The Lower East Side Ecology Center based in lower Manhattan has been at the forefront of recycling and composting in New York City since the mid-1980s, starting with recycling services and then segueing into composting. As part of BioCycle’s series on community composting in New York City, we interviewed the organization’s cofounder and executive director, Christine Datz-Romero, to shed light on the Center’s beginnings and eventual diversification. Datz-Romero also shared her vision for the future of community composting.
BioCycle: How was the Lower East Side Ecology Center started?
Datz-Romero: Our founding is, like anything, a personal story. When I moved to New York City from Germany in 1980, I marveled at how dirty and wasteful the city was. It was a culture shock. I was determined to find a group that would accept my recyclables, in particular, newspaper. That group turned out to be the Village Green Recycling Team. I found them by chance, walking around the Village, and immediately began lugging my newspaper, metal and glass to them regularly.
Soon, what started out as a personal interest in finding a place to recycle, quickly grew into something more. I became a volunteer for Village Green Recycling Team, and really enjoyed being part of their initiative. In 1985, I decided to quit my job in a German language bookstore and devote myself full-time to bringing recycling to my neighborhood, the Lower East Side in Manhattan.
My husband, Clyde, and I started a not-for-profit, Outstanding Renewal Enterprises, Inc. (ORE), and were independent contractors for the Environmental Action Coalition (EAC), an organization that coordinated recycling for several New York City (NYC) apartment buildings. EAC worked with superintendents to collect newspaper. We would pick up the bundled newspaper, often times having to climb stairs.
We’d transport the bundles in our step van to Recoverable Resources/Borough Bronx 2000 Inc. (R2B2), which was a buyback center funded by the New York City Department of Sanitation (DSNY). Depending on the market, we would sometimes leave R2B2 feeling very rich, and other times, very poor. Our focus was on amassing newspaper, which had a relatively high value. Glass, by contrast, was about a penny a pound, which made it very difficult, comparatively, to efficiently collect and sell at buyback centers.
BioCycle: Were the EAC buildings your only source of recyclable materials?
Datz-Romero: EAC buildings kept us afloat in terms of revenue generation. We made about $200 per week. However, we really wanted to grow recycling opportunities in our own neighborhood, so we simultaneously set up drop-off sites in front of community gardens on the Lower East Side. Separate containers were set out for newspaper, and metal, glass and plastics. People could deposit materials at any time of day. The EAC routes were run twice a week, and the rest of the week was dedicated to the maintenance and development of ORE’s drop-offs.
BioCycle: What did these drop-off sites look like? Were they staffed?
Datz-Romero: The drop-off sites were not staffed, but we checked them several times a day. The set-up was focused on the commodity and proper source separation. For the collection, we asked a local artist to weld a frame, from which we could hang burlap bags acquired from a local coffee roaster, Porto Rico Importing Co. The frame had a magnet welded on it, so people were able to separate tin from aluminum cans, which had a much higher value. This encouraged people dropping off recyclables to keep the two metals separate without requiring a staff person to instruct them. Glass was sorted by color. We hung a string with a plastic jug attached so that people would know to tie their jug onto the string and not put it in a bag, as those would have taken too much space. For the most part, people separated the materials according to this system. Occasionally, the glass would have to be resorted, but in general, our sites were really well-respected by the community.
The largest and most popular of ORE’s drop-off sites was located at 6th Street and Avenue B. It was always overcrowded, especially on the weekend. So in 1990, we began looking for more space. Eventually, the Department of Citywide Administrative Services (DCAS) rented us a 15,000 square foot lot on 7th Street between Avenues B and C for $150/month. We were thrilled to have this new space.
With a physical location, we needed to find a name. The first choice was the Lower East Side Recycling Center, but we quickly learned that the name “recycling center” triggers specific regulatory requirements, including being located in areas zoned for manufacturing. It was critical, however, that the operation remain in a residential area, where people could easily drop off their materials. So, we settled on Lower East Side Ecology Center.
BioCycle: Why was creating a garden, and eventually a composting operation, at the site so important to your operation?
Datz-Romero: Our aim was to show our neighbors that recycling was desirable and would directly benefit our local community. The best way to do that was to connect ORE’s recycling operation to something that our neighborhood valued: a thriving green open space. At the time, the Lower East Side was a hot bed of community gardens. In the 1970s, many buildings were burned and abandoned and subsequently demolished, creating a lot of empty lots. These lots became eyesores, filling up with illegally dumped garbage. Eventually, the people who lived in the community, including the famous guerrilla gardener Adam Purple (see box), joined together and took responsibility for these lots to create gardens. That is why we have such a great neighborhood today.
Our goal was to beautify the lot, but we weren’t part of GreenThumb, the community garden network managed by the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation. We needed access to necessary resources, particularly soil. So we decided to just make our own soil by collecting kitchen scraps for composting.
Neighbors brought their kitchen scraps to our site on 7th Street. The scraps were mixed with locally-sourced wood chips, manure and wood shavings in a three-bin system, after which the partially-composted material was moved to open piles. We quickly realized that our need for compost significantly outweighed the volume of food scraps being dropped off. At the same time, the composting initiative was having a powerful impact: The Lower East Side Ecology Center (LESEC) was creating soil amendment out of waste that transformed a rubble field into a green oasis, creating tangible impacts that neighbors could really connect to and appreciate.
BioCycle: How did the Center’s role change when New York City initiated curbside recycling service?
Datz-Romero: DSNY began rolling out its curbside recycling program between 1991 and 1993. The program was implemented very slowly, district by district, and the Lower East Side was one of the last communities to be looped in. However, our operation was impacted earlier. As curbside service expanded throughout all five boroughs, buyback centers were no longer necessary. R2B2 closed in 1991, and we had to make special arrangements with DSNY to bring paper, metal, glass and plastic to the MRF in Harlem. By that time, LESEC wasn’t being paid for these materials, but we felt we could not close the drop-off sites until our program participants had curbside service, which wasn’t until 1993.
During this transition, we needed to reorient our focus so that our work would continue to be meaningful. And what would be meaningful? Composting!
BioCycle: Is this when LESEC began its food scraps drop-off at the Union Square Greenmarket?
Datz-Romero: Yes. If LESEC was going to focus on organics and composting, we needed to figure out how to capture greater volumes. One lesson learned by operating our drop-off site at 6th Street and Avenue B is that site visibility is critical to growing participation. The 7th Street site was further east and in a less trafficked area, creating concern about the ability to sufficiently grow participation. We wanted to set up our first food scrap drop-off site in a place where we would interact with a lot of people. The Union Square Greenmarket was a logical choice, particularly because the Village Green Recycling Team had previously offered a Saturday newspaper drop-off there.
In 1994, after successfully pitching the idea to Barry Benepe, Greenmarket’s founder, we opened a drop-off at the Union Square Greenmarket.
BioCycle: How was the drop-off program received by the public/Greenmarket shoppers?
Datz-Romero: I still remember standing at the table that first Saturday, trying to hand out one-gallon buckets, which I had imagined people would eagerly take home to collect their food scraps. Instead the most common reaction was, “Wait, you’re doing what?”
By the end of that day, all of the buckets were given out, but people did not show up the next week with their bins full of kitchen scraps. Nobody came back that first weekend.
But, the program slowly caught on and people brought their materials in neatly tied plastic bags. As kitchen scraps came in, we spent a lot of time figuring out how to balance the needs of our operation with those of the participants and the other farmers at the Greenmarket. How the food scraps were accepted, for example, evolved over time. We had 28-gallon square bins next to our table, and people would drop off kitchen scraps in plastic bags. At first, they could drop the entire plastic bag full of scraps into the bin. Then, once the bin was full, we would empty all the bags ourselves. This initial system was an attempt to minimize the risk of odors, as many of the farmers were concerned that our drop-off site would impact their sales.
It actually took quite some time before we switched to a system of asking people to empty their bags directly into the bin themselves, because staff was not able to handle the volume of bags in the bins. Leachate was not a concern given the and the fact that most residents dropping off food scraps had kept them in their freezer until they dropped them off.
BioCycle: Was everything collected composted at the Center’s original lot on 7th Street?
Datz-Romero: Yes, but that 15,000 square foot lot didn’t last. Eventually a neighborhood organization raised the money to develop a senior citizen home on part of our site, and by 1996 we knew we had to find a new space to grow the composting operation. LESEC approached the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation about moving to East River Park. We have been there since 1998.