As food scrap collection peaks, New York community compost sites face evictions

Big questions remain about the future of food waste disposal in New York City

Published March 17, 2021 10:30AM (EDT)

Compost after drop off in Queens, New York. (Getty Images)
Compost after drop off in Queens, New York. (Getty Images)

This story first appeared on Civil Eats.

A few days a week, a colorfully painted box truck can be spotted weaving through the narrow streets of Lower Manhattan to pick up food scraps and bring them to a compost yard in East River Park. When they arrive at the yard, Kellan Stanner goes through the freshly collected scraps — half of a scooped-out watermelon, warped vegetable stems, lopsided apple cores — looking for anything that can't be composted.

After Stanner, who manages the compost operation at the Lower East Side Ecology Center (LESEC), decontaminates the pile, he'll mix the fresh scraps with wood chips to create just the right balance of "carbon and nitrogen in order to replicate the natural process of decomposition," he says.

As the compost matures, it will make its way through a series of windrows—heaps of organic material, all carefully rotting with the help of bacteria and fungi. If all goes as planned, the scraps will become nutrient-rich compost in 8–12 months, which will then be donated to the city's parks, community groups, and nearby gardens.

But things might not go as planned. In fact, this hyper-local system for processing waste might soon not have a home in the park. In October, the New York City Parks Department asked LESEC to vacate its lot, where the compost operation has been for two decades of its 30-year life, to make way for pending construction in the park. Construction is anticipated to begin in the spring, according to a representative from the Mayor's Office. The Department of Sanitation, the primary agency tasked with finding a new home for the compost yard, has yet to identify a feasible location.

Christine Datz-Romero, the co-founder of LESEC, intends to continue composting in the park for as long as it takes to secure and fully prepare a new site. "My position is that the compost yard will move once a new site is ready to move to. That's my parameter," Datz-Romero told Civil Eats.

Across the East River in Queens, another composting site is also being pushed out. The Parks Department has decided not to renew the license of Big Reuse, which has run a composting operation on a half-acre under the Queensboro Bridge for a decade. Initially, the eviction was set for December 31, 2020, but after community pushback, this was delayed until June 30. The Department of Sanitation also has yet to secure a new site for Big Reuse.

"Unfortunately, we have not yet found suitable relocation sites, but we are working closely with the Mayor's Office and other agencies to relocate LESEC and Big Reuse," a representative for the Department of Sanitation explained by e-mail to Civil Eats. "We communicate regularly with each nonprofit about this search and are working closely with both partners." The representative noted that the Department of Sanitation has so far looked at 50 alternative locations for both sites.

Citing budget cuts due to COVID-19, New York City suspended its curbside composting program and its organic recycling program for schools last year. There are no set dates for either service to resume. "We are constantly evaluating our fiscal situation," a representative from the Mayor's Office said in an e-mail. Steep cuts were also made to the Department of Sanitation's NYC Compost Project, the network that includes Big Reuse and LESEC and five other sites. This has left the community composting sites picking up the city's slack, operating at close to capacity. For instance, in January of this year, LESEC processed nearly 135,000 pounds of food scraps, an uptick from the roughly 80,000 pounds processed in January 2020.

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In July, a coalition called Save Our Compost successfully fought to restore $2.88 million, just 10% of the NYC Compost Project's previous funding, to the budget — enough to restore some food-scrap drop-off sites and keep four community-scale compost sites open.

"We had to shift from focusing on how to expand organics collection and processing to fighting to save a few sites that were really holding the city's composting program together and doing heroic work for years — or in some cases, decades," said Tok Michelle Oyewole, a policy and communications organizer with the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance and a member of the coalition.

Now, the evictions are prompting big questions about the future of food waste disposal in a city of 8 million that in 2015 committed to sending zero waste to the landfill by 2030.

The legacy of community composters

In the early '70s, when New York City was undergoing a fiscal crisis, vacant lots — often the result of foreclosure — were commonplace. Members of the nonprofit group Green Guerillas threw seed bombs over the fences of these lots and began cultivating gardens. "This move not only beautified formerly vacant lots but soon became a grassroots program that fostered neighborhood participation," states a New York City Parks Department's website.

Community composters like Big Reuse and LESEC are in many ways an extension of this legacy. The site that Big Reuse currently occupies was once full of garbage. "It had been squatted [on] by a private construction contractor for years, probably a decade, and they filled it with construction rubble and old machinery," said Justin Green, the site's founder and executive director.

Similarly, LESEC moved into East River Park two decades ago, at a time when it was underutilized. As the first community-scale composter in New York City, they showed how it is possible to create an educational, sustainable waste system in a city. "We were really the first ones who pioneered drop-offs in a public space, the first ones who pioneered having a site in a public park," said Datz-Romero.

Now, as New York undergoes another fiscal crisis comparable to the '70s, the question remains whether community composting will be allowed to continue to build a legacy in New York City's parks, or whether its long roots will be cut short.

A confounding decision

"We are nearing a point where New Yorkers will have no opportunity to recycle organic waste," said Council Member Antonio Reynoso at a December oversight hearing called by the City Council to address both evictions and community composting on parks land. "Why are the actions of the Parks Department misaligned with the stated goals of the city? Why is the city saying that recycling organic waste is essential but then not supporting the work of community composters?"

Over the course of the five-hour hearing, Sam Biederman, the chief of staff of the Parks Department, justified both evictions by citing "recent operational needs and legal concerns." In the case of Big Reuse, the Parks Department intends to store vehicles and operational supplies in the lot while restoring the adjacent Queensbridge Baby Park for public use, including for the adjacent public housing. In the case of LESEC, the parkland will be under construction and elevated as part of the East Side Coastal Resiliency Project.

Reynoso took issue with the explanation that the restoration of Queensbridge Baby Park necessitates the eviction of Big Reuse. "That's like basic colonialist theory to pit one poor community against another. There is space underneath the Queensborough Bridge," said Reynoso. Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer argued that it's possible to both build the park and preserve Big Reuse. "They are not mutually exclusive goals," he said.

Similarly, in her testimony, Datz-Romero argued that the coastal resiliency project could make room for composting within its final plan. "For the Parks Department to say we are building a world-class resilient park and at the same time throw the composting program to the wayside, is just unconscionable," she said. "We say to create a resilient East River Park, the compost yard needs to return to this park."

In a claim that could have sweeping implications for the future of city composting, the Parks Department's Biederman suggested that the sites may not be a legal use of park land. "There are some legal concerns about certain types of composts being practiced on park land," he said, in response to a question by Council Member Peter Koo about outside composting.

In a December 2020 letter, Parks Dept's commissioner Mitchell J. Silver explained the legal concern more explicitly, stating that the agency's "understanding of the appropriateness of composting on parks land changed subject to the 2014 New York Supreme Court decision Raritan Baykeeper v. City of New York." This case determined that a 20-acre industrial compost facility for processing sludge from sewage plants was an inappropriate use of Spring Creek Park in Queens. (The letter was provided to Civil Eats in response to a request for comment; the Parks Department didn't offer further comment.)

Eric Goldstein, senior attorney and New York City Environmental Director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, disagreed with the given legal justifications. In testimony, he referred to them as "among the most illogical and unreasonable city agency actions in memory."

In a follow-up interview, Goldstein added that the industrial facility in the Raritan case took up 20 times more space than the composting operations, while generating noise and odor. This prompted a legal challenge arguing that the facility was violating the public trust doctrine, a common law principle that says that parks should be used for the public good.

"Here, it's exactly the opposite," said Goldstein. "No one is [legally] challenging these facilities. Environmental groups are coming out of the woodwork to support these two nonprofit groups."

A broader deprioritizing of community-scale compost

Advocates describe the evictions as part of a broader pattern of the city's sidelining — and failing to recognize the growing importance of — composting.

Perhaps, the most obvious benefit is that community composting cuts down on food waste, which represents a third of the waste New York City sends to landfills every year. If it's not composted, that waste is trucked out of the city to a landfill, where it breaks down and releases methane, a potent greenhouse gas that warms that earth 80 times faster than carbon dioxide. Before leaving the city, though, that waste makes a pit stop at transfer stations primarily located in the Bronx, Southeast Queens, and North Brooklyn. These are neighborhoods with higher-than-average rates of asthma and other lung diseases, and those conditions are made worse by the diesel trucks that come and go from the transfer stations.

"Every pound of food waste or yard waste that is processed at a local community composting site, doesn't need to go to an intermediary transfer station in a community of color or a low-income community," said Oyewole of the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance. Collectively, Big Reuse and LESEC divert about 2.5 million pounds of food waste per year.

Beyond this, Oyewole notes that community-scale composting helps educate people about sustainable waste systems, while also having the potential to build good jobs. She points to the success of existing organizations, like BK ROT, a bicycle-powered micro-hauler and composting service staffed by young people of color. "If we were able to localize collection processing with sustainable, zero-emissions vehicles and with good jobs, we'd be achieving so many co-benefits at the same time," said Oyewole.

This city's divestment from community-scale composting also has a ripple effect on the broader urban ecosystem: the gardeners, urban farmers, and waste haulers that depend on these sites. This includes groups like Astoria Pug, a two-person, one-dog volunteer team in Astoria that emerged in response to the city's budget cuts and began collecting food scraps. Currently, Astoria Pug drops off all of their waste at Big Reuse. Likewise, GrowNYC, the nonprofit that runs farmers' markets throughout the city, relies on Big Reuse for recycling food scraps.

"If this site were to shut down, I cannot tell you where we would go. I cannot fathom what our backup plan would be," said Gennie Moralez, a regional coordinator with GrowNYC.

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On top of the evictions, other community-scale composting operations have faced pushback from the Parks Department. The Red Hook Farms composting operation — the largest fossil-free composting site in the United States — has been told by the Parks Department that they are no longer allowed to take in food scraps. This, in turn, led their city funding to be diverted. The site was unique because the compost was processed without the use of any machinery, instead relying on around 2,500 volunteers per year. The compost produced was delivered to school gardens, community farms, and used at their own farm sites, which includes the first farm in the city on public housing land.

"We really opened the gate for anybody to compost," said Domingo Morales, the operation's former manager. "That site should be a museum [showing] what an urban compost site should be." Morales also noted that the composting allowed the Red Hook Farms to operate as a closed-loop system, producing food and then recycling the scraps. "Now, it's like it is missing an organ," said Morales.

Morales is in the process of building other composting sites without city funding. With the support of a The David Prize, Morales founded Compost Power, which he says aims to "build small compost sites throughout the city, run by their community instead of Department of Sanitation." He aims to build 10 operations in low-income neighborhoods in New York City, including on public housing land, working closely with the communities to design the sites.

But Morales is in a rare position. Most community groups working to access land to build gardens and compost operations without city funding face significant challenges. The volunteer-based Woodside Sunnyside Composting crew, for instance, have been working to secure access to a lot in Queens that has been sitting vacant for about a decade. The group currently operates out of the Sunnyside Community Garden, growing food to donate to local pantries and composting residential scraps. The additional space would allow for another composting site and a "pantry garden," focused on growing food for donation.

After attempting to work with the city to no luck, the group decide to move forward with their plans last summer. "Eventually, one person in our group just got fed up and said, 'You know what, screw it, let's just do it.' And we just did," said Eric Reisenauer, a Queens resident and member of the composting crew. So they cleaned up the lot strewn with debris and garbage and then went around the neighborhood collecting abandoned furniture to fashion into garden beds.

Not long afterward, in late October, the Parks Department ripped out the dozen of already planted beds, as the group documented in a video.

In the end, those working to bring a more circular, ecological approach to New York City's relationship to food waste will likely keep pushing make sure that compost — and the urban farms and gardens it makes possible — doesn't leave the city altogether. But the potential loss of Big Reuse and the Lower East Side Ecology Center could have ripple effects that spread beyond the edible.

Take Lashawn "Suga Ray" Marston. He's recently planted a garden that lives just a stone's throw from Big Reuse, in Queensbridge Houses, the largest public housing development in North America, and had planned to work with the composter.

Last September, Marston fulfilled a long-held dream of leading the project to plant a sacred healing garden commemorating those lost to gun violence in the neighborhood. "I wanted to create something more life-affirming in honor of those we lost, while also beautifying the space," said Marston. He was looking forward to bringing in fresh compost from next door.

By Greta Moran

Greta Moran is a news fellow at Grist.

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