Turning Leftovers Into Paydirt


East New York, New York. November 25, 2015. Food waste ready to be placed into the first bin in the composting process at ENY Farms where Fredrick Phillips manages the composting process. 11_25_2015. Michael H Wilson/Science in the City
ROUND TRIP: Food waste ready for the composting process at East New York Farms. It will become a nutrient-rich material used in farming. Photo credit: Michael H. Wilson

NEW YORK CITY – Farming in New York City, local practitioners say, can start and end with composting, a method of turning leftover food and other discarded vegetation into a nutrient-enriched product for farming.

EarthMatter, a farm and composting nonprofit located on Governor’s Island, made composting the heart of its mission to reduce waste going to landfills.

“The easiest way for people to be green and to reduce their carbon footprint is to recycle what everyone has, which is food and food scraps,” said Marisa DeDominicis, co-founder and director of EarthMatter.

East New York Farms, a program in East Brooklyn that focuses on community participation in urban farming, recently increased its capacity for food waste collection significantly. Fredrick Phillips, the composting specialist for East New York Farms, learned the importance of not throwing out food waste and teaches that to neighborhood volunteers.

“I like the connection between gardening and creating compost from food waste,” Phillips said. “I got the connection between diverting food waste, organic waste, from the waste stream and processing it and using for something beneficial.”

Composting projects reduces the flow of food waste to the waste stream, Phillips said.

A successful compost program relies heavily on receiving enough material to make a perfect combination of organic matter, according to Charlie Bayrer, a co-founder at EarthMatter.

“Composting is an aerobic process. It takes place in the presence of oxygen,” Bayrer said. “You are growing microbes by feeding them all sorts of products which we would consider waste: food scraps, landscape waste, leaves, wood chips. Basically, anything that was alive or is made from something that was alive can be composted.”

The microbes break down the waste matter, turning it into a nutrient-rich material used in farming.

The process begins with the collection of ingredients at local farmers markets and GrowNYC drop-off centers, which collect food waste from residents across the city.

At East New York Farms, Philips breaks the recipe down in simpler terms for his volunteers.

“There should be a ratio of greens to browns,” Phillips said. “Greens are primarily nitrogen, so you want a mixture of nitrogen and carbon. Greens are nitrogen and browns are carbon.”

Nitrogen, carbon and oxygen create the ideal conditions for the microorganisms and insects to eat the raw materials. Eventually, these organisms will breakdown the waste into valuable nutrients for enriching soil in the urban farms.

“You eat the carrot, the carrot becomes a part of your body–well, the nutrients out of that carrot does,” Bayrer said. “We feed the carrot tops to the bacteria and the nutrient value of that carrot top becomes a part of their bodies.”

Heat and time are also required to complete the process. But not too much heat: For most urban compost projects, temperatures must stay below 113 degrees to allow the organisms to survive. As for the time, successful composting can take from three to 18 months.

When the process is done, farmers can use the product for enriching the soil and continuing the cycle.

“Typically you are going to screen it to remove any of the coarse material, heavy materials that have not broken down completely,” Bayrer said. “And you’re left a product that’s very much like coffee grounds or even finer.”

Phillips, the composting specialist at East New York Farms, said the importance of composting is a key reason why he spends his time working with the community. He wants his volunteers to know how to compost, and also why they should do it.

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