For the past year, a growing number of people have taken to dumping food scraps, dead flowers and more into large bins on the sidewalk outside of the Upper West Side’s Mobilization for Change Community Garden at West 107th Street and Columbus Avenue.
After hurried composters empty their small containers and bags, occasionally making donations in return for the otherwise free drop-off service, the chopping begins; Reclaimed Organics employees compact the material using blades attached to the end of long poles so that over 400 pounds can fit in each 64-gallon bin. The technique has become standard practice, according to Reclaimed Organics Director of Operations Gwen Ossenfort and hauler and manager Mike McAllister, because the number of people stopping by each week has more than tripled since the drop-off opened last summer, now hovering around 150 households.
“It just skyrocketed,” Ossenfort said.
Composting changed during the pandemic, with city-facilitated drop-off locations shuttered and the New York City Department of Sanitation’s curbside composting program, which had been available to roughly 3.5 million residents, suspended due to budget cuts. In the interim, Reclaimed Organics, which would normally collect compost from residences, offices and businesses for a fee, revived a drop-off location on the Upper West Side where it has collected over 22 tons of compost thus far. More than a year after the COVID-19 shutdown, the Department of Sanitation has called for residents to sign up for curbside composting, which will be reintroduced in the fall.
“The city really should be picking that stuff up,” Ossenfort said of compost generated in residential settings.
Weathering The Storm
In pre-pandemic days, Reclaimed Organics serviced 120 offices in the city, picking up compost to be delivered to different locations for processing, including its headquarters in the East Village. Reclaimed Organics is a division of Common Ground Compost LLC, a company started in 2014 that offers zero-waste consulting services, audits and educational workshops.
But the shift over the past year from working in office buildings to working from home, forced by the pandemic, had a dramatic impact on business as usual. “We lost 100 percent of our customers,” Ossenfort said.
Also during the pandemic, the Department of Sanitation cut its curbside composting program in May of 2020 due to $106 million in budget cuts. City-run drop-off locations were closed for “safety concerns” earlier that spring, according to Vincent Gragnani, a spokesperson for the agency.
People interested in composting still remained in the city, though—and Reclaimed Organics found ways to carry on. The company continued collecting compost from residential buildings by bicycle (its three custom-made “trikes” are named Thunder, Lighting and Sunshine, according to McAllister) in addition to manning its new Upper West Side drop-off site, where a city-run compost drop-off used to be, each Wednesday.
Some people and families, according to Ossenfort, had saved their compostable items for months and were overjoyed to discover that the drop-off location was operational. “We get that level of passion and excitement,” she said. “People are just so happy.”
After other drop-off locations had shut down, Upper West Sider Todd Pooser began frequenting the Reclaimed Organics bins. He views composting as one way—among a host of others—to fight for the health of the environment. “I’ve got a two-year-old daughter,” he said, “and I’m afraid of what it’s going to be when she’s 11” in 2030.
A Zero-Waste Future
Now, with a restored budget for fiscal year 2022, according to Gragnani, the Department of Sanitation is prepared to reboot its curbside composting program in the city.
“No other municipality ran a compost program like ours,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said in an announcement in April of the return of curbside composting, “and this new citywide program will advance the cause of environmental justice in all five boroughs.”
As of August 2, residents in one- or two-family homes and apartment buildings in designated areas of the city can sign up for the service; most of Manhattan and the Bronx are eligible, as well as parts of Queens, Brooklyn and a small section of Staten Island. Collection will begin in October on a “rolling basis” for items like coffee grounds, paper kitchen products and yard waste.
The city also began reopening its drop-off locations in September of last year, after partial funding was restored, according to Gragnani. He wrote in a statement that over 100 sites were operational as of Earth Day this spring and that the agency intends to double its number of drop-off sites by the upcoming fall.
Compost collected by the city is brought to locations in all five boroughs for processing, including some operated by “community partners,” according to Gragnani, like the Brooklyn Botanic Garden and GrowNYC.
“We have a longstanding goal of sending zero waste to landfills,” Gragnani wrote in a statement, “and curbside collection of organic materials will help us meet that goal.”
With the city stepping back in, Reclaimed Organics will likely end its weekly drop-off venture on the Upper West Side — and instead focus once again on its more typical work of collecting compost from office buildings and businesses.
“I think in the fall, it’s going to hit like a tsunami,” Ossenfort speculated. “And everybody’s going to come back and everybody’s going to want to compost.”