Composting: The Circle of Life

By Leah Li

A furious breeze gusted through the little garden, flattening plants and bushes as their roots clamped desperately to the ground. Wind chimes jerked in various directions. Layered amidst the cacophonous battleground of sounds was the chirping of unseen birds who jabbered and trilled to one another with abandon. It was a bright Sunday afternoon, and the usually-fastened high metal gates were finally open for this single day of the week.

Passersby peered curiously into the small enclosement which housed a strange assortment of items, many of which are not typically found in a garden: sturdy poles standing upright next to wooden figurines and broken benches; decorative artworks hanging above a metal shopping cart; a tangled water hose lying by a haphazardly-draped sheet of waterproof tarp; and, four large covered plastic garbage bins situated just inside the open gates.

Younger and older New Yorkers alike strode purposefully into the garden, sometimes individually, sometimes in two and threes. All members would plunge their hands into the depths of their purse, backpack, bag or tote, from which they would retrieve misshapen plastic bags of varying sizes. They would then lift up the lid of a garbage bin, and proceed to empty the contents of their plastic bags into the bins.

The stench wafting from the bins should have been enough to drive away any and all newcomers. But there was no end to the steady stream of uniquely like-minded people. A peek into the bins finally revealed the motive for these comings and goings: these people were dumping pounds and pounds of garbage here. But these weren’t just ordinary garbage bins; they were compost bins.

Julie Besonen, a freelance reporter for The New York Times, Paper Magazine and other publications, has been living in New York City nearly all of her life. She lives on 7th Street, right up the block from the Lower East Side Ecology Center Community Garden where she drops off her compost every Sunday.

“My neighbor started me on it about… It could be as long ago as seven years? So a really long time,” said Julie. “You used to be able to come into the garden any day and drop your compost off. But I think too many people were just putting their garbage here, so they had to restrict it.”

Julie’s neighbor, the same one that inspired her to get started with composting, is also a reporter. Back in 2005, they did a story together for The New York Times on how to get involved in this spreading shift toward greener, more sustainable lifestyles.

“We take some pride in saying that we think our article in the Times helped make more people aware of food waste, and composting, because then we just started to see it growing and growing and growing.”

Composting has been widely regarded as “nature’s way of recycling.” The process involves the biological decomposition of organic waste, creating a nutrient-rich substance similar to topsoil, or humus, which is the naturally occurring organic fraction of soil. In order to produce the richest compost with the most efficiency, specially-designed compost bins allow for the control of the different factors that affect the speed of decay: water, oxygen, food and temperature.

“Before, there would only be one or two of these compost bins, and now they change these a few times a day,” said Julie. “And at Union Square, it’s incredible how many there are, and how fast they fill up.”

The focus of Julie’s awe is in the work accomplished over the years by the Lower East Side Ecology Center. Founded in 1987, the Ecology Center has been at the forefront of community-based recycling and composting initiatives in New York City. The Ecology Center provides environmental education programs as well as community compost drop-off locations in an effort to reduce waste in the city. Their Community Compost Program began as early as 1990 at their community garden, located on East 7th Street, between Avenues B and C. Since 1994, they have also had a stand at the Union Square Greenmarket, where New York City residents can both drop off their kitchen scraps and purchase potting soil mixed with finished compost.

The Ecology Center’s Union Square location is popular because they are there four times a week: Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays. New Yorkers come up to the available compost bins just as frequently as visitors stop by the community garden site on Sundays.

“Oh, I’ve been coming here about a year now, I’d say. It feels like it’s been forever,” says Lisa Goldblum, a familiar face at the Union Square Community Compost site. Since she discovered this compost drop-off location, she has made it a habit to drop by twice or three times a week – despite having to commute from Harlem. “We have a vegetarian in the family, so we always have a lot to compost.”

“People just gradually have gotten it,” said Julie, smiling. “It’s growing so much.”

“One thing I’ve noticed is that ever since I’ve been composting, I hardly have any garbage. I take out my garbage maybe once every three weeks. It’s crazy,” Julie said with a laugh. “And I do eat meat, I mean, if I eat fish or meat and have bones, then I throw it out. But otherwise, by just eating whole foods and putting everything in the compost, your garbage doesn’t even stink, and there’s just hardly anything.”

“By cutting down on the amount of garbage you have, you also cut down on the amount of waste sent to the landfill,” Julie explained. “In turn, that cuts down on the cost to haul it all away, which would save the city a lot of money. It just makes so much sense economically.”

According to Environmental Protection Agency estimates, more than 97% of the food we throw away is sent to landfills; in 2010 alone, more than 33 million tons of food waste ended up in our landfills and incinerators. Food has become the single largest type of waste going into our landfills.

In his State of the City Address in February 2013, Mayor Bloomberg stated that New York City sends 1.2 million tons of food waste to landfills every year. It is estimated that each ton costs nearly $80 in transportation and maintenance fees – which amounts to a hefty sum and huge responsibility for the City’s Department of Sanitation to shoulder.

Not only is sending food waste to landfills an economic burden, but it is an environmental one as well. When food waste is not composted and instead joins the rest of our waste in transport for hundreds of miles to our limited landfill sites, it is buried deep within this airtight space. Without access to oxygen, organic waste is unable to decompose naturally, and instead generates air pollution and produces methane – an extremely harmful greenhouse gas.

As part of Mayor Bloomberg’s plan to reduce food waste in New York City, he is starting a pilot composting program in Staten Island. Single family homes will receive two sealed-top bins to place their food scraps: a small bin for their kitchens, and a larger one for curbside collection. Eventually, the collected organic waste will be composted into fertilizer for parks; if the initiative succeeds in Staten Island, it may be expanded to the rest of the city.

The benefits of adopting composting citywide are vast, said Julie. “Millions of dollars could be saved by the city. One reason is because we buy so much topsoil for our parks; we could transform it instead for a very little amount of money if more money was put into the Lower East Side Ecology Center, and the other places that are already composting.”

Topsoil is crucially important because it is the layer of soil that nourishes all of our plants. It is the layer that contains humus, bacteria, fungi, insects and worms; without healthy topsoil, it is impossible to grow much of our food.

As a result of repeated years of overgrazing and unsuitable cultivation practices, the topsoil throughout much of the country has been stripped of nutritive value – what we call “soil erosion” – and it has become an important problem in recent years. According to the 2010 FoodWorks report, the U.S. is losing topsoil approximately ten times faster than it can be replaced due to these unsustainable agricultural practices. Healthy topsoil is required to grow much of our food – our planet’s existence depends on it – yet not very many people are aware of this issue.

Because the quality of soils in New York City is similarly steadily deteriorating, the city is forced to import much-needed, healthier topsoil from outside the city; this amounts to millions of dollars each year. Composting is both a solution for recycling organic waste locally and as a source of healthy growing medium for NYC’s environmental projects. Finished compost is used to enrich and stabilize soil, providing nutrients to plants and retaining moisture and minerals. And, depending on its quality, the recycled product can be used in community gardens, on street trees, and in public beautification projects such as parks and ball fields.

“It just makes so much sense,” Julie said, “to recycle what resources we can. And it makes me feel a lot less guilty when an apple goes rotten, or I don’t use up a squash, because it’s going back to compost. I’m not throwing it out. And I really try to not ever waste any food.”

Food waste is one of the biggest problems in the world today. The 2011 United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization report revealed that one third of all food products worldwide go uneaten. In the United States, the percentage is even higher: about 40% of the food we produce is not eaten. Altogether, this amounts to 1.3 billion tons of edible goods discarded each year.

Executive Director of Natural Resources Defense Council Peter Lehner gave a presentation at the 2013 TEDxManhattan – “Changing the Way We Eat.” In his speech, entitled “Address the Excess – A Recipe for Cutting Food Waste,” he talks about the environmental impacts of all this waste as well.

“There is waste at the farm, in transit, at supermarkets and restaurants, at homes. It’s everywhere. 40 per cent of our food is wasted. Think of the resources that would be saved if that didn’t happen. Less air pollution, water pollution, climate pollution, toxic pollution.”

According to a 2009 Greenpeace Climate Vision report, up to 30% of the world’s total annual carbon emissions is created by the food industry. Each step of the food production process is heavily reliant on fossil fuel energy; oil is needed to produce, harvest, package, transport, storage, purchase, and eat. Not only is that a tremendous amount of energy being used, but also, when we waste or discard the food that is produced, it means that all of the resources used at each level of the food production system were used in vain.

The faint sounds of car honks intrudes into the quiet street, blaring in varying intensities, lengths, tones and rhythms. Babies wail, children laugh, and people chatter and shout and argue. A lone plastic bag is swept up and away by the wind, only to be caught short against the high metal gates.

Julie glanced up at the plastic bag, and shook her head. “Waste, in general, drives me insane. That’s why I always carry my own bags whenever I go to farmers markets. Years ago though, when I would bring my own cloth bags, they would automatically put things in a plastic bag and I would have to tell them, ‘Oh, no bag.’ But now, I’ve noticed more and more at the farmers market, they will ask you, ‘Do you need a bag?’ or ‘Would you like a bag?’ Not all of them will automatically bag it anymore. And that’s important too, especially when you see the plastic bags hanging from the trees. So, it’s happening. But, it’s just been really slow.”

“I’m glad at least there’s progress.”

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May 17, 2013 · 11:03 pm

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