February 16, 2012

Urban Composting. How to convince your building that it’s cool. ~ Heather Topcik

I am pleased to announce that I have already fulfilled a resolution! Never mind that it was a resolution made back in 2010. This weekend we inaugurated a volunteer-run, community-wide composting program in my apartment building. It took about two seconds to dump the first batch of kitchen scraps into it and about two years to get to that point.

Until yesterday, my family had been composting with worms in our apartment for several years and I can’t say enough good things about worm bins! In my perfect world, every apartment kitchen would come with a built-in worm cabinet, just like they used to come with drop-down ironing boards. However, as a family of four that cranks out three meals a day, the number of food scraps we produced was overwhelming our bin. We would need three or four worm bins to manage our food scraps and – unless we built our coffee table out of worm bins (which isn’t such a bad idea, actually) – there would be nowhere to put them in our “cozy” abode. Since a number of my neighbors had also expressed interest in composting (one was already going to the trouble of freezing her scraps and hauling them down to the Union Square Greenmarket, one of the city’s compost collection sites), it seemed worth exploring a communal composting solution for our building.

Composting in New York City seems to be where recycling was in the early 1980′s: something that is slowly gaining momentum, but is still viewed as outside the mainstream. I imagine there were the same arguments against recycling then, as there are against composting now: that it takes too much time to separate your garbage, that somehow the building’s facilities staff will be unduly burdened, and is it really worth it anyway? And, of course, there is an extra barrier for some people: “Ew! Worms!” or “won’t it smell gross?”.

While I’m an advocate of recycling and feel that everyone should take responsibility for the waste they produce, recycling by necessity relies on an infrastructure to actually transform your plastic bottle or newspaper into something new and useful. Composting, by contrast, is a closed system. You get a bin, add your scraps, stir it around, and a few months later you have a beautiful, rich compost that can be added to your plants or tree beds (you could probably even sell it on Etsy). There is literally no downside and a huge upside in the palpable reduction of your own garbage (26% of the material that ends up in landfills is food scraps and yard waste that could be composted instead). With the vast number of different types of compost bins on the market these days, there is a fit for just about any lifestyle. For people outside urban areas with easy access to outdoor space, a compost bin should be a no-brainer. And if you live in a city and don’t produce more than 3 lbs of food scraps per week, a worm bin would suit you just fine. But for those of us in the middle: living in a city with a family and producing more waste than one worm bin can handle, the best thing to do is to band together with your neighbors.

We are lucky in New York City to have organizations like the Lower East Side Ecology Center that work to promote sustainability through community-based recycling and composting programs. They offer workshops on all types of recycling, including a class I attended back in 2010 on how to go about initiating a building-wide composting initiative. The presenter spoke about the ups and downs of convincing her co-op board to let a few residents install communal worm bins in the basement of her large building. As you can imagine, not everyone was on board with this idea (see: “Ew! Worms! above). She outlined a strategy to go about convincing her board and neighbors that, indeed, communal composting is a fabulous idea:

  1. Start by garnering the support of your neighbors. This is a volunteer endeavor and doesn’t require the buy-in of the entire building. You just need between 2-4 families to form a pilot project. In fact, it is better to start small and add people as the project becomes a success.
  2. Try to get the building management on your side. After all, even if the program is completely resident run, it will have an impact on the building’s waste management workflow and it is helpful to have a good relationship with those who maintain the public spaces. If you live in a rental building with high turnover, this will be a harder sell as it will really fall to building maintenance staff to keep it going. But who knows? They may just be waiting for this opportunity!
  3. Present it to the powers-that-be in the form of a well written proposal. Outline it as a pilot-project involving a core group of residents that will be reviewed by the board in three to six months. Knowing that they have a mechanism for terminating the project if it doesn’t work seems to go a long way toward assuaging the angst many building managers and their boards have about this kind of change. Make sure the proposal highlights the benefits of composting while also addressing common concerns all in one page. Here is a basic template to use: Composting Proposal Template
  4. Prepare to be rebuffed initially. Perhaps outright or perhaps by evasion. There will never be time to address it in the meeting. Or it will be “too much for the building to take on right now”. Don’t be discouraged – it took over a year and a half for my building to come around. Gentle prodding and reminders about how many buildings in the city are already composting successfully will help. Without being totally annoying, talk incessantly about how many fewer garbage bags will sit on the curb once we are composting. Appeal to the “green” side of the folks in control. No one wants to look like the Once-ler.
  5. If you live in NYC, call in the experts. For only $25, a member of the LESEC will visit your building, give a composting demonstration and talk to building managers and residents about the specifics of composting in the city, which is what we did one Sunday in early December. There is nothing like hearing it from an outside authority and I can’t say enough about how important this was for us. We spent two hours on a Sunday afternoon talking about “greens” and “browns” with Natalie from LESEC and at the end of it, even the initial critics were enthusiastic about the project. They even helped us select the most appropriate bin for our building.

Once you get the green light, you are almost there. The next step is selecting and ordering the bin. After much reflection, we decided to go with the Jora JK270 Compost Tumbler, which we ordered from EarthEasy. It is on the more expensive end of the spectrum and you can certainly get a good bin for much less, but we chose it because it had enough capacity for our entire building, and it’s dual chamber set allows one to keep adding to the other side of the bin once the first side is full and needs to cure. The fact that it sits high off the ground making it extra pest proof and easy to spin sealed the deal.

Once it arrived, the next step was to put it together. Coming from Sweden, the directions were written in high IKEA and totally unfathomable. Luckily, EarthEasy includes helpful assembly videos on their site. We watched as a strapping young lad took about 11 minutes to assemble the bin all by himself.

If I showed you a video of my husband and me assembling the JoraJK270, it would have to be a feature length-film, as it took us nearly three hours to put the damn thing together and almost ended our marriage. The film would be considered a “dramedy”, and I do admit that I questioned my commitment to the environment that evening. But that is behind us now and we have a rockin’ bin to show for it.

The next challenge was collecting enough “browns” – the carbon based plant material that forms one part of the composting quadrivium: Browns, Greens, Air and Water. In a healthy outdoor bin, you should have two parts brown material to one part green material. Greens are what you have in your kitchen. Browns are what you have in your yard. Except when it’s December in NYC and you don’t exactly have a yard. Thus, began a rather comical search for lawn waste that ended in my surreptitious foraging for mulch in Central Park. It was exciting. I mean, I could have been arrested.

Once the bin, the browns and the appropriate signage had all been assembled, the bin was open for business:

First the “browns” were added.

Then the kitchen scraps.

I covered them with some more browns, gave the bin a spin, and walked away. It should be that easy in every building. So far, we have five committed participants and another 5 or 6 residents who want to join in the fun. As half of our building consists of graduate students, we will orient them to the bin next fall. Who knows what lies ahead: fruit flies? Strange smells? Reduced garbage? Hopefully gorgeous compost that is so badly needed in our garden and for our poor street trees. Wish us luck!

Heather Topcik is a librarian and mother of two young children living in New York City. Passionate about Windowfarming, composting, and making stuff, she blogs about the joys and challenges of urban domesticity and sustainability at domaphile.com.
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