Composting in the Big Leagues: An Interview with Abbe J. Penziner-Bokde

Curbside compost pick-up? City-wide organic waste systems? To New Yorkers, these concepts may sound like wishful thinking, but for people in many urban places around the U.S. and the world, they are reality. Abbe J. Penziner-Bokde has become somewhat of an expert on municipal compost systems in her travels, and recently shared with us some of what she has learned.

Abbe in the garden

Compost for Brooklyn (C4B): I understand you have been traveling the world, looking for large-scale composting projects. Tell me more.

Abbe J. Penziner-Bokde (AJP-B): (Laughs) Not exactly. On a couple of vacations this year I noticed that there are these cities wtih municipal compost systems within city bounds, like Boulder and Seattle. My husband and I were in a government building in Boulder in August and I saw this sign near a compost bin by the trash: “What to Compost,” and it was basically everything. Stuff that we can’t compost here in New York, like dirty cardboard containers, and they had compostable takeout containers. Basically, there’s very little you’re not throwing in there. Then, I saw posters around Boulder advertising composting, saying, “This is a backyard on compost.” We should have those here.

Boulder, CO poster

C4B: Why can’t we get initiatives like this in New York?

AJP-B: I’m not saying we couldn’t, but you can’t compare the population in New York City and these cities–think about the number of high rises we have, the number of people, the number of businesses here. We’re talking about 500,000 people versus 8 million. Maybe in the future we’d have something on a borough level, but I think we have to keep going at a small scale first. We have to begin by helping people understand how composting works and why to do it. In places that have these big municipal systems, people feel good about doing it, but they don’t understand the process. They put it out, it goes away. I think we can do better than that here.

C4B: You mentioned small scale composting. Do you mean Compost for Brooklyn-sized?

AJP-B: Yeah. It’s hard because at a large facility like Cedar Grove in Seattle, they can sustain heats of 170 degrees, which means they can compost meats, cheese, and cooked foods. We get up to 130 or 140 degrees here [at C4B], but we have to be careful about what we take because some of those foods go rancid and they attract pests. And having lower temperatures means that some things don’t break down. Bigger is better in that case.  Cedar Grove is the largest urban composting model in the world– it runs compostability tests for products to see if they’ll break down. Here, people must be thoughtful about what they put in, and they have to chop it up for the guy who turns it. It’s a whole different thing.

C4B: So, New York has a long way to go before we have something large-scale. Is there anything short-term we can learn from these other cities?

AJP-B: I’ve seen some amazing print and video public education tools, especially in Seattle, in 10 to 15 languages and with pictures. Their general government waste management web page is good too. They’re really sending a message that the city is taking this seriously. I would also recommend visiting Boulder’s recycling and composting web pages to see how they do it.

About compostforbrooklyn

Compost for Brooklyn empowers city residents to sustainably reduce waste and cultivate healthy urban ecosystems.
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