A good landfill is an empty landfill, compost advocates say


Composting came easily to Matt Turov. Growing up in the ‘60s, his family was focused on throwing away less trash before doing that was even a thing.

His father, a teacher at Massapequa High School on Long Island, even started an environmental club.

“Once my dad said to me ‘There is no ‘away,’” Turov said. “You say you’re going to throw something away, there is no ‘away.’ It goes somewhere.’”

Standing in his North Riverdale backyard, he and wife Debbi Dolan use two city-issued brown compost bins they fill with dead leaves and food scraps. Before the city gave them the bins, Debbi had fashioned her own from a garbage can with holes drilled in the bottom for ventilation.

Composting might not seem like a natural fit for a city-dweller, but a third of New York’s trash is compostable food scraps and paper waste. Instead of sending those scraps to a landfill, they can be used to enrich soil at home and around the city.

Compost is a soil additive, according to Allie Gumas, an outreach coordinator at the city’s sanitation department. When organic material breaks down in a compost pile, it becomes a nutrient-rich material that can make plants grow larger and stronger. Compost can come from any organic material — from food scraps to eggshells to coffee grounds.

At a recent “Make Compost, Not Trash” event at Christ Church Riverdale, Gumas and her colleagues talked about the benefits of composting, what can be composted, and how composters can become more involved by becoming “ambassadors” of the program.

Jodie Colón, a project manager of the NYC Compost Project at the New York Botanical Garden hosts composting events throughout the Bronx. This year, she organized three “Leaf Crunch” events — something Colón says was born out of necessity.

“We had the Capoeira group on Broadway show up with 65 volunteers to the Van Cortlandt Park garden and compost site,” she said. “I was like, what are we going to do with them? Let’s crunch leaves!”

Colón brought the kids from the martial arts group onto one of Vannie’s lawns to rake leaves and gather them into bags to be composted later. The event was such a hit that, the following year, it went citywide.

Now, Leaf Crunch is like a fall festival, where kids can make leaf crafts, visitors can enjoy local apples and apple cider, and everyone can learn more about composting.

“It’s one of those simple things you can do that can actually make a difference,” Colón said. “It provides materials that can be turned into compost and used in the community, and it makes a difference in the bigger picture environment because it takes the waste out of the landfill.”

It’s also an easy way to get more in tune with how one’s own behavior affects the environment, she said.

“People start paying more attention to the waste they’re generating,” she said. “It’s a way that people become more intentional. They ask, ‘Why do I have so much food waste? Let me plan a little better, let me learn how to use this, let me be OK with leftovers.’”

Turov and Dolan don’t buy paper towels, cleaning up instead with rags and old napkins in an effort to reduce paper waste. After they serve their purpose, the napkins can be tossed into their countertop compost collection bin, already filled with coffee grounds and filters, orange peels and onion paper.

The napkins can be especially helpful to clean up kitchen grease, Turov said, which is better composted than poured down the drain.

“The grease is a big one, because instead of going into drains and clogging up drains, it gets composted,” he said. “So it makes a lot more sense all around, and it’s less paper being wasted.”

So why compost? Food scraps, paper products and yard waste — like grass clippings and fallen branches — will decompose anyway, right?

Not necessarily, said Yelda Hangun-Balkir, the Center for Urban Resilience and Environmental Sustainability director at Manhattan College. Landfills don’t provide ideal conditions for decomposition for organic waste.

“You need to separate organic waste from other stuff,” Hangun-Balkir said. “If everything is separated perfectly, it will be treated separately. You need different environments for different things.”

Organic scraps need oxygen and space so that bacteria, insects and fungus can flourish and break down into nutrient-rich compost.

When organics are decomposing in a landfill, they release methane, Gumas said. Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas that can have detrimental effects on the environment.

Most composting outreach focuses on buildings with up to three apartments, Gumas said, since they can be provided with brown organic materials bins more easily. Buildings with more residents, like high-rises, can apply for curbside collection, working alongside the building manager.

Both The Glenbriar at 750 Kappock Street and Skyview-on-the-Hudson recently received their brown bins, she said, adding hundreds of locals to the organics collection program.

“You would think that people would want to do that, you know?” Dolan said. “It just makes all the sense in the world.”

The city uses compost in local parks and even in tree wells, where rain has often washed away nutrients and left hard, infertile soil. They also give compost back to the community for gardens, yards, and even windowsill flowerpots.

Dolan uses the compost she gets back from the city in her garden, which is scattered around the house in small pots and containers.

Getting involved is easy, Gumas said. The sanitation department is looking for volunteers to help out with events, doing things as simple as handing out leaf bags or compostable sets of plates and flatware.

The sanitation department is collaborating with the botanical garden on more events this season. And one last Leaf Crunch is set for Brust Park on Nov. 9 from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., and it’s there Colón aims to fill as many leaf bags as possible.

“One of the points we try to make is that there’s a way for you to engage in this at whatever level you’re comfortable,” Colón said. “You don’t have to do it all, but you can do something.”