Cities have an abundance of food. Thousands of restaurants, caterers, grocery stores, bodegas and households comprise the network of establishments that thrive on food’s production and consumption in NYC. It is easy to think of each of these places that receives and redistributes food as stops along a path to one final human consumer. However, anyone who has visited New York City or lived here for any length of time  knows that not all of the food that comes to NYC ends up consumed. Food waste in urban areas is a large but avoidable problem. A simple way for individuals to increase the sustainability of NYC’s food cycle is to reconsider the lives of the foods they eat. Composting what we do not eat is the most common sense way to extend the value of food by allowing people to recycle the nutrients in food waste.

CompostComposting is the decomposition of plant and other biodegradable matter. Domestic composting can be done indoors or out, and requires a container, food waste excluding meat and poultry, and water. The breakdown of this matter produces nutrient rich material that bolsters the fertility of soil and helps to yield larger, more productive plants. In the New York context, composting calls up the questions how to make space and what to use compost for. In communities where gardening and farming are the norm, composting is a sensible way to reduce waste and make fertilizer. But for people in urban areas, compost can be used to support growing initiatives such as community gardens, parks, and other green spaces. In Manhattan, this concept has already caught on as environmental organizations such as the Lower East Side Ecology Center (LESC) have been teaching people how to make composting a part of daily life.

The LESC has run the Community Compost Program since 1999 and offers drop off locations for food wastes from individuals’ kitchens. Collaborative composting makes use of many small contributions to produce a large amount of economically and ecologically valuable compost. Initiatives like the LESC Community Compost Program can be found throughout the five boroughs and are organized under the NYC Department of Waste Management’s NYC Compost Project. While composting in NYC must be configured differently from backyard composting in suburbs, the infrastructure for effective urban composting already exists.

To improve the way that New York City sustains its communities and the environment, people must revise the way they think about food, where it comes from and where it goes. Where there were once aging leftovers, New Yorkers should try to see the beginnings of nutrient-rich compost that could nourish a food plant in the future. Supporting the urban composting infrastructure is as simple as dropping of scraps at one of the NYC Compost Program’s several locations or bringing them to a neighborhood community garden. Both ways, the ecological value of anything from an apple core to last night’s pasta can be fully realized.

By Suzanne Pierre