Three fifth-graders bound down the back steps of Friends Seminary, a private school on the southern border of Gramercy Park, each hauling a white plastic bucket. Claire Brennan, the school’s service coordinator, follows behind them, gripping a metal scale. Their destination is a bicycle-driven cart parked on E. 15th Street that holds two empty rectangular black bins fitted with bright-yellow lids.
“That’s like, twelve and a half pounds,” one boy says after resting his bin on the scale.
“So if the bucket weighs one pound, how much compost is that?” Brennan asks.
“Oh — eleven and a half!”
Once the three buckets are weighed, Max Katz, the cart’s driver, dumps their contents — food scraps from the school’s kitchen — into the black bins. The kids scurry back inside the school, swinging their now-empty buckets. Katz hops on his bike and takes off for the East Side Community High School Garden at 11th Street and First Avenue.
Katz, 24, works with Friends Seminary and three other East Village businesses as part of a pilot program called Reclaimed Organics, a community initiative launched in October 2013 by compost consultant Laura Rosenshine. A ten-year resident of the East Village, Rosenshine, 31, sits on the Manhattan Solid Waste Advisory Board, and for the past three years has formed relationships with the city, commercial waste haulers, and community organizers to facilitate the collection of compost. Two years ago, she helped the New York City Department of Sanitation launch its citywide compost pickup program to help dispose of the organic waste that constitutes about about a third of all waste produced by New York City residents.
But Reclaimed Organics, Rosenshine’s own personal labor of love, works on a smaller scale. Before she met Katz at a nearby community garden, Rosenshine had been hauling compost on her own bike. “I had no intention of starting a business,” she says. “It’s just that no one else was doing this.” Her first client was Counter Culture Coffee on Broome Street. She’s since added Friends Seminary; Gimme Coffee, on Mott Street; and Wassail, a cider bar and restaurant that recently opened on Orchard Street. She charges her clients by weight, frequency of pickup, and distance from the garden. She charges $4 per twenty pounds, and $1.50 per mile traveled. Because these factors differ from business to business, the cost per pound varies. At the moment, residential clients pay a flat rate of $25 for two months.
Laura Rosenshine and Max Katz unload bins of compost at the 11th Street community garden.
Back at the 11th Street community garden, Katz — who puts in three days a week as her first-ever employee — dumps the food scraps into three big red pickle bins. “Did you pick up Wassail?” Rosenshine asks him, squinting in the spring sun. “We need to weigh Wassail.” Stepping into a small greenhouse with clear plastic walls, she lifts up a blue garbage bag full of what looks like dirt mixed with pencil shavings. Actually, it’s the chaff left over from roasted coffee beans, and Rosenshine and Katz inoculate it with EM-1, a liquid mixture of microorganisms that ferment organic waste. The chaff is then mixed with the food scraps — “We layer it like a lasagna,” Rosenshine says — and covered in an airtight container for two weeks while it ferments.
This process is a Japanese technique called Bokashi, and it’s particularly efficient for urban composting. “Anything that was once alive can be composted,” Rosenshine says, but meat and dairy break down differently from coffee grinds or fruit and veggie peels. The smell of meat scraps breaking down can be foul, and adding meat and dairy to your compost increases the risk of pathogens. While large-scale composting facilities have special tools to monitor the temperature of organic waste, to determine that it’s safe and pathogen-free, smaller community projects like Reclaimed Organics don’t have the same resources.
But with Bokashi, you won’t be responsible for your neighborhood’s pungent reek — or for inviting unwanted pests to your garden. Katz had learned the Bokashi method while volunteering at the Children’s Garden on 12th Street at Avenue B, which had a major rat problem. Rosenshine says that a little over a year after starting Bokashi, the garden was rat-free.
Rosenshine estimates that she picks up between 500 and 600 pounds of compost per week from her four commercial clients. She has about five residential clients, who email her to arrange pick-ups as needed. She reached out to her first two clients, Counter Culture Coffee and Friends Seminary, after hearing that they were interested in composting. She’s also done some door-to-door outreach, leaving door cards on residential buildings. And the collection bike works as its own form of advertising: Wassail contacted Rosenshine after noticing the bike fly past its doors. The Lower East Side/East Village area is “the perfect location to try this,” Rosenshine says, because of the area’s preponderance of eco-friendly businesses and farm-to-table restaurants.
Rosenshine, whose apartment is within eyeshot of the 11th Street garden, hopes that eventually other neighborhoods and even other cities will adopt the practice of collecting organic waste and keeping it in the community rather than having it hauled out by commercial trucks. Processing capacity is a challenge nationwide. “It’s a chicken-and-egg situation,” Rosenshine says, because for a large-scale composting plant to open, there needs to be demand. But without a collection service, many people simply won’t take it upon themselves to separate their food waste from the rest of their garbage.
Rather than shipping compost out of the city to a large plant, Rosenshine wants to see communities putting food scraps and coffee grounds to use. While she’s currently targeting businesses that produce 50 pounds of compost or less per day, she says a medium-size restaurant can easily yield 1,000 pounds in a day. Once decomposed, all that waste could be used to rejuvenate community gardens throughout the neighborhood. The city even offers a composting grant of up to $750 for community composting programs. (As a member of the Manhattan Solid Waste Advisory Board, Rosenshine is not eligible to apply.)
At the 11th Street garden, the smell of food cooking nearby wafts by when the wind shifts, mingling with the slightly sour smell of the compost and the occasional whiff of pot. Back at Friends Seminary, I ask Katz if the smell ever bothers him. He looks at the bins, then back at me. “Does it smell?”