Photo: Andreana Bitsis

How Does NYC Do Compost?

In most places, composting is a relatively straightforward process from kitchen to garden– but of course, New York is not “most places”.

If you’ve ever been to a farmers market in NYC, you know compost happens, somehow, somewhere, and on an unbelievably impressive scale. But like many infrastructures in NYC– a city where every street corner has a purpose and there’s no space left to spare– it’s one of those mechanisms that boggles the mind. On a quest to better understand how a city as urban as NYC and a practice as rural as composting have made a happy marriage for themselves, GC Photo Editor Andreana Bitsis and I set sail to the NYC Compost Project hosted by Earth Matter NY‘s Compost Learning Center, located at the center of the picturesque Governor’s Island.

Founded in 2009, Earth Matter is a non-profit with a public education bent, “dedicated to advancing the art, science, and application of composting in and around New York City”; they are also one of several sites that accepts food scraps from Grow NYC‘s 42 green markets. With funding from the NYC Department of Sanitation, the NYC Compost Project Hosted by Earth Matter NY and other organizations (like the Lower East Side Ecology Center) are working towards NYC’s Zero Waste by 2030 initiative by diverting food waste from landfills.

Toward that end, twice a week a truck boards the ferry to Governor’s Island and drops off the food scraps collected from various Green Markets across Manhattan. The scraps are then “decanted” (as the Earth Matter team jokingly refers to the process); spilled out for a roost of round, well-fed chickens; and then subsequently moved to various composting systems around the Compost Learning Center. There, they breakdown over a period of many months, eventually becoming “black gold” that is used to support the landscape of Governor’s Island, Earth Matter’s Soil Start urban farmand can be sifted by the public at Open Hours during the Governor’s Island open season.

Photo: Andreana Bitsis

 While there are many organizations that work on compost in NYC, the Compost Learning Center’s location on Governor’s Island makes it a poster child for NYC’s recent lifestyle shift, one which makes room for the outdoors and embraces nature amidst the compact urban landscape (the Highline is most obvious example of this change). The apprentices working at Earth Matter towards the Compost Operator Training Apprenticeship Certificate are further proof of this new way of life: one is beefing up his compost knowledge so that he can take it back to the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation in Uttar Pradesh, India, where he’s working on developing compost curriculum; another works as a personal chef and children’s cooking teacher around NYC, and is looking to incorporate more of the food cycle into her work; a third works for the Zero Waste Department of GrowNYC and is in the apprentice program to get a better sense of how the organizations and their missions work together. Each approaches what they learn with a different goal in mind, but each has found a modern way to bring compost into their lives. In short: compost is no longer a practice reserved for those living in the remote wilderness– it’s possible (one might even say convenient), even in a city as urban and built-up as New York.

Photo: Andreana Bitsis

 Standing between mounds of matter in various decomposing states, with the island’s rolling hills on one side and NYC’s industrial peaks an ever present sight, the new New York seems to come together, arranged out of the chaos of discarded orange peels and crushed egg shells. 

It’s also an outlook that seems to leave no excuse for anyone who has the resources to compost. If a city like New York– the very definition of an urban metropolis– can do it, then anyone can. Earth Matter seems seems to prove the old adage: if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere.

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Earth Matter NY accepts and processes food waste as part of DSNY’s NYC Compost Project, which helps to reduce waste in NYC and rebuild city soils by giving New Yorkers the knowledge, skills, and opportunities they need to produce and use compost.

To learn more about Earth Matter or the NYC Compost Project, visit each organization’s website.

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