NYC Master Composter Certificate Program

By Neenah Payne

When I joined a community garden in my neighborhood in New York in May 2021, I became friends with one of the founders. She noticed I was interested in composting and recommended that I apply for the NYC Compost Project Master Composter Certificate Course this year – which I did.

UPDATE: DSNY publishes proposed rule to expand commercial organics diversion discusses the introduction of the New York City composting initiative in 2017. An Examination of DSNY’s Organics Collection Initiative: The Costs and Benefits of Composting reviews the project’s success.

NYC – Commercial Organics Recycling Mandate points out:

“As the country’s most populous city, New York City (NYC) experiences a unique set of challenges when it comes to managing its waste stream. Generating 1.8 million tons of commercial and residential organic waste yearly, NYC is making efforts to face this waste diversion problem head-on.

In 2013, then-mayor Michael Bloomberg committed to doubling the organics recycling rate by 2017. In December 2013, NYC passed its Commercial Organic Waste law (Local Law 146), mandating specific large-scale generators to arrange for the recycling of their organic materials or employ department-approved methods to process the material themselves.

However, according to a 2017 Mayor’s Management Report, organics recycling had only grown from a 15.1% capture rate in 2013 to 17.4% in 2017. And, despite pledges by Bill De Blasio (NYC’s mayor from 2013-2021) to expand organics collection to the entire city by 2018, only 3.3 million out of 8.4 million NYC residents had access to curbside organics collection in that year.

The curbside collection service had expanded to serving 3.5 million residents before the program was put on hold due to COVID-19. The city has since recommitted to its curbside organics collection service as well as sending zero waste to landfills by 2030.”

Mandated Materials

The 2012 waste characterization study estimated that organic waste composes about one-third of NYC’s commercial waste stream (and updated figures from 2017 estimate a 34% share of organics suitable for composting). Seeing the opportunity to significantly reduce the volume of NYC’s waste stream, the City Council passed its 2013 commercial organic waste law (Local Law 146, now codified as §16-306.1). The new law used the same definition for organic waste as found in §16-303 of the New York City Administrative Code, with the exception that organic waste to be recovered is not “food that is donated to a third party, food that is sold to farmers for feedstock, and meat by-products that are sold to a rendering company.”

Organic waste is defined in the New York City Administrative Code as follows:

Recommitment and Steps Forward

In March 2020, The NYC City Council released a policy paper on adaptation and mitigation strategies for NYC in the face of Climate Change, which reported that 80% of residential waste still ends up in landfills, despite the City’s commitment to sending zero waste to landfills by 2030. It calls for a comprehensive plan for waste diversion, including an organics recycling mandate.

In February 2021, the NYC Mayor’s Office released the City’s first-ever 10-year food policy plan called Food Forward NYC, in accordance with NYC’s food equity agenda. This food policy plan sets the goal of 90% collection of organic waste by 2030 with mandated source-separation of organics by 2050 for city institutions and schools, and by 2029 for all residential buildings. Additionally, it calls for engagement with environmental justice advocates and the design community to bolster new and existing infrastructure and procedures to support sanitary and equitable composting and source-separation practices.”

NYC Master Composter Certificate Course

The Certificate Course is designed to inform participants about many aspects of composting, to help them become good composters, and to help make more New Yorkers aware of the importance of composting. It requires attendance at 7 Workshops and 2 Field Trips (visits to different-sized compost sites in any of the five boroughs) along with 30 hours of Volunteering. Fortunately, my two hours a week of helping with composting in the garden count toward the 30 hours of Volunteering.

People can still sign up for the NYC Compost Project Master Composter Certificate Course as new Workshops, Field Trips, and Volunteering are being added on a regular basis now.

E-Course: Saving Quality Seeds (Ad)

The 7 Workshops are:

  • Soil and Decomposition Science
  • Composting
  • Composting Systems and Tools
  • Site Design and Management
  • Using Compost, Mulch, and Cover Crops
  • Reaching and Teaching Others
  • DSNY Organics Diversion Efforts

The course is very well designed and includes the free NYC Master Composter Manual whose seven chapters correspond to the seven required workshops.

Students are asked to review the corresponding chapter before attending each workshop. The program recommends the book Easy Compost (BBG Guides for a Greener Planet).

The course provides a Self-Tracking Record for each of the requirements for the Certificate. The first record below is for the 7 Workshops and Two Field Trips. The second record is for the 30 hours of Volunteering. This is an extremely helpful way of keeping track of meeting the requirements.

E-Course: Bio-Intensive Gardening

Brooklyn Botanic Garden Workshops

The Workshops are offered at several locations. I chose to attend the ones at the beautiful Brooklyn Botanic Garden because it was an easy commute for me on the B48 Bus. I completed the seven workshops there this month.

Six of the courses were taught by Teddy Tedesco, Project Manager of the NYC Compost Project at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. During the last class, Teddy showed us additional materials about composting available from the BBG and took us on a tour of the garden’s two composting sites.

Urbanites Make Their Own Compost quotes Teddy on the use of Worm Composting which is done indoors and is an option for apartment dwellers.

“In a composter small enough for even the tiniest studio apartment, red wiggler worms, widely available online, process food waste, which is then cured and used to enrich soil. So long as the worms are not fed meat, dairy or grains, or kale, broccoli or cabbage, the odors are minimal, Tedesco said.”

Richard Day, Community Outreach Coordinator, Compost Outreach & Education at the NYC Department of Sanitation, taught the DSNY Organics Diversion Efforts workshop.

Queens Botanical Garden Field Trip

My first Field Trip was the Queens Botanical Garden Compost Tour on July 14. Chelsea Encababian, Compost Project Manage at the QBG, led the tour. It was much more fascinating than I had expected because we saw several types of composting. I was familiar primarily with the 3-bin composting site in neighborhood, the 3-bin composting in the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, and the 6-bin (soon to be 8-bin) composting site in my community garden.

After a 30-minute discussion at the meetup site, Chelsea began the tour with the windrow shown below. She had three participants take the temperature of the windrow at the bottom, middle, and top. She explained the importance of the pyramidal shape of the windrow.

At the next composting site, Chelsea showed the equivalent of three composting bins which the QBG refers to as the “Active”, “Closed”, and “Finished” sites. Below is an active site in which more material is being added.

Chelsea then showed the “Closed” sites below where nothing is being added.

Chelsea showed the “Finished” site below where the quality of the compost is remarkably fine because the QBG composts for six months.

Chelsea showed two covered windrows and had participants take the three levels of temperature again.

Chelsea then showed us three windrows in various stages of decomposition.

Chelsea ended by showing us the machine that refines the compost after it has cured for six months.

Chelsea explained that various mixtures of greens to browns (vegetable waste to leaves usually) provide different mixtures of nitrogen to carbon that are best for different plants. So, the garden might use a different “recipe” in creating compost depending on which types of crops the compost will be used on. That’s composting at a very sophisticated level!

Chelsea mentioned that the QBG offers and advanced composting program that I hope to participate in.

NYC Community Members Committed To Fight Sanitation Budget Cuts

“Advocates rally against Mayor Eric Adams’ cuts to the Curbside Composting program in front of Brooklyn Borough Hall. Mar 3, 2022. (Photo by Eleonora Francica for NY City Lens)

Last month, Mayor Eric Adams released his preliminary budget, announcing plans to slash the city’s sanitation budget by $47.8 million. The most significant cut involves the Curbside Composting program, a project that Adams promised during his campaign to expand to every New York City neighborhood.

While the mayor goes back on his campaign promise, elected officials and community leaders have decided to put up a fight. “I wrote a letter with my West Side colleagues in January, asking the mayor to increase the budget, restore the pre-pandemic basket service levels,” said Erik Bottcher, council member for District 3, during a rally on the steps of Brooklyn Borough Hall against the rollback last Thursday. “What did we see in the preliminary budget? A cut.”

The meeting, organized by District 37 council member and chair of the sanitation and solid waste management committee Sandy Nurse, was called to rally elected officials and the New York community against Mayor Adams’ decision.

Advocates argue the cuts will worsen the city’s rat infestation and ultimately leave low-income neighborhoods worse off. “Sanitation is not a luxury. All New Yorkers deserve clean neighborhoods and a healthy environment,” said Bernadette Kelly, from Teamster Joint Council 16, a union representing 120,000 working families in the New York metropolitan area. “It’s unacceptable to balance the budget on the backs of communities of color.”
Two NYC residents ironize about the city’s issue with rats and sanitation at the rally held in front of Brooklyn Borough Hall to get sanitation done. Mar 3, 2022. (Photo by Eleonora Francica for NY City Lens)

During the budget announcement, Mayor Adams had argued that “low participation does not justify the expense.” According to the sanitation department, in the 44 eligible districts, just over 5% of residents have expressed interest in receiving the composting service.

However, Nurse said one of the ways in which the program’s inefficiency can be addressed is by making the signing up mandatory. “When we make it mandatory, it means that people who are landlords or building managers cannot stop tenants from participating in the program,” she said.

Community participation is also contingent on the city raising awareness about the importance of recycling food waste. “People are hungry to learn about composting, to participate and volunteer,” said Chelsea Encababian, compost project manager at the Queens Botanical Garden, one of the organizations partnered with the sanitation department and the NYC Compost Project. “We have a lot of participation,” she said, referring to events organized by the garden.

Chelsea Encababian together with a colleague moves compost at the Compost Center at Queens Botanical Garden. Mar 2, 2022. (Photo by Eleonora Francica for NY City Lens)

According to New York City Comptroller Brad Lander, the city’s sanitation programs are not the problem. It is how the money is spent. “We need to restore core funding, but we need to be smarter about how we’re spending it too,” he said. ”New Yorkers are tired of how dirty their neighborhoods are. It’s also a big equity issue and a big sustainability issue.”

Started in 1993, the NYC Compost Project is a collaboration between sanitation officials and seven partner organizations that creates food scrap drop-off sites where organic waste is collected and then composted for soil rebuilding. In 2020, the program was slowed down under the de Blasio administration due to safety concerns arising from the pandemic.

Some residents interested in protecting the environment and cleaning up New York’s streets had decided at that time to take matters into their own hands, creating alternative options to replace the lost services. Catie Savage is one such New Yorker. “I started my community cleanup group, the Hell’s Kitchen Litter Legion, in June of 2020 because the amount of trash we saw was just outrageous,” she said. Savage said the city went from collecting the corner baskets three times a day, seven days a week, in pre-pandemic times to collecting them once a day, every two to three days. “So we went out, and we did our part to really help.”

Efforts have come not only from local initiatives but also from elected officials. “Earlier this year, I allocated $120,000 of my discretionary budget for increased litter basket pickup,” said District 5 Council member Julie Menin who is also chair of the Committee on Small Business. “We have to restore these cuts. It’s a public health issue, it’s a safety issue, it’s an equity issue, and we’re really united in fighting for this.”

Last Friday, community leaders testified against the budget cuts at a New York City Council hearing, emphasizing the importance of expanding the program. “This is really the beginning of our collective actions and collective push,” Nurse said, at the hearing. “Investing in our sanitation services is what is going to help us recover from the last two years.”

Back To The Dirt quotes Encababian as saying:

New York Was Set to Expand Composting. Now It’s on the Chopping Block.

“Mayor Eric Adams wants to suspend the expansion of New York’s composting program, but experts say the program is crucial to the city’s climate targets.

Rotten-tomato reviews were perhaps inevitable after Mayor Eric Adams proposed across-the-board 3 percent budget cuts, and some of the earliest and loudest are about actual decomposing vegetables. Supporters of composting are furious over the plan to suspend the expansion of New York’s long-troubled program to recycle food scraps.

Mr. Adams promised during his campaign to expand curbside composting services to every city neighborhood, a goal his predecessor, Bill de Blasio, failed to reach. Methane from organic waste was “destroying our environment and speeding climate change,” Mr. Adams’s environmental campaign platform stated, pledging to pay for the expansion through deals with private contractors….

Organic waste makes up 34 percent of the city’s residential garbage. Composting keeps it out of landfills, where it emits methane, a greenhouse gas that is far more potent than carbon dioxide. And just as important for a city with a growing rat problem, advocates say, separating food scraps and other organic waste into plastic bins reduces the attractiveness of the city’s garbage to rodents.”

New City Budget Incrementally Expands Composting Programs as Council Considers Citywide Mandate

“Sanitation, including restoring and expanding the composting program, was a major budget issue in the City Council this year, and several Council members mounted a full-court press to urge the administration to provide adequate funding for it. For those members, it was not only a quality of life and cleanliness issue but also a public health, climate, and environmental justice issue, and one that was intrinsically tied to the city’s zero-waste goal.

While the city is making little progress toward the zero-waste goal, the City Council is considering a package of legislation to help get there.”

Neenah Payne writes for Activist Post and Natural Blaze

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