Bringing Worms to the Big Apple

Can we reduce waste and foster growth by taking steps to change the way urbanites treat their food scraps?

Tomatoes being broken down into compost. Photo courtesy of urbanfoodie33/Flickr Creative Commons

In my Alameda, California home, composting is as easy as rolling the large yard waste container that sits in our backyard out to the curb every week along with our garbage and recycling.  Sorting banana peels and napkins from recyclable yogurt containers and landfill-doomed Mylar packaging has become second nature to me, but now that I’ve started cooking in my dorm, I have been forced to confront a lurking dilemma: Barnard College – New York City, in fact – has no such program.  Sure, you can set up your own worm bin or deliver food scraps to composting centers around the city, but nothing here rivals the scope and convenience of the program I grew up with.

Many city dwellers don’t care where their waste goes as long as it goes away but are aware that things like paper and aluminum cans can be recycled.  Few realize, though, that food scraps can also be reused by being fed back into a recycling system older than humanity.  Life operates in a natural circle and requires a number of elements.  Most think of water and sunlight when it comes to sustaining plant life; it is easy to forget that – like us – the flowers and forests of the world cannot grow without nutrients.  Most important are the primary macronutrients nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium, followed by the secondary macronutrients calcium, magnesium, and sulfur.  In addition, plants need myriad micronutrients, such as copper, iron, and, manganese.  They draw these nutrients from soil, a mixture of mineral particles, organic matter, air, and water that blankets Earth’s crust.  As consumers – organisms that obtain energy by eating other organisms – we rely on plants as a major source of sustenance. We can benefit from them both directly – by polishing off a salad on our lunch break – and indirectly – by devouring a hamburger made from a cow that ate the greens. Either way, we end up ingesting some of the nutrients the plant absorbed from the soil.

Most food scraps we leave on our plate (think half-eaten carrots and stale bread more than sticky clouds of cotton candy) still contain these precious nutrients and can be broken down by decomposers like bacteria, fungi, and worms, which feed on dead organic matter.  That matter, which with their help becomes compost, can then be returned to the soil, where new plants will draw on it to augment their own growth, the cycle recommencing.  As Natalie Wesson, Project Coordinator for the NYC Compost Project in Manhattan*, says “composting…allows us to turn food scraps and yard waste into a nutrient rich component of soil, it can be used to amend nutrient depleted soils and improve the health of [one’s] garden.”

The BioX composting machine at Barnard College. Photo by Claire Mathieson

New York City consumes plenty of these nutrients but – without a large-scale composting program – returns very few.  Barnard College, in essence a small city within the city, has the power to act as a model but so far only has a relatively ineffective composting program in place.  This program comprises an instrument known as a BioX, which allows for a small amount of organic material (food scraps from the Hewitt dining hall) to be broken down on-campus.  However – according to Professor Peter Bower, head of the Waste Management class – the only benefit of this system is that it removes mass from the waste stream.  I was surprised to hear Professor Bower describe the process, during which “the energy that’s in all the organic bonds [in the food scraps] is broken down and…lost, then the nutrients get put in an oxidized form and sent to the sewage treatment plant.”  The small amount of compost that is generated at Barnard, then, has no chance to reclaim its place in the natural cycle.  The first step of the process exists – the breakdown of food scraps – but in order to make this composting effort truly worthwhile we must find a way to return nutrients to the soil, whether by connecting with a company that will facilitate that return or by establishing a relationship with a nearby farm.  As I investigate how Barnard could enact a comprehensive composting program, I hope to strengthen the bond between bustling city life and flourishing land life, creating a path for our discarded scraps to become new growth that in turn will find its way back to the city to nourish us.

* Funded and managed by the Bureau of Waste Prevention, Reuse and Recycling, hosted at the Lower East Side Ecology Center

One thought on “Bringing Worms to the Big Apple

  1. Katheryn Thayer

    Also being from the Bay Area, I really appreciate your comparison of New York Composting to other waste management systems, and love your proposition that Barnard could lead by example.

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