On a beautiful Sunday afternoon in June (2015) over two dozen compost and bicycle enthusiasts gathered at the Queens Botanical Garden for the Queens Compost Bike Tour (see press release here). Participants across the boroughs of Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens were in attendance. Including folks from highly successful community community sites such as the 462 Halsey Community Garden, which operates one of the most active and productive community run compost sites in NYC.
Jeremy Teperman, of the NYC Compost Project hosted by the Queens Botanical Garden, treated participants to a behind the scenes peek at QBGs composting operation and learned about the Master Composter training program.
The group rambled through Flushing Meadows Park, by the iconic Unisphere and made our way to the 34th Avenue bike lane which provided a convenient corridor to follow as we stopped at various composting sites in Queens. The second stop was St. Mark’s Church/Farmspot CSA compost site (33-50 82nd Street, Jackson Heights) where Kirsten Magnani and Evie McKenna, two Queens Master Composters, treated attendees to an inside look at a community compost site run by a local Community Supported Agriculture group, which uses space from the church to distribute its veggie shares to its members. CSA members drop off their food scraps and tend to the compost bins weekly.
From the lush church garden we rode on to a less conventional site.
From the lush church garden we rode on to a less conventional site.
JH SCRAPS (an acronym for Jackson Heights Scrap Collection to Restore our Areas Poor Soils) is located underneath a set of train tracks, on State DOT land with a DEP pumping station adjacent to their operation. Lenny Olsson, another Queens Master Composter, explained the nuances of creating this group, their volunteer model and future expansion plans. It was remarkable to view composting being created underneath a highway structure and displays the innovative nature of our community and how little space is required to compost effectively. At this site, thermophilic temperatures were above 150 degrees across the compost bins. JH SCRAPS also envisions itself as a community center, and also collects mulch from NYC Parks’ nearby Mulch Fest, and accepts fall leaves from nearby residents.
Departing from Jackson Heights we had a relatively quick jaunt over to Sunnyside Gardens where the volunteers at Sunny Compost greeted our rag-tag group with sliced watermelon and fresh produce grown in their immaculate community garden.
Several members from the Sunny Compost team showed off their operations which includes tumblers and three bin systems. We visited during drop off hours and witnessed the magic happening in front of us with children and students chopping food scraps and then placing them into an active pile. The Sunny Compost crew also had a really nice sifting trommel and were placing finishing touches on this item. (Their blog article of the tour)
It was difficult to leave the well kept and hospitality filled community garden but the wide open expanse of the largest rooftop farm in NYC beckoned. Most of us had never been to the top of the hulking building located on the SW corner of Northern Ave and 39th Street. We were in awe as the elevator doors opened to the roof and the spectacular Brooklyn Grange flagship farm revealed itself, in all of it’s late Spring glory. Row after row of meticulously planted and cared for crops destined for market and chef’s pantries gave way to sweeping views of the NYC skyline.
After gawking at all of the visual stimulation, the head farmer Bradley Fleming corralled our group and spoke to us about their impressive composting operation. The Grange boasts an Aerated Static Pile (ASP) which makes for lighter work, forcing air into the pile means it doesn’t deplete oxygen and go anaerobic, thus eliminating the need to turn the pile. While chatting about some of the commercial sources that The Grange receives organic residues from, the topic of discussion shifted towards two unique companies called Global Enviro, which grinds and dehydrates food scraps, and the InSinkErator, which converts kitchen sinks into garbage disposals. Both companies are working to become standardized in NYC, both have positives and downsides but anyone interested in compost and waste management in NYC should familiarize themselves with these two concepts because they offer different approaches to the composting norm.
After the breathtaking views, we took it easy, taking a complete lane of traffic as we casually cruised through Astoria to the Western reaches of Queens. Just shy of the waterfront, underneath the Queensboro Bridge, lies the largest community composting operation in New York City. Erycka de Jesus, of Build It Green! Compost, gave us the grand tour of this NYC Compost Project site. Replete with a box truck, bin-tipper, jay-lor mixer, bobcat skid-steer, an ASP engineered system with a forced air pump and Gore-Tex cover, motorized trommel and seemingly endless amounts of wood chips, sawdust and leaves (collectively called “browns”), this is a composters dream set-up. In addition to BIG! Compost’s processing operation, they host regular GreenMarket and commuter (near subway stations) drop-off sites in Queens and North Brooklyn. As amazing as it all is, it was pointed out that it all started as one Master Composters community volunteer project back in 2009.
The final leg of the tour led us from Queensbridge to Long Island City’s Industrial Business Zone where the members of Smiling Hogshead Ranch greeted the riders with cheers and whistles, not to mention the delicious BBQ and cold beverages.
Huge thanks to O‘Neil (Erycka’s husband) for throwing down on the grill!
Before digging into the food, we took a quick tour of the Ranch, and the variety of compost methods (8 in total!) on display from the most basic leaf mold area, to our successful 3-bin systems and vermicompost, and towards advanced biodynamic systems such as hugelkulture windrows, bokashi food fermentation, and mushroom compost. Gil Lopez, co-founder of the Ranch, introduced the Ranch’s new weigh station and #NYCompost as part of a campaign to unite composters city-wide on social media. He also address local organic recovery and soil building as a fundamental form of autonomous development.
We then heard from Jennifer Plewka, Hogshead educator, who filled us in on the two biodynamic windrows which will slowly decompose and be converted into a fedge (food-hedge) on the verge of our edible forest.
Finally, Sashti Balasundaram, founder of We Radiate, an environmental research start-up dealing with compost, provided a demonstration of their new product initiative called ThermoSense. The ThermoSense initiative records temperature fluctuations across a compost pile and offers educational feedback to users to enhance compost quality and efficiency.
We Radiate’s fundamental goal is to minimize landfill disposal of food-waste through technologies that encourage urban composting. As a result, municipalities can reduce spending on the export of waste to landfill, and re-appropriate funds towards compost programs that encourage growth in green jobs, enhance local food production in urban settings, and promote healthier neighborhoods. They are currently developing add-ons to eventually create a complete diagnostic tool that measures key compost indicators into a wireless device.
This bike tour was a success in that it brought people together to enjoy a beautiful day together, educated many on the important work being done around our serious issue of waste, shined a light on the people and locations doint this important work and encouraged a diverse community to become more connected and enriched. We hope that future similar bike tours will take place and the issue is delved into even more deeply. By connecting the dots between all these things we hope that there will be even more composting sites, bike tours and positive community interactions in the future.