The composter-breeders of New York

composter-breeders-new-york
Whitney Palazzo makes a composting pile on her desk. (Sarah Laskow)
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Jodie Colón, according to the list of contributors to the NYC Compost Project’s Master Composter manual, “defines crazy for composting.”

This is literally true. Colón, a full-time compost educator at the New York Botanical Garden, actually designed a quiz to measure composting passion. Points are awarded for behavior like striking up a compost conversation with a stranger, bragging about compost, or knowing “too much” about earthworms’ anatomy, velocity and sex life.

Such passion for taking the city’s biodegradable garbage and turning it into organic fertilizer is, apparently, both teachable and viral. From its modest beginnings in 1993, the NYC Compost Project is now a $1.2 million a year proposition, paid for by the city’s Department of Sanitation. The Compost Project’s “train the trainer” program, which transforms enthusiastic amateurs into Master Composters, has become one of its flagship projects, with hundreds of active members across the five boroughs. This makes it, arguably, one of the city’s most successful and—as the city prepares to cut back or eliminate a range of other, more traditional education  initiatives—durable adult-education initiatives.

A decade after the city started training them, the proselytizing Master Composters are now a regular fixture in a diverse collection of neighborhoods. They may be seen biking around the Lower East Side on tours of community garden compost projects, at the Brooklyn Botanical Garden selling worm bins, or at Bronx Day celebrations handing out flyers. These activities are self-sustaining: as the Master Composters spread the word about composting to the general public, they also recruit the next generation of Masters. (Apparently, many of the program’s students got hooked after casually accepting a flyer, then attending a composting workshop where a compost educator sold them on more intensive training.) This growing army also helps the program draw a pool of candidates broader than the artisinal kimchi crowd, judging from this spring’s students, who included college students and older professionals, performers and educators.

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Colón, 51, speaks energetically and favors clothing in browns and greens. She is very serious about what she does. Though she keeps her Master Composter classes light-hearted and fun, she can turn convincingly stern the second she senses her students’ attention wandering.

She took part in a Bronx pilot of the city’s Master Composter course in 2000. The program began with the idea of building “a cadre of backyard composting experts citywide” and requires students to complete 18 to 23 hours of classes and 30 hours of volunteer activities. The Bronx pilot was invitation-only and stacked with people Colón calls “us wacky, change the world, activist types.”

Back then, few people who she met had heard of composting, but Colón loved it and started composting at her co-op and volunteering at the botanical garden. When the previous compost educator moved on, she was hired “by accident,” she said. She was already planning on picking up her predecessor’s classes as a volunteer, when a manager begged her to teach the classes and offered to pay her. After working part-time at the botanical garden for years, this past February Colón took a permanent position that pays between $40,000 and $45,000 a year, according to the sanitation department. Now, part of her job is running the Bronx iteration of the city’s Master Composters program. Last year, Colón and her colleagues at the NYC Compost Project trained 83 Master Composters.

Composting involves creating conditions in which decomposers like bacteria, fungi, snails, and worms can break down food and other organic waste into a rich, brown loam, and the Master Composter class prepares students to educate others about the practice. The Compost Project gets more requests for demonstrations or tabling events than the program’s ten full-time employees can fulfill, and their trainees can take on those assignments. Master Composters also work on projects like building compost systems in their community gardens or at their offices. Over six weeks of training, Master Composter students learn about composting in worm bins and outdoor systems, about the science of composting, and about outreach and education. They also go on two field trips.

The number of graduates has stayed fairly steady over the program’s history, and instructors say they can’t take on many more students than they do now. But interest in composting has mounted over the past couple of years. In some boroughs, the number of applicants to the program has doubled, and most of the instructors have at least three applicants for every spot they can fill.

“Apparently composting is a competitive thing in New York City,” said Jared Cole, 26, who completed the course in the Bronx last year. Cole, a school teacher, wears a beard and grew up in the suburbs of Kansas City, Mo. He was not accepted the first time he applied to the program, and he was shocked. He had a demonstrated interest in waste management— he had pushed his college to hire a recycling coordinator, who he says ended up saving the school $45,000—but he wrote only a line or two in answer to each of the application’s four questions. When he applied the next year, he said, “My application was two pages long.”

“Organizing people who want to compost together is probably the hardest part,” said Carey Pulverman, a 25-year-old with a mop of red hair, who teaches the Manhattan Master Composter class.

On a Saturday afternoon in May, she showed students from the Brooklyn and Staten Island Master Composter classes two ambitious compost projects—an outdoor system at a community garden in the East Village and the Lower East Side Ecology Center’s operation. The students gathered around as Pulverman pushed a thermometer as long as her arm into a white plastic bin. The bin reached her shoulder and had a spout like a submarine’s periscope, which aerates the bin’s contents—food scraps layered with materials like dried leaves or woodchips. The Ecology Center collects the food at the Union Square Greenmarket and brings it to this lot under the Manhattan Bridge, where one wall is lined with bins and another with a pile of compost.

“These bins can get up to 140 degrees for about five days,” Pulverman said. “That helps kill any bacteria from things like meat scraps that might sneak in there. Then we take it out, sift it, and the worms come in and do the rest.”

Master Composters often take on volunteer projects that can take months, even years, to complete. Jared Cole, who’s a public school teacher, now composts outdoors at his school and uses an indoor worm bin as a teaching tool. One of Colón’s current students wants to set up a worm bin at a farmer’s market in the Bronx.

Colón started a compost system at her co-op. “Now it runs without me,” she said to her students during a recent class. “I’ll run into my neighbors, and they’ll say, ‘We haven't seen you there in two years!’” She checked that they’re still following the procedures she taught them, but that sort of autonomy, she said, is the point.

An entire class of the course is dedicated to outreach and education, and for Colón, it’s essential that students attend. In her experience, it takes two years for people to get over a failed composting experiment and be willing to try it again, so she wants her students to learn how to give potential composters clear and accurate information.  This year, she had students role-play improper outreach behavior. The students took turns standing behind the table and, per instructions printed on green slips of paper, proceeded to ignore visitors, spill their personal belongings over the table, offer incorrect information, talk over another volunteer. Then each one tried again, demonstrating model Master Composter protocol.

Colón shared what she’s learned over the past decade. It’s important to be neat and tidy. When demonstrating messy things, like the worm bin, she lays a plastic sheet on the table, she said. She also organizes hand-outs in two displays, one for event schedules, one for composting information. She can locate anything she needs with the speed of a quick-draw cowgirl. “Blue!” she said, grabbing a sheet. “That’s the schedule.”

Master Composters also need a poker face, she warned. It’s the wild west of composting out there, and not everyone follows the same rules about what works. Master Composters are pioneering a practice that’s becoming more common, and they can’t be judgmental about what other people do or don’t put in their compost bin. “I say, ‘Oh, that's interesting,’” Colón said. “Never say, ‘That’s stupid,’ or ‘Why would you think that?’” Instead, Master Composters should engage people in a conversation and direct them to Compost Project resources.

The most important thing, Colón said, is to attract people to the table and make sure they have a positive experience.

“This is how I table,” she said. She smiled and got into character.

"Hi," she said, pausing. “Want to see my worms?"

 

Sarah Laskow is a freelance reporter living in New York City. As a staff writer at the Center for Public Integrity, she covered money and politics, coal mining and homeland security. Her work has appeared in TheNation.com, Politico, and The American Prospect.