to drop off their food scraps here. Photo by Meira Gebel.


We also mix the sawdust within the food scraps and it helps dramatically to break down.


After about three weeks of decaying, the mixture of food scraps, wood chips and sawdust turns into what Gonzales calls “black gold” — a soil mixture with loads of nutrition. He then piles the black gold into large mounds — which just looks like black dirt. You wouldn’t even know it was once food. It’s then packaged and given to city parks, urban farms and community gardens.

Jean Bonhotal is the director of Cornell’s Waste Management Institute. She says compost can be easily utilized, but New Yorkers have an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ philosophy when it comes to trash. And they don’t really see why composting is essential for a city made mostly of concrete.  


Composting is an important issue because organics are a resource. If we put them in a landfill, they are not doing us any good. But if we can capture those and get them into a compost facility then that soil amendment goes back to the soil and grows more food for us 


She says not only does composting enrich the soil, but it’s simple and something anyone can do right now. But since the city does not yet enforce composting, environmentalists are trying to get more people to join voluntary programs.

Marisa DeDominicis is the executive director of Earth Matter, an environmental advocacy group focused on composting. She agrees that composting is a no-brainer. But she adds that just providing a curbside bin may not be enough to motivate New Yorkers to actually use them.


I think that people aren’t going to do anything that is not easy for them. So this is like another hurdle for them, just like recycling. Oh you mean there’s a separate container for a plastic bottle then for a paper bag? (0:08)


DeDominicis says getting all New Yorkers to compost their leftover Chinese food instead of just simply throwing it out has not been easy. Cities like San Francisco, Portland and Seattle have mandated composting. But the populations of those three cities combined barely adds up to those of Brooklyn and Queens. To increase exposure, Earth Matter, along with the Department of Sanitation has set up compost drop-off bins within 0.5 miles of every home in the city.


We do need more infrastructure, because there’s a brown bin there there’s not necessarily the education that goes along with it.


The city requires that buildings collect paper, plastic and glass. But has left the composting program voluntary. As the program stands now, less than a quarter of a percent of the food waste we can be diverting is actually being collected and sent to local compost facilities.

Department of Sanitation spokeswoman Belinda Mager said every New Yorker will have a curbside compost bin by the end of the year. But didn’t mention how the city plans to expand in the future.  


It’s a voluntary program, the curbside program is available to 3.3 city residents, not all 8 million like the regular recycling program, paper, metal, glass and plastic. But it’s a voluntary program right now.

(bring back Union Square Greenmarket ambi)


Jane Karetny is the coordinator of the zero waste program on Governor’s Island. She says it is going to take both city regulation, education and mandates to get New Yorkers to compost on a broader level.


Whoever cares is going to make the move whether it’s a bottom up approach or top down approach I think both can be equally as important in moving the needle.


Back at Union Square, Stanley Sherman cares. He’s heard about the city’s compost expansion. He’s hopeful, and he thinks it wouldn’t take much to get skeptics on board.

Angel Gonzales at the Lower East Side Ecology Center on Thursday, April 19, 2018. Gonzales picks out plastic and other debris that make it into the composting mounds. Photo by Meira Gebel.


Definitely not too big of a venture venture you know. Plus once people start it becomes routine and if it’s curbside it’s really easy.


Sherman says he’s excited to get a bin in his building. But until then, he will walk the four blocks to drop off his compost at Union Square. Three times a week.

Meira Gebel, Columbia Radio News.


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