Every Saturday morning, four large, empty green bins are rolled to the southern edge of the farmer’s market across from PS/IS 217. Over the next few hours, they slowly fill as passing Islanders drop off the past week’s food scraps – an intoxicating mixture of blackened banana peels, moldy rolls, corn husks, rotting fruit, and more.
The collection is part of an effort by the New York City Compost Project, hosted by Big Reuse, to divert some of the more than 1.1 million tons of food waste created by New Yorkers each year from landfills and, instead, turn it into nutrient-rich soil that can be reused in New York City’s parks and gardens. In November, the nonprofit will celebrate its second year of collecting food scraps on the Island. In that time, the group says it has collected more than 50,000 pounds of food waste from Roosevelt Island residents alone. And they hope that’s just the beginning.
Islander Gilda Hannah has been dropping off her food scraps at the farmer’s market every Saturday since the program first launched two years ago.
“I hate saving it, because it stinks,” she admitted on a recent Saturday morning as she emptied plastic bags of wilted greens into the large green bin. “But I think the program is absolutely fabulous. It should be done by all of us. It’s criminal to throw this stuff away. If it can be put to good use, it has to be, because this is the environment.”
Islander Gilda Hannah has been dropping off her kitchen scraps since the program first started on Roosevelt Island.
From Trash to Treasure
Big Reuse is a local nonprofit that focuses on diverting material from landfills by salvaging construction material, furniture, and appliances for resale or repurposing, as well as composting food scraps. In 2012, the group’s composting program became part of the NYC Compost Project, which is funded by the NYC Department of Sanitation.
“Big Reuse was one of the first organizations to expand food scrap drop-off opportunities in the City, bringing them to northern Brooklyn and western Queens,” says Devin Reitsma, project coordinator for NYC Compost Project hosted by Big Reuse.
Today, he says, the group operates 14 food-scrap drop-off sites, including the one on Roosevelt Island, and composts roughly 1.3 million pounds of organic material a year, making them one of the largest NYC Compost Project operations.
“We’re neck-and-neck with Earth Matter on Governor’s Island as to who processes the most in the city,” Reitsma says. When asked if there was some friendly competition going on between the organizations, he laughs. “We’re all on the same side.”
Davis Reitsma with a bin of food scraps waiting to be processed.
The processing site works year-round and employs eight staff members. Each week, the filled green bins are picked up from Roosevelt Island and are brought to Big Reuse’s processing site, a large paved area tucked under the Queensboro Bridge in Long Island City.
According to Reitsma, half of the material they process comes from their own collection sites, while the rest comes from other market drop-offs throughout the city. That material is then combined with leaves, wood chips, and other organic matter, which is provided by the NYC Parks Department and the Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn. The process takes months as the material goes through multiple stages of decomposition and sifting. The final result is a dark, rich soil that is then distributed to the Parks Department, community gardens, school gardens, and other local organizations. Once a year, they also let individuals come to collect some of the material.
“One of the benefits of compost is the microbiology,” says Reitsma. “It’s a living thing.”
Despite the program’s current success, the Island’s food scrap drop-off location didn’t come about by chance. According to Reitsma, the collaboration is largely the result of outreach and coordination by Islanders, including Roosevelt Island Garden Club members Julia Ferguson and Anthony Longo, and iDig2Learn founder Christina Delfico.
“They’re really passionate. They approached us to open a drop-off site and did a lot of the heavy lifting for us,” he says. “Normally it takes quite a bit of work and research to open a food scrap drop-off. But they did almost everything for us.”
Anthony Longo says that composting had already been happening on the Island for a while, largely at the Garden Club, but not on an Island-wide scale. Then, while living in the Octagon and helping with a small community garden there, Longo says he began to notice that Islanders were dumping their personal food scraps into the garden’s small composting station.
“People had discovered that it was the only option for someone who felt really strongly about recycling kitchen scraps,” says Longo. “The bin would fill up in a day. So we saw that there was a desire out there and we thought we needed to be able to facilitate that.”
After investigating and ultimately abandoning the idea of working with building managers to create a compost program, he says a group of Islanders went to tour Big Reuse’s composting facility in Long Island City, where he met Outreach Coordinator Erycka de Jesus. “I knew five minutes into her spiel that she really got it,” he recalls. “She was passionate. And they really had the knowledge of how to do this. For me, that was the beginning of the collaboration.”
Longo says that the Garden Club’s Julia Ferguson was instrumental in advocating for the project and pushing through a lot of red tape and hesitation on the part of the Queens-based organizations who didn’t serve Manhattan addresses, which Roosevelt Island technically is. And he credits Christina Delfico with advocating for the project with RIOC.
When the drop-off site finally opened, Reitsma says response from Islanders was tremendous. “They seemed to get it right away. Usually we see a very gradual increase in participation, but Roosevelt Island hit its current array very quickly. Immediately, people started doing it.”
At the processing site under the Queensboro Bidge, workers sift out wood chips and other material from finished compost.
As for what’s next, Longo says he’d love to see a second drop-off location set up on the Island.
“I’d love to find a way to get the rest of the people who don’t necessarily come to the farmer’s market,” he says. “The Southtown buildings have a different habit of life than the middle Main Street buildings. I know that there are people who are interested in that there, but they’re not going to come up on a Saturday morning to drop off their scraps.” He envisions one day opening a commuter drop-off station near the subway station so people can drop off their food scraps on the way to work.
In the more immediate future, he hopes that the Island will be able to provide a recycling option for discarded Christmas trees following the coming holiday season. “It’s something we are working on,” he says.
Reitsma says his group is also focused on expanding. At the moment, about half of all food scraps collected in the city have to be shipped out of the city for processing, wasting fuel. The NYC Compost Project hosted by Big Reuse is eagerly awaiting an impending move to a larger site, still located under the bridge, a few dozen yards closer to Roosevelt Island. Combined with an additional site opening in Brooklyn, Reitsma is optimistic that the group should be able to more than double its current capacity within the next year.
“More and more people are starting to make the connection that food scraps shouldn’t be in a landfill,” he says. “It doesn’t have to be. It costs the city a ton of money to ship that stuff to the landfill and it produces this really rich valuable resource to help restore our city’s soil.”
He invites all Islanders to come learn more about composting and join the effort by attending the second annual Pumpkin Smash event on November 4, from 11:00 a.m to 2:00 p.m. on the lower lawn of Manhattan Park. Residents are encouraged to bring their post-Halloween pumpkins and gourds for recycling and to stay for fall festivities and treats.