Two PLG Residents Pick Up the Slack After City Suspends Compost Programs

“Being in the climate that we’re in – we have no time to undo any of the progress that’s been done."

Volunteers for Nurture BK collect compost. Courtesy of Nurture BK.

For Brooklyn’s robust composting community, the city’s decision in April to suspend curbside compost pickup, and temporarily close Food Scrap Drop-Off Sites, due to COVID-19-related budget cuts was deeply disheartening.

For the last five years, those aiming to curb food waste and reduce their carbon footprint could gather their food scraps, dead plants, and other biodegradable waste and drop them into the brown bins provided by the Department of Sanitation (DSNY), or, if their building didn’t have one, bring them to drop-off sites around the city. These programs came bundled with Mayor de Blasio’s Zero Waste initiative, which launched in February 2016 and aimed for a 90% citywide reduction in waste sent to landfill by 2030.

While funding was recently restored to a number of community composting sites, many Brooklyners without access to these sites — and who can’t afford to pay for private compost pick-up services — have been forced to either toss compostable waste in the trash, where it would go to landfill, or let it accumulate in their kitchens.

Christina Morales, a Prospect-Lefferts Garden resident and longtime composter, saw another option; she could create her own volunteer-based program, allowing residents to drop off their scraps – free of charge.

Morales launched Nurture BK in June after the GrowNYC Prospect-Lefferts Garden Food Scrap Drop-Off site, in front of the Parkside Avenue subway station, was closed. Without a drop-off site, and without access to a brown bin, she had nowhere to bring her compost.

“When the city was cutting the budgets and taking funding away from certain programs, I honestly was so surprised that they even considered the composting program being one of them,” said Morales. “Being in the climate that we’re in – we have no time to undo any of the progress that’s been done.”

For support, she looked to microhaulers — small-scale compost collectors — across Brooklyn and Queens. “They were extremely welcoming, and sort of gave me the steps to getting started,” said Morales. “I knew I wasn’t going to be able to do this alone.”

That community is what led her to Fred Wolf, founder of the plant nursery Nature Based in Gowanus, who accepts compost from microhaulers and drives it up to McEnroe Organic Farm in upstate New York. They used Wolf’s services up until recently, when they switched over to the environmental nonprofit Big Reuse, which recently had its funding restored by DSNY.

Morales’ partner, Anneliese Zausner-Mannes, began as a volunteer when the program first started, and quickly reached out to Morales to offer her help. Since then, Morales and Zausner-Mannes have, with the combined effort of their volunteers, collected over 18,000 pounds of compost via drop-offs at their site on Prospect Park’s southeast corner.

“I can’t tell you how many regulars we have who, in the beginning, were like ‘Oh, my god, you’re our savior — our freezer was overflowing,” said Zausner-Mannes.

Every Sunday, Morales and Zausner-Mannes – along with 20 to 25 volunteers, who work in hour-long shifts – collect and sort compost, removing items like stickers and rubber bands, which don’t biodegrade. They also don’t accept any animal products – meat, dairy, fish, or bones – nor any paper towels, as paper towels are often soiled with cleaning products, oil, and other materials that would contaminate the entire batch.

To Morales and Zausner-Mannes, Municipal composting programs are important not only because they help reduce waste, but also because they provide a way of educating the public about the importance of waste reduction and other types of environmental action. Terms like ‘greenhouse gases’ and ‘climate change’ can be reduced to buzzwords if people aren’t sufficiently educated about them, Zausner-Mannes explained.

“I think it’s really hard to connect that with something real. You can think ‘oh, compost helps reduce that.’ But then it’s also, that’s where it ends – it’s a fragmented thought,” she said.

With Nurture BK, said Zausner-Mannes, “we have this very unique opportunity to provide a service and an education, and an empowerment.”

Additionally, both Morales and Zausner-Mannes emphasized, Nurture BK has provided them with a sense of community during the isolation of COVID-19. The same people often show up to drop off compost every Sunday, and their volunteers have been so critical to the program’s success that they recently threw them a party to show their appreciation.

“Annaliese and I probably cry once every collection,” said Morales, laughing. “It’s very emotional.”

Nurture BK collects compost every Sunday from 9am to 11am at the corner of Parkside and Ocean Avenues in Prospect-Lefferts Garden. Donate to Nurture BK through their new fiscal sponsor, LES Ecology Center, using the link here. For a list of items that Nurture BK accepts for collection, and for more information on their work, check out their Instagram page.

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Rachel Lindy Baron

Rachel is a reporter for Bklyner and recent Brooklyn transplant who is a bit obsessed with food.

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