Advocates at City Hall Park demonstrate the first step of how food scraps and leaf and yard waste are processed at community composting sites. Photo: Ambar Castillo

Composting is disintegrating. 

At a community compost teach-in Epicenter attended last Thursday, just beyond the doors of the Queens Central Library in Jamaica — one of hundreds of library branches affected by Mayor Eric Adams’ latest slate of budget cuts — questions abounded about another decimated service.

Epicenter spoke to Zausner-Mannes and her co-director Gil Lopez, two of the few remaining Big Reuse staffers after the defunding of all community composting programs in the city. We asked what New Yorkers should most know about the current community composting crisis, the most common misconceptions and what neighbors can do to support. We found there are no easy answers. Excerpts from the conversation are below, lightly edited for clarity. 

Attendees look on as Anneliese Zausner-Mannes of Big Reuse co-leads a community composting teach-in at Queens Central Library. Photo: Ambar Castillo/Epicenter

Epicenter: What’s the state of community composting in New York City right now?

Gil Lopez: It’s in disarray. After years of the Department of Sanitation giving a work plan to the NYC Compost Project and dictating how the community composting actually is supported, that’s led to a program that’s very hierarchical. Now, with the pullout of funding from the Department of Sanitation and the complete cancellation of the NYC Compost Project, there’s an absence of leadership. A lot of people who used to be very self-directed and did not need any leadership now are used to that leadership, and the leadership is completely gone and so is the funding for that leadership.

Epicenter: What’s the difference between community composting and the NYC Compost Project?

Lopez: When we talk about community composting, we’re talking about people at community gardens composting, people at churches, people in schools, the community who are composting.  

When we talk about the NYC Compost Project, we’re talking about a funded line item in the city budget that funds several nonprofit organizations and staff, as well as machinery and equipment and lands to do operations for what the Department of Sanitation decides is important for their composting goals, [which] changed dramatically depending on what direction the political winds were blowing. Sometimes we would be told one quarter to try to increase the number of participants we have at food scrap drop-offs, and then the next quarter they would tell us that we have to reduce the amount of food scrap drop-offs… wild swings back and forth that were completely top-down. 

Epicenter: How does the city’s (long-term) defunding of community composting actually affect our neighborhoods?

Anneliese Zausner-Mannes: 

Community can’t be manufactured. I grew up in a New York City culture where we leaned on each other. We knew people on the block, and we looked out for each other. Unfortunately, New York is getting farther and farther away from that. So for me, community composting and this program, the NYC Compost Project, is this unbelievable opportunity to keep not only our footprint small in terms of where we’re bringing our food scraps but to also connect with one another. 

For us, our one processing site is functioning at around 20%. It’s not enough for us to even get to June with what we’re trying to do now, which is the bare minimum — turn actual scraps into finished compost.

Community composting advocates at City Hall Park. Photo: Ambar Castillo

Epicenter: What are some common misconceptions about community composting?

Lopez: 

  1. People are like, “who cares if they defunded community composting? We have brown bins.” 

So we have to explain that the brown bins aren’t actually going to be composted. Then they’re like, “what are you talking about? It says ‘composting’ right on the side.” There’s been a constant misinformation campaign from DSNY over the past few years to confuse people so that when they did this defunding of the community-based composting, people wouldn’t understand it. 

  1. Then there’s a constant, “GrowNYC got a private donation, yay, the Compost Project’s funded!” [Note from a representative of GrowNYC: The private donation we have received is only enough to keep us afloat for now] 

But wait, no, GrowNYC doesn’t process food scraps. They just collect it from you, and with their private donation, [most of it is composted at industrial scale, not community] compost. 

  1. That leads me to the third, largest misconception: people are like, “I’m already composting.”

But you’re not. By separating your organics from your landfill waste and bringing it to a place where it can be brought to a processing site, you are not composting. It’s the very first step in a process that will deliver your food scraps to be composted.

Zausner-Mannes: 

My biggest ask: I would want people to think about — when they recycle or when they reuse something or when they [donate] or when people drop off their food scraps, when they go to a street tree care event — are they understanding where where it started and where it ends and then starts again? One of the basic things is just to ask questions and be curious.

Gil Lopez of Big Reuse breaks down what you can do about community composting during a teach-in at Queens Central Library. Photo: Ambar Castillo/Epicenter

Where you can ask more questions

Big Reuse is hosting the following community compost teach-ins this month:

  • On Zoom: Tuesday, Jan. 23, 7 p.m. to 8:30pm. Register here
  • In Manhattan: Saturday, Jan. 27, 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. at the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Library (SNFL) at 455 5th Ave., Room 304. Information here.

How you can support

From the Big Reuse IG account, here’s how you can support NYC community composting: “Please keep calling on @nycsanitation and @nycmayor to restore our funding so we can reopen our other two composting sites, bring back our staff, continue supporting composting at community gardens and keep educating New Yorkers about organic waste!” 

This post has been updated to clarify information about GrowNYC.

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