It’s 2015. Do You Know Where Your Leftovers Are?

The putrid smell hits you from ten feet away. At the Fort Greene Park Greenmarket, locals fill black and yellow bins with the week’s leftovers. In the bins, as on top of the tables of the surrounding produce vendors, can be found every type of fruit and vegetable, every color of the rainbow—only this produce is old and rotten. A compost organizer pounds the food scraps with a metal shovel. As she flattens a bin’s cargo, the guts of a pumpkin squirt onto a bundle of uneaten lettuce.

“I feel like a lot of our society is ‘use it once and throw it away,’” 25-year-old Bed-Stuy resident Lee Ziesche says, pouring out two small bags of food scraps she had stored in her freezer (to contain the rancid odor) and then brought to the greenmarket. “So I’m glad my food waste is being used in a more useful way.”

The eggshells and avocado skins she dumped have a long life ahead of them. After they’re trucked to a composting facility in Gowanus, the nonprofit Gowanus Canal Conservancy, dedicated to cleaning the long-polluted waterway, turns them into compost that can be used to improve soil in gardens, green spaces, and parks. That Ziesche can turn the remnants of a few meals into compost makes her lucky, in a way, even if she has to haul them out of her apartment to be disposed of. Relatively few New Yorkers have such an option.

At a greenmarket near Fort Greene Park, a shovel-armed compost collector packs food waste into plastic bins.

New York’s composting efforts lag behind those of cities like Seattle and San Francisco, which have citywide, curbside food waste collection. New York, on the other hand, has a curbside pickup pilot program that launched in 2013, and whose scale is modest. (San Francisco recycles about 166,000 tons of food waste per year. New York’s pilot program, since its inception two years ago, has diverted just 6,500 tons.) In its first years, the pilot has hit some snags: convincing residential highrises to participate has proven a challenge, and a compost processing facility in Delaware, which the city had relied upon in the absence of large-scale facilities closer by, closed. Meanwhile, pressure to make the pilot work remains steady. The city is eager to reduce the more than 1 million tons of residential and commercial food waste trucked each year to landfills in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Virginia. And the scale of food waste collection—and thus the amount of waste the city will need to find something to do with—may increase dramatically this July, when a new law goes into effect that requires businesses, like restaurants, manufacturers, and arenas, to recycle scraps.

As the city’s pilot program finds its footing, it’s New York area greenmarkets that are filling gaps and leading the way. In Brooklyn, only portions of five neighborhoods—Park Slope, Gowanus, Windsor Terrace, Greenwood Heights and Sunset Park—participate in the city’s pilot, but twelve greenmarkets have stepped up to accept organics.

On the corner of Washington Park and Dekalb, a white box truck plastered with the GrowNYC logo pulls up beside the Fort Greene Greenmarket’s organics collection tent. Organics consist of any food, food-soiled paper, or yard waste, although greenmarkets do not accept meat or fish, which are difficult to compost. The truck’s drivers, who’ve hopped down from its cab, wheel a bin containing the remnants of Ziesche’s egg and avocado sandwiches, along with thirteen other bins, onto an automated lift, which slowly raises the neighborhood’s leftovers into the truck. This is their second pickup of the day; hours earlier, they collected 34 bins from the same market. At Grand Army Plaza and then Brooklyn Borough Hall, the truck makes similar stops. At 5 p.m., the truck barrels down Second Avenue in Gowanus until it reaches a dead end, turning left onto a lot owned by the Department of Sanitation, or DSNY. The lot’s used to store salt for snow removal in the winter, but the Gowanus Canal Conservancy has found room for its food-recycling facility. The drivers offload and stack the bins between a pile of white salt and a pile of brown compost, where they sit until the next morning.

The Gowanus Canal Conservancy acquires between 9,000 and 10,000 tons of organics from the three markets once a month March through November, taking a break in the winter to avoid the harsh temperatures. At the DSNY lot, volunteers gather, passing a Department of Corrections building under construction and a broken-down schoolbus to make their way onto the property. Wood chips cover the ground, and orange front-end loaders line the fence, out of use until New York’s first snow.

After a quick orientation about how to compost by the conservancy’s volunteer program manager, Natasia Sidarta, the volunteers, roughly 20 of them, mostly students, break up into teams to begin building a pile. A thin layer of coffee grounds has already been spread over the area and, in teams of two, volunteers move the heavy bins packed with old food, dump them onto the ground, and rake the scraps into a flat base for the pile, which will grow to about four feet tall. Anything not compostable, such as plastic bags or produce labels, are fished out. Large pieces of food are broken into smaller ones, by hand or shovel, to speed up the decomposing process.

Onto the base of food, volunteers add a layer of wood chips, followed by sawdust and leaves. It’s a technique known as the windrow method; the large pile created is called a windrow. According to Andrew Hoyles, compost program manager for the Lower East Side Ecology Center, one of the city’s oldest community-based composting programs, the windrow method is the easiest and cheapest of the three main composting approaches. The two other processes, which involve aerating or agitating piles of compost, require an energy source: in the first case, to deliver air to the organics, and in the second, to turn the piles regularly.

“The benefit of windrows is that as materials sit in a long row, you have all the material breaking down in the center of the pile, so there’s no odor or anything,” Hoyles explains.

A complete windrow consists of nine rounds of piling on these ingredients, creating a layered cake of decomposing elements. After sitting for two weeks, the pile—which can weigh up to 20,000 pounds—must be turned by hand once a week for a month by volunteers with pitchforks.

“Most of the challenge comes from—because we don’t use any machinery—getting a recurring set of volunteers to do the turning,” Sidarta says, explaining they use hand power because they don’t own the necessary equipment. “We’re mostly out composting during the warmer months, March through November, just for the volunteers’ sanity.”

On November 16, at the team’s last windrow build of the year, the 45-degree weather left volunteers nearly frozen. During down time, helpers danced around the piles of food and hopped in place to keep warm.

After a month of turning, the piles are left alone for two weeks to cool down from the high temperatures generated during the decomposing process. The compost is then ready to use. The final product is tough to distinguish visually from dirt interspersed with wood chips, but it’s not soil on its own. Compost created from food waste is a soil additive, containing organic matter that soil needs to support plant life. This organic fertilizer helps stimulate New York City’s nutrient-poor soil which, like most dirt in urban environments, is fill dirt, extracted from construction sites. Compost is added to produce potting soil, which can support flowers, bushes, and trees.

“Think of it as a multivitamin that has lots of things the body needs, whereas compost is just one supplement,” Hoyles says.

Food scraps collected at the Fort Greene Park Greenmarket are converted to compost by the Gowanus Canal Conservancy, whose volunteers first remove non-organic material. (The rubber bands on that celery will have to go.)

The Gowanus Canal Conservancy uses the soil additive it creates in its own greening projects, gives it to gardens, or sells it to private landscapers, usually staying within the Gowanus watershed area. Ziesche’s leftovers may end up in Prospect Park, as part of the 20 cubic yards the conservancy donated to the park.

“Food waste is a beneficial nutrient for growing food and supporting plant life,” Hoyles says. “It’s actually a resource, not a waste product.”

Composting is good for another reason: it keeps food out of landfills, where it rots and produces methane, a harmful greenhouse gas with 21 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide. According to an EPA report, landfills account for more than 20 percent of all methane emissions in the United States.

The city’s pilot program for curbside pickup of organics expanded to Brooklyn in October 2013, and grew again in April and May 2014, in an effort to eliminate more food from landfills. Some of the newly added neighborhoods, such as Gowanus and Park Slope, overlap with greenmarket locations that transport food scraps to the conservancy, but the nonprofit hasn’t seen a decrease in the amount of waste they receive, Sidarta says. The pilot program added Park Slope in May, and yet the Grand Army Plaza Greenmarket in the neighborhood still gathers between 5,000 and 6,000 pounds of organics each week. The city’s pilot mostly targets residential buildings with fewer than ten units, currently reaching 100,000 households in Brooklyn, the Bronx, Queens, and Staten Island. Although more than 150 larger apartment buildings in Brooklyn and Manhattan volunteered to participate, most buildings didn’t join, as participation creates extra work for staff who must plan how to collect residents’ food scraps. People living in high-rise buildings not involved the program must still walk their leftovers to a farmer’s market, if a participating one exists nearby, to keep them from a landfill.

The pilot program draws upon two important streams of food waste: scraps from public schools and City Hall. More than 700 public schools—about 40 percent of all New York City public schools—participate. Of these, 182 are throughout Brooklyn. Since 2012, the DSNY has also been working with the greenmarkets. DSNY employees haul scraps from sixteen of the Brooklyn markets, about half of the total, to a transfer station within the city, and from there, a composting facility retrieves the waste. This portion of discarded food from the greenmarkets follows the same journey as that in the pilot program. Aside from Staten Island’s scraps, which go to the DSNY-managed Staten Island Compost Facility, DSNY-amassed food becomes organic fertilizer at McEnroe Organic Farm in Millerton, New York, a two-hour drive north of the city, and at a private facility in Connecticut. The Peninsula Compost facility in Wilmington, Delaware was also processing some of New York’s leftovers, but was closed, due to permit violations, by an order from the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control. The closure was a setback for the city. Peninsula Compost had the processing technology to handle organics from New York City schools, which are often contaminated with non-compostable items. Now the DSNY must take schools’ scraps to a transfer station before it can be composted in order to remove inorganic materials.

The pilot program remains small compared to food waste collection programs elsewhere. Cities such as Portland, San Francisco, and Seattle have become the face of recycling and composting in the U.S. But David Hurd from GrowNYC, who coordinates organics collections at the greenmarkets, thinks it’s unproductive to compare New York to these metropolises.

“Everybody always tries to make this comparison of New York to Seattle and San Francisco, and it’s apples and oranges,” Hurd says when I speak to him in his office across from City Hall, which he shares with two coworkers. “Neither of those cities has the level of housing density that New York City has.”

San Francisco, the second-densest urban area in the U.S., houses 17,000 people per square mile. New York crams 26,000 people into the same area. Similarly, San Francisco, 42 percent of residential buildings contain five or more units; in New York, 63 percent do. There’s also a more fundamental disparity: San Francisco has less than 850,000 residents, compared to New York’s 8.4 million. More people—many more people—means more garbage.

“Capacity has always been the issue with organics recovery in New York City because we have so much of it,” Hurd says. More than 1 million tons of residential and commercial food waste are generated in the city each year. Neither Seattle nor San Francisco produces even half that amount. Seattle and San Francisco recycle 125,000 tons and 166,000 tons of scraps respectively, 56 and 47 percent of their total food waste. Both cities’ food waste collections became mandatory for residents in 2009. Starting this summer, Seattle locals will be fined $1 for placing food in the garbage.

New York City’s food scraps collections have been a long time coming. Today’s pilot program, in fact, isn’t the first. In 1992, the DSNY experimented with programs in Brooklyn and Staten Island, but the waste processing methods—since surpassed—were deemed costly and inefficient. Composting within the city emitted too many odors, and required more space than was available. The NYC Compost Project was established in 1993 as an effort to delegate the task to households, teaching New Yorkers how to manage their own food waste by composting individually. In 1999, the city tested a large-scale backyard-composting project, but New Yorkers who had backyards were largely uninterested. When the Staten Island’s Fresh Kills Landfill closed in 2001, the city tried various waste management alternatives, including mixed-waste composting, which involves placing garbage into rotating drums that sort the different materials before composting. The method proved costly. Figuring out how to compost New Yorkers’ one million tons of food waste is a puzzle not easily cracked.

“Organics are the last frontier of recycling, and they’re the last frontier because they’re difficult to handle,” says Al Rattie, director of the national nonprofit US Composting Council, which promotes the organic fertilizer industry. “But if we are serious about approaching zero waste, we need to deal with this waste stream.”

New York City’s high-rise apartment buildings, whose designs vary greatly, create one of the biggest collection challenges.

“Every apartment building in New York is different,” says Haley Rogers, the DSNY’s senior program manager for curbside programs. “Some have the trash sitting outside, some have it in the basement. We can’t give a blanket statement of how to set it up in their buildings.”

A woman deposits her scraps at the Fort Greene Park Greenmarket.

For a large apartment building with more than nine units to join the pilot program (at present, 86 high-rises in Manhattan and 65 in Brooklyn have), the building must be located on an existing organics pick-up route, so to avoid wasted trucking time and resources. The DSNY then visits the building to see how it assembles garbage. Once the DSNY and building management decide how to orchestrate collections, DSNY employees train residents on how to separate their food scraps and hold focus groups at tenant meetings. Because large apartment buildings have been recycling for years, transitioning to collecting food scraps is sometimes just a matter of building on existing habits.

“Some buildings choose to use one site for bins, and it cuts down on time. Most buildings already do that for recycling, even if you have a trash chute,” Rogers said. “People still take recycling outside, and most people do go outside at some point during the day.”

Composting efforts in the city may intensify in July 2015, when restaurants, food manufacturers, and other food-service-businesses will be required to recycle their scraps. This law will prevent a large portion of the 487,000 tons of commercial food waste produced each year from ending up in a landfill, but all those leftovers need a place to go. Both Rogers and Hurd hope that the law will attract composting facilities to the area.

“We expect the number of regional facilities to grow, especially with the Commercial Organics Law, that we can take advantage of without the city having to put down any capital,” Rogers says.

Another July milestone: the city’s pilot program comes to an end. In October, the DSNY will submit a final report that analyzes the program’s cost-effectiveness, participation rate, and extent of contamination of the food scraps in the residential and institutional collections. The fate of the program will then lie in the hands of the City Council.

“Our commissioner is committed to bringing it citywide permanently,” Rogers says, referring to Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia. “All I can say right now is that the pilot will for sure run through July 2015.”

If composting can’t be made to work, there are alternatives—but maybe not good ones. The DSNY has experimented with one possibility, anaerobic digestion, at the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment plant in Greenpoint. When added to wastewater sludge, food breaks down and emits a mixture of gases, known as biogas. This biogas is converted into natural gas, which can be used to heat homes and commercial buildings. In DSNY tests, though, scraps delivered to Newtown from local public schools contained some non-organic items, causing contamination problems and putting the project on hold. According to Rogers, anaerobic digestion is still on the table as a way for the city to deal with food scraps, but maybe not at Newtown.

DSNY officials still view composting, logistical hurdles aside, as the main solution for responsibly disposing of the vast amounts of organic waste New Yorkers and businesses produce every year.

“There’s going to be so much material that we’re looking at attacking it from all angles,” Rogers says. “A lot of it is going to continue to go to composting facilities.”

The waste facilities that recycle organics amassed by the DSNY are certainly more industrial than the Gowanus Canal Conservancy’s operation at the Brooklyn salt lot, where volunteers manually lift, pour, spread, and turn their fellow New Yorkers’ uneaten food. For now, though, the greenmarkets that feed food scraps into the conservancy’s operation are providing a vital service to composting’s long-term prospects in New York. Greenmarkets in Brooklyn, by providing food waste drop zones for the many people out of reach of the city’s pilot program, are raising awareness and building good habits. In any case, whether churned by heavy machinery or a hand-wielded pitchfork, food waste’s grimy metamorphosis from spoils to soil creates a vital natural resource needed by plants throughout the concrete-covered city.

“The idea that human beings can contribute directly to the environment to add nutrients to our Earth is really remarkable,” says LaToya Anderson, Gowanus Canal Conservancy compost and education coordinator. “You feel like you’re adding instead of taking away from the environment.”

Lauren Holter is a New York-based writer who has written for Bustle, amNewYork, the Brooklyn Paper and more. Her greatest loves are wine, cookies, and a good book.

Adam Glanzman is a photographer and photo editor based in New York. When not working, he is looking for the next adventure.

Also in this issue

Q&A: Mark Winston Griffith of the Brooklyn Movement Center

The central Brooklyn activist on what community organizing means in 2015. Interview by Amanda Waldroupe

Locked Out

A nighttime stroll takes an unexpected turn. Comic by Declan McCarthy