Even New Yorkers are turning to composting

05/18/09 10:44AM Amy Eddings
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Photo: WNYC

(Host) Most people who collect and compost food scraps have a backyard or a garden to dump them in.

But in New York City residents without a pinch of earth are taking extreme measures to compost.

As part of a collaboration with Northeast public radio stations, WNYC's Amy Eddings reports on what motivates these new urban composters.

(Eddings) The wide stoop of Diane Debicella's apartment building looks like many others in this part of Brooklyn. It's got pots of plants on the steps. What makes it stand out, though, is a tire-sized green compost container.

(Debicella) "So you actually stick your fingers into the ridges and just flip it around, turn it around."

(Eddings) Several months' worth of rotting food shifts inside the circular tumbler, as Debicella turns it on its base. A cloud of fruit flies emerges.

(Debicella) "I''ve actually been trying to get rid of them last two weeks. and nothing that I'm doing is working."

(Eddings) That's not good, especially when Debicella's landlord doesn't understand that she's trying to save the planet.

(Debicella) "He came up the stoop and looked inside the compost and saw a bunch of rotting vegetables and fruit. And he said, ‘You know, I'm really happy to help you bag all of this stuff up that is in there and put it on the curb.'"

(Eddings) Debicella had to explain that she was composting in order to turn that rotting food into a fertilizer for her potted plants, her "garden." For Debicella, who lives in a small, 550-square-foot apartment, her front stoop is her great outdoors, her only forum for flexing her green thumb. Composting is also her way of reducing the amount of garbage she puts into the trash, and by extension, the greenhouse gasses escaping from landfills. She's not alone. An increasing number of New Yorkers are composting, and going to great lengths to do so. For those who don't have access to a backyard, or even a front stoop, they compost indoors, in plastic containers, filled with worms which break down the food. Or, they donate their food scraps to a community garden. Several gardens have set up a collection point in Brooklyn's Fort Greene Park. And that's where Jesse Leed has brought a week's forth of old food.

(Jesse Leed) "I actually put it in Tupperware in my freezer and pack it up and bring it every Saturday. I have two bags in here."

(Eddings) She dumps her frozen old food into one of five metal cans sitting out on the curb.

Over the course of the day, volunteers will gather up the donated kitchen scraps, and take them to compost piles at several community gardens in the neighborhood. Jesse Leed froze her compost-in-the-making, to cut down on fruit flies and smells. But Chris Blake's contribution is slimey and gooey, after a week of sitting in a plastic container under his sink.

(Blake) "It's an interesting question as to why I bother to do it. I just like the idea of making something that would normally be thrown away into something that can be used into something good."

(Eddings) Few people, whether they live in the city or the country, go to this kind of trouble. Only 3 percent of food scraps get composted nationwide. But composting programs across New York City are reporting a surge in interest. Christine Datz Romero offers workshops at the Lower East Side Ecology Center, in Manhattan. She attributes the compost craze to Al Gore's documentary on global warming, "An Inconvenient Truth."

(Romero) "Our workshops fill up, we have 50 people signing up and we have to turn people away, it is just so popular, and people are really eager to learn about composting."

(Eddings) Just as interest in composting is waxing, money for these education programs is waning. New York City recently made deep cuts to its budget. Among the casualties: the Sanitation Department's composting program for yard waste, and its funding for composting workshops offered around the city. But intrepid composters like Dianne Debicella aren't giving up.

(Debicella) "It makes me feel a little less like I'm living in a city, if I'm somehow dealing with earth and that it's not just me wasting stuff and throwing it away, that I'm seeing this process of it moving from one thing to the next."

(Eddings) Soon, when it's decomposed enough, her old food will be moved from her green plastic compost bin to her flower pots. And Debicella thinks it's worth it, fruit flies and all.

For VPR News, I'm Amy Eddings.

(Host outro) Northeast environmental news coverage is part of NPR's Local News Initiative. The reporting is made possible, in part, by a grant from United Technologies.

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