In 2012, when Jennifer Prescott and four other parents co-founded a cafeteria composting pilot in eight public schools in New York City, there didn’t seem to be anyone else working in schools that were as passionate about composting as they were. “There really wasn’t. It was definitely a new idea,” said Prescott.
It’s been five years. Prescott has left the school she worked at and is now a school liaison and community engagement rep at an environmental NGO. The pilot was adopted by the city and has expanded to more than 700 public schools now. Prescott said the composting movement in the city’s schools shows signs of progress but feels it’s still slow. “Adults are not considering them as serious priorities,” she said of school composting programs.
In schools, a composting program is often pioneered by science teachers or the sustainability coordinator assigned by the principal. “It was a full-time job just to monitor the waste,” said Prescott. When Prescott and Emily Fano, another co-founder of the pilot, were volunteering at schools, they would stay in the cafeteria during lunch period almost every day to help kids with their shifts, train teachers, and weigh food scraps once a week. They kept working for five months and finally got the data that landfill and incinerator-bound waste was reduced by 85 percent in the eight pioneer schools. They used those results to persuade the city to get the program on board across its public school system.
Participating schools are outfitted with infrastructures including brown organics bins, posters, and decals by the Department of Sanitation (DSNY), but it is up to the schools to find the motivation to devote themselves to the program.
When Fano became a mother, she became more sensitized to environmental issues because she felt that enormous waste was generated in schools but children were not educated about it. “Kids have no motivation or direction [about composting],” she said.
At P.S. 57 in Staten Island, science teacher Patricia Lockhart can be considered the power driver of their environmental education. She has worked there for 25 years, teaching green team kids to compost and grow plants in the school garden.
“As a child, I played in the woods. I really had fun in the natural environment,” said Lockhart. “I knew I had the responsibility as a science teacher to make this happen for them, or at least, spark their interest.”
Now if you ask a fourth-grade green team member the difference between organics and non-organics, you would hear a confident answer: “Organics are mostly living organisms. Things that have microbes, some liquid and key elements to life. Non-organics are things that don’t need air or water to survive.” And you will see Lockhart smiling proudly at her students, “Isn’t he awesome?”
I knew I had the responsibility, as a science teacher, to make this happen for them, or at least, spark their interest.
In order to share best practices of school waste reduction with the entire New York City public school system, GrowNYC’s Recycling Champion Program partnered with Department of Education (DOE) Office of Sustainability, and the Department of Sanitation Bureau of Recycling and Sustainability to work with 100 schools to do hands-on education. Each of the schools gets support from a DOE staff member on the operational side and another from GrowNYC on the educational side.
According to Jen Ugolino, director of the Recycling Champion Program, the participation of schools splits into thirds. “A third of schools are really not that interested, but they are passionate about many other wonderful things; a third of schools have been already doing great before we got there,” and the last third are “on the fence.” What makes Ugolino most excited is to change the minds of this last third.
To make the program sustainable, they try to get a core sustainability team at each school. “In the school, when there are so many competing priorities, you really need to have a lot of different stakeholders on board in order to get the job down and to do it well.” Also, it’s important to have more than one person that’s passionate, because a teacher might retire or go on maternity leave. “You don’t want that program to die with their absence,” said Ugolino.
Since 2012, the school composting pilot has been expanding quickly. In 2013, it expanded to over 90 schools in Manhattan and Brooklyn. While this spread amid the most progressive districts was not surprising, Fano says that it came too fast because at the time schools did not receive enough materials and training. “Now schools are a lot more prepared for it,” she said. “There are bins with signage. Children can read pictures.”
By 2015, DSNY had rolled out organics collection service to more than 40 percent of NYC’s public schools, including all public schools in Manhattan and Staten Island and selected public schools in the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Queens. However, with rapid expansion there comes a problem — contamination (putting the wrong things in the recycling bin).
“The biggest issue of school food waste is plastic bags. We’ve seen bags inside of bags inside of bags. Non-compostable bags,” said Brian Fleury, vice president of WeCare Organics, which cooperated with DSNY to manage the city’s Staten Island compost facility. According to Fleury, the quality of school food waste was worse than residential food waste. Residents who volunteer to do composting tend to remove the contaminants better. In schools, there can be less control from lunch tray to bin. “There are many players involved: sanitation workers, custodians, children, teachers, [and] kitchen staff. There are several lines of communication.”
Neighborhood differences can also be challenging. Debby Lee Cohen is the founder of Cafeteria Culture, an NGO which cooperates with schools to do innovative waste reduction education. They have worked directly with 25 public schools in NYC. According to Cohen, schools in wealthier neighborhoods more often can pay for environmental programs while in other neighborhoods recycling bins may not be a priority. “It’s not even in their consciousness in the same way,” she said.
All schools are expected to contribute zero waste to landfills by 2030 as part of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s vision of sustainability outlined in the OneNYC Plan.
Cohen considers the zero-waste goal “very hard,” even as she is personally working to get schools to reach it. She recalls when schools started recycling — the program successfully urged kids to get their parents involved but that is not yet happening with composting efforts as the movement is still in its early stages.
When I met Cohen at a cafe, she brought her own reusable bottle for the tea she bought. After the interview, she talked with the cafe manager about starting a no-straw project there. To her, composting is the latest step of environmental education.
“It’s not so much [that] we are not teaching about composting, but [that] we are not teaching about climate change,” she said. Cohen considers teaching students not only “how” but also “why” very important because she argues that it can make students feel that every day they can “do something to help mitigate climate change.” “If it’s only something your teacher tells you to do,” Cohen said, “Who cares?”
The New York City public school system has 1.1 million students and 1,800 schools. According to Ugolino, if all the city’s schools compost and recycle everything they could, 90 percent of the waste could be saved from landfills. Although they don’t have an exact percentage number, Ugolino said, “We are more than halfway there, for sure, but we have a ways to go.”
Sandy Nurse, founder and co-director of BK Rot, a 4-year-old, Brooklyn-based community composting group, initially thought its composting service could be profitable. Their back-breaking, manual labor brought in $5,000 in sales of finished compost this year. But, the operation costs $40,000 annually.
BK Rot is one of the few operations that sells homemade soil rather than making it available for free, which takes tremendous time, space, and labor. According to the Community Composting Report issued by the Department of Sanitation (DSNY) in 2014, the most recent year available, only six percent of finished compost generated revenue. “Some of the highest performing community compost sites do sell compost and use the revenue generated to cover a small percentage of their operating costs,” the report found, but it was still “premature to assess markets for finished compost within the City.”
BK Rot has to be competitive to survive. Nurse chose not to accept city funding in order to be able to sell the end product and charge people for picking up their food waste.
“It takes a ton of labor to produce large volumes of compost, and so to help offset some of the costs, selling compost is a great solution,” Nurse said.
Gardens and neighbors constitute major buyers of BK Rot’s end product. The finished compost, after wood chips are sifted, is sold for $100 per cubic yard.
If we had more land, we could produce more compost, which would allow us to sell it cheaper.
Most composting projects in New York City do not have huge amounts of land, which means they are producing smaller volumes of finished compost. “At smaller volumes, there is absolutely no way to compete with large compost producing companies that have bags at big box stores,” Nurse said.
BK ROT resorts to every means available to sell its finished compost as soon as possible including promoting it on social media, designing its own retail bags, and cooperating with a handful of retail stores excited to help sell their product.
“If we had more land, we could produce more compost, which would allow us to sell it cheaper,” Nurse said. Then soil could be sold to large buyers like landscapers and contractors in bulk. At present, BK Rot can only compost 1,20,000 pounds a year on the 3,600 square feet composting site.
Onondaga County Resource Recovery Agency (OCRRA), a non-profit, public-benefit corporation that boasts 13 acres of land in upstate New York, is the largest composting site in the state. It handles over 13,000 tons annually at its two facilities.
About 80 percent of OCRRA’s compost revenues are from sales to commercial entities, such as landscapers and soil manufacturers, according to Gregory Gelewski, recycling operations manager of OCRRA and one of the board directors for the US Compost Council. The maximum revenue generated by compost operations reaches $700,000 annually.
Gelewski said the operations would be big enough to screen non-compostable materials with equipment and technology. “You couldn’t do that in botanical gardens,” he added.
While BK Rot collects food scraps mainly from small retailers interested in composting, such as cafés and restaurants, supermarkets have not been listed as partners because of their massive volume of frequently contaminated food waste. “We would spend a lot of time sorting by hand,” Nurse said.
After 20 years, we are still struggling to recycle bottles, cans, plastic and cardboard.
“Commercializing the end product is fairly easy. It’s all about quality controls,” Gelewski explained. Unfortunately, it is “virtually impossible” to educate and enforce quality controls of composting among a large and geographically mobile population, considering that “after 20 years, we are still struggling to recycle bottles, cans, plastic and cardboard.”
Echoing Gelewski, Nickolas J. Themelis, director of the Earth and Environmental Engineering Center at Columbia University, cited pungent odor as an obstacle, which makes composting “even worse” for New Yorkers compared to an odorless recycling bin.
GrowNYC estimates that New York City residents currently recycle only about 17 percent of their total waste, dropping from the all-time high of 20 percent in 2000, since the Recycling Law was enacted in 1989.
“We treat [composting] as a manufacturing process. We are not managing trash any longer, but manufacturing high quality products,” Gelewski said.
Tests on OCRRA’s finished compost are conducted by the US Compost Council on a quarterly basis to guarantee nutrient content and the weed- and seed-free properties. The results have been published on its website since 2011.
BK Rot, on the contrary, can only afford a compost test once a year. “We don’t test more than that due to costs and the time it takes for the tests to come back,” Nurse said, adding that they feel confident in the quality of their compost, because “we know our inputs and have our recipe really refined.”
Nevertheless, revenues from OCRRA’s composting program only equate to about 2.3 percent of its total revenue stream, even though OCRRA provides a large amount of high-quality finished compost.
Given the challenges, will it ever be possible to make a profit in New York City turning food scraps into soil?
After four years of trial and error, Nurse seems to have already thought it through. “It just depends on your goal. Some people manufacture compost to make a profit, and they are probably doing it outside of the city. Some people simply focus on the diversion.”
“We are more on the diversion part. Finished compost is nice to sell, but it hasn’t been our main focus,” Nurse clarified.
It’s the end of the gardening season and Winnie Mccroy, a member of the Hollenback Community Garden in Brooklyn, is shutting the garden down for the winter. One of the most important tasks is to empty the urine tank and feed the liquid to the soil.
“This nitrogen water, we call it T-pee, is great for plants and bushes, and we use as much of it as we can at the end of the season to have a very nitrogen-rich soil for the next year,” Mccroy said.
The gardeners built the waterless composting toilet in 2007, and they’ve been using the liquid fertilizer, which is converted from urine on the garden ever since. The urine and feces are composted beneath the toilet in a large bin, the bottom of which is sloped so that the liquids and solids are separated by gravity. “You can also go number two,” Mccroy said. “But it will just be decomposed in the back, we don’t use it.”
The Hollenback Community Garden is not alone in the practice of composting human waste in New York City. The city operates three public composting toilets: the oldest at the Bronx Zoo opened in 2007, another is at the Queens Botanical Garden, and the newest opened in Prospect Park in June. All are manufactured by Clivus Multrum, a Swedish firm that has been manufacturing composting toilet and greywater systems since the 1930s..
We had porta potties but everyone hated them. They’re smelly and ugly.
“We are not hooked up to the New York City sewage system at all. We are a quarter mile or even more from the city line here,” said Alden Maddry, senior architect of the Prospect Park Alliance, who was in charge of the toilet construction. “At first we had porta potties, but everyone hated them. They’re smelly and ugly.”
To help resolve the issue, Maddry converted the 100-year-old Wellhouse to a two-level composting toilet, which cost $2.4 million in taxpayer money. The toilet flushes with a special foam that uses just three ounces of water per flush compared to the 1.6 gallons of water that a traditional toilet uses. Composting toilets can save 2,50,000 gallons of water a year.
For some Brooklynites, the environmental benefits of the Prospect Park’s newest restroom don’t matter very much. “They definitely need a bathroom on this side of the park ,and it doesn’t smell, not any more than other bathrooms,” Nick Juravich said, who comes to run at the park two to three times a week.
The Wellhouse is home to the largest available model of composting toilet. Down in the basement, it houses three composting tanks in order to provide enough capacity for the 10 million visitors to the park annually. The feces decompose with the help of microbes and earthworms. After the toilet has been in use for six months, they will be added to the tank, reducing the volume by 90 percent. According to Maddry, this means the tanks will not need to be opened or emptied for five to 10 years.
Applying the waste and urine to the soil is a better option than having it treated in a wastewater treatment plant.
The potential 10 year wait time is crucial to the park and to Clivus, because right now they do not have approval from New York State to use any of the end product from the composting toilets on public land.
Under regulations set by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation on land application of organic waste, there are only 24 facilities currently permitted to land apply organic waste materials in New York State. Twenty-one of those are permitted to land apply biosolids, which is a byproduct of wastewater treatment. Clivus, however, is not among them.
“You must have a hauler license and the hauling equipment. It’s expensive and there’s no profit in it,” said Don Mills, sales director of Clivus. “We’re in a process of getting the license, but it’s difficult to say — could take years.”
According to Mills, safety is not the reason why they’re expecting to wait for years to get state approval. “Most pathogens in human feces die very soon after they leave the human body,” Mills said, who comes to the Prospect Park Wellhouse once a month to check on the toilets. “Others are killed by competing organism and the final product will reach the EPA water standard.”
Even with pathogens in the compost are taken care of, the process seems to overlook another problem — the pharmaceuticals in human excretion. The compost toilet has no way to separate the pharmaceuticals from the end product, but neither does the current sewage system.
“Most water treatment plants in the U.S. are not designed to remove the pharmaceuticals,” Monika Roy said. Roy is a former project coordinator for Sustainable Organic Integrated Livelihoods (SOIL), and helped build a composting toilet system in Haiti. “There’s not a lot of studies, but there is some ongoing research that shows applying waste and urine that we know has pharmaceuticals in it to the soil is a better option than having it treated in a wastewater treatment plant.”
Right now people are sh*ting in the water instead of composting.
New York City has 7,500 miles of sewers that convey an average of 1.3 billion gallons of wastewater per day. And by 2030, the city’s population is expected to grow by more than 1 million residents.
“The nutrients in human waste should go back to the food. Right now people are sh*ting in the water instead of composting,” Mills said. He gets a little emotional when he talks about the sewage system. “The water-soluble nutrients are discharged in the water and fertilize aquatic plants, which can cause huge problems. This is not sustainable agriculture, that’s nonsense,” he said, while rushing to the next composting toilet site for its monthly check-up.