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Turning the Community on To Composting

Garbage in New York City is transported to landfills outside of the state. Ohio, Pennsylvania and New Jersey all have landfills full of our old clothes, packaging, contents of our last closet purge, and lots of food waste. This last one is the most unfortunate, because food was meant to compost back into the earth and enrich the soil for the next growing cycle. If we can keep food out of landfill and find a way to send it back to the soil that grows our food, we’re giving our future food the opportunity to be at least as nutritious as the food that came before it. It’s a simple concept. However, when you live in New York City where backyard gardens and opportunities to compost are scarce it seems like the only option for our food waste is to throw it into the landfill with the rest of the garbage.

Ben Bag Bag used to say, “Turn it, and turn it, for everything is in it. Reflect on it and grow old and gray with it. Don’t turn from it, for nothing is better than it.”

I’d love to say that I poured over reams of Jewish text to find the perfect metaphor for composting, but I really can’t. At our JCC in the East Village of NYC, 14th Street Y our community composting pilot came before we found the textual inspiration for it. However, like many of our [greening practices], the inspiration came from our learning with the Jewish Greening Fellowship, a program of the Isabella Freeman Jewish Retreat Center, funded by UJA. Back in 2009, we formed our staff Green Team and began the changes, and it was JGF that helped us begin. It was perfect then to learn that this line of text appears over the compost bins in the dining area of the Isabella Freeman Jewish Retreat center. Full circle, you might say. Not unlike the food cycle want to do our part to complete.

Most of the people who walk through the doors of our community center are small apartment urban dwellers. Their days are full and they are busy, either with family life, crazy jobs or a combination of those. The Y is a place that serves the community, so it was very important to us that we offered a composting program that fit easily into those busy lives. We’d been composting within the building for about a year (afterschool snacks and banana peels had a different place to go than the trash can). This March we chose to begin a community composting pilot—an opportunity for our members and patrons to sign up and drop off their own food waste with us.

Like composting itself, the concept is simple. After signing up with us, people were asked to save all their food waste; this includes the usual stuff like fruits, vegetables, peelings and cores, but also meat, bones, grains, dairy, even wooden chopsticks and paper take out containers. They bring their food waste in used milk cartons or paper bags, both of which are compostable, or in compostable bio bags. We used a waste hauling company, IESI to take the compostables to a plant where they would be processed (turn and turn it!) into composting soil and made available to local farms. We made a goal to divert 1 ton of food from landfill by Earth Day 2013, which we easily achieved.

It’s been amazing to see how many people would like to compost and will compost when there are sustainable ways of doing so. We’ve collected another half-ton since earth day!

Interested in composting yourself? In NYC, every composting program has a list of what they can and can’t take, so please make sure you double-check their lists before dropping off your compost.
NYC Greenmarkets have drop off programs for organic food waste, and it’s easy to remember to bring your food waste when you’re going to purchase more fresh, local food for your family.
• There are experts in composting at Lower East Side Ecology center. They can show you how to do your own composting…with worms!
Vokashi is a home composting service that lets you compost in your own kitchen with a special fermentation process in an odorless bucket. Then…they pick it up!
• You can get involved with your schools by creating and registering a school garden! Composting can be a part of a garden like this, and an opportunity to compost and learn together!
Finally, if you would like to start a community composting project like we did at the 14th Street Y, Please let us know! We’ll put you in touch with the right people and cheer you on from our downtown corner in the East Village. For more about our program.

Camille Diamond is the Director of Community Engagement and Communications at the 14th Street Y. She is passionate creating opportunities to put the power of community in action, especially when it comes to sustainability.

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