Owner Glenda Alvarado-Ostrow shares why she started Grounds For A Peel Composting, currently the only commercial food-scraps composting facility on Long Island registered with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. Credit: Randee Daddona

If Joy Doherty had her way, all of Long Island would be composting.

A former social worker, Doherty discovered composting soon after being laid off in December 2018, leading her to reevaluate her lifestyle and how she could reduce her impact on the planet.

"I just feel that the overconsumption was eating away at me and then I kind of saw it was taking away from the value of other people’s lives, too," said Doherty, 56, of Central Islip, who now works at Trader Joe’s.

Doherty’s exploration led her to understand the benefits of composting. Unable to compost in her town house community, she took her food scraps to the closest place: Queens County Farm Museum in Little Neck.

Soon, she was volunteering at New York City compost sites and at El Sol Brillante Garden in Manhattan’s East Village and presenting a composting workshop at Connetquot Library.

Her goal and mission, she said, was "to educate and engage communities in local composting, resource recovery and zero-waste efforts." Through research and word-of-mouth, she connected with a whole composting community on Long Island that included grassroots organizations and entrepreneurs.

Clockwise from above: The LI Community Compost pilot project at the Central Islip Civic Council. Joy Doherty, left, and Erycka de Jesus-Glenn have launched LI Community Compost to promote food-scrap recycling on Long Island. De Jesus-Glenn's son Trey Glenn volunteered at the pilot project. | Photos by LI Community Compost

Why compost?

About 30% of Long Island’s food and yard waste is organic, said Beth Fiteni, a member of Long Island Organics Council and founder of Green Inside and Out, a Huntington-based environmental organization.

"It’s kind of amazing because 30% of our waste really can be composted and turned into useful soil that we can return to our farms and gardens," Fiteni said. "And, instead, it’s going into an incinerator or being trucked off the Island to someplace else to be landfilled."

When food waste goes to a landfill, bacteria break it down and release methane, a harmful greenhouse gas.

"So, the more we can prevent the release of methane, the better," Fiteni said, adding that home composting can be easy to do.

Compost is a natural fertilizer, explained Mary Ann Remolador, assistant director of Northeast Recycling Council, an 11-state nonprofit that advocates for reducing waste.

"It’s not only good for growing things in, but it actually helps the health of your soil," Remolador said. "It makes sense because you’re returning the nutrients back to the soil from which much of it comes."

Keeping food scraps out of the waste stream reduces communities’ cost for waste, which is measured by weight — and food waste is often the heaviest, Remolador explained.

"It takes up space in the landfill," Remolador continued. "It’s a waste to throw things away that can be used for a higher value. In this case, it would be the nutrients from the food."

Clockwise from above: Transition Town Port Washington's composting site, founded by Claire Treves Brezel, at Long Island Science Museum in Manhasset, is among grassroots efforts on Long Island. Here, Treves Brezel, second from left, works with Eden and Brooke Williams, whose mother, Catherine, looks on. Gina Grant, left, of Port Washington breaks down her food scraps as sisters Brooke and Eden Williams wait for their turn. Catherine Williams and her daughter Brooke turn the compost tumbler. | Photos by Linda Rosier

New year, new law

On Jan. 1, 2022, a New York State Food Donation and Food Scraps Recycling Law takes effect, requiring many facilities generating more than 2 tons of food scraps per week to donate excess edible food and to compost, either on- or off-site, if they are within 25 miles of a composting facility.

"Reducing disposal of organics will help New York achieve its Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act’s goal of putting the state on a path to carbon neutrality economywide by 2050," said Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Basil Seggos.

Though there are important exemptions — including for schools, nursing homes and more — there are still some 1,300 companies in New York State that would seem to qualify under the new food-recycling law.

Grounds For A Peel in Centereach is currently the only registered commercial food-scraps composting facility on Long Island, noted Fiteni, of Long Island Organics Council.

"Basically, until we get our act together on Long Island and establish an anaerobic digester or some sort of system, all of Long Island will be exempt from that law unless those facilities are willing to do the on-site composting," Fiteni said.

A DEC-registered facility, Grounds For A Peel opened in 2019 and has the capacity to compost 14 tons per week, notes Glenda Alvarado-Ostrow, who owns the Centereach facility, which operates on land owned by Bethel Hobbs Community Farm. In a reciprocal arrangement, Alvarado-Ostrow processes scraps from the farm, which uses the compost to grow vegetables.

Alvarado-Ostrow, 44, who is considering acquiring another facility to increase capacity, picks up food scraps from a handful of residential clients and restaurants, but expects to get deliveries from warehouses, supermarkets and restaurants when the food-recycling law takes effect next year.

"With my recent DEC registration as a compost facility, I will be able to process over 700 tons of food scraps a year and divert it from going to the landfill," Alvarado-Ostrow explained, helping the planet by not contributing to climate change.

A start in Central Islip

With a goal of seeing communities come together to compost — "really to take ownership of their relationship to food and use the community’s fun, energy and efforts to bring that back and grow healthier food, have healthier soil" — Doherty connected with Erycka Glenn-de Jesus, 45, of Riverhead, who had gotten a certificate in composting, and the two ran a community-composting pilot project in Central Islip from September 2019 to February 2020 in partnership with the Central Islip Civic Council.

They had 10 volunteer families from whom they picked up scraps weekly, composting 1,229 pounds of food scraps, or about 60 pounds per week, using a tumbler and three-bin system.

A participant in the pilot project, Patty Posthauer collected fruit and vegetable scraps, eggshells and coffee grinds in a bucket at her Bay Shore home.

"I loved it," said Posthauer, 55, a professor at St. Joseph’s College. "I miss it now. I hate to throw away my coffee grinds: Those are the simplest things that you can just compost that don’t smell as bad as banana or orange peel or other vegetables. It’s upsetting that I’m not able to do it right now."

Recalling how she learned about the value of replenishing natural resources, Posthauer said, "If we put it back and it rejuvenates itself — if we can all put a little bit back, compared to what we take — we might just be able to survive."

The pilot project’s success inspired Doherty and de Jesus-Glenn to form a worker cooperative, LI Community Compost LLC, earlier this year.

"We’re trying to form a cooperative business and finding out how we can make compost happen in our communities," said de Jesus-Glenn, who has a New York City Department of Sanitation master composter certificate and hopes that LI Community Compost will replicate the success of the GrowNYC Compost Program, which was established in 2011 and has 17 residential food scrap drop-off sites around the city.

Joan Crescitelli, executive director of the civic council, said she would like to continue the program and hopes to provide a larger space on the property for the pair to use.

"We do feel it’s beneficial to the community," Crescitelli said. "We’re on 5 acres, so there might be more space for her to utilize. We’re just trying to get the funding to clear the area."

De Jesus-Glenn, who works as a caterer, said a permanent site at Central Islip Civic Council could be used as a model for establishing composting drop-off sites at fire and police departments, hospitals, community gardens, churches and schools.

To establish a townwide food composting program, Doherty said she met twice with Marty Bellew, Islip Town’s commissioner of Environmental Controls, but didn’t get far.

The town composts yard waste, but not food scraps, explained Bellew.

"In order to set up a program like that, it’s extremely costly because it has to be collected separately," he said, adding that it’s an issue of both manpower and money. "If the town was going to do it, they would have to build a facility to handle the food waste."

Bellew encourages Doherty and others to compost in their gardens or in community gardens. "We have no issue with that," he said. "They can make their own compost in their gardens and then use it as a soil amendment."

Clockwise from above: Glenda Alvarado-Ostrow moves scraps into composting piles at Grounds For A Peel, her site at Bethel Hobbs Community Farm in Centereach. Alvarado-Ostrow gets help from her family, from left, son Wyatt, daughter Maya and her husband, William. Using a skid steer, Alvarado-Ostrow can move larger quantities of food waste. | Photos by Linda Rosier

Growing movement

Across Long Island, an assortment of community efforts are underway.

Transition Town Port Washington, an advocacy group that addresses climate change, started a community garden compost program in October 2020 at Manhasset’s Science Museum of Long Island. Families pay a onetime fee — on a sliding scale, from $100 to 200 — to drop off scraps for weekly composting. The fees go toward materials and other ecosystem regeneration projects on the museum’s grounds, explained Claire Treves Brezel, Transition Town founder, adding that they do not pay rent for the space and enjoy collaborating with the museum, which incorporates the composting facility into its children’s education programming.

"Our main goal is to divert kitchen waste from the landfills," said Treves Brezel, who noted that the program, which started with 10 families and has grown to 20, has so far collected 4,000 pounds of food scraps.

Transition Town aims to start other hubs around town to take kitchen waste — about 20% of garbage — and turn it into compost.

"It really doesn’t take that much space," Treves Brezel said, noting that the museum compost facility is less than 200 square feet. "You can put a compost facility anywhere."

Through a DEC Environmental Justice Community grant, Starflower Experiences-Sustainable Wyandanch started a "Good Earth, Good Garden" program in late 2017 to promote home composting, said Laurie Farber, executive director.

For a $10 fee, Starflower Experiences provided classes, a compost tumbler, container and instruction binder for home composting, Farber explained.

Originally offered to Wyandanch residents, the program expanded to other areas of Babylon Town and gained traction with Lindenhurst Public Library and dozens of residents of Babylon village. Only nine of the 112 tumblers they originally started with haven’t been given away.

"A lot of the people are gardeners, so they’re going to be using the compost they create," Farber said.

In Brookhaven, the advocacy group Brookhaven Landfill Action & Remediation Group instituted a 90-day community composting pilot program on June 5 to draw attention to its call to shut down the Town of Brookhaven Landfill because of its reported quality of life issues. With the participation of 20 families and a deli in North Bellport, the group’s program, held at the Chris Hobson and Bill Neal Community Garden, has collected roughly 100 pounds of food scraps each week.

"What we found was there is a great demand for projects like this," said Monique Fitzgerald, a group member.

Among the challenges for home composting is keeping raccoons and other animals from compost bins, said Remolador, of Northeast Recycling Council. To prevent that, she advises excluding meat, bones and plate waste from the compost.

"What you’re including then would be food scraps, like from vegetables and fruits," Remolador said, adding that educating the community on best practices for composting through workshops and social media is key to its success.

Though she feels Long Islanders have been slow to embrace the composting lifestyle, Doherty remains optimistic that once people learn the value of recycling food waste through composting, it will really take off; she plans to give more composting workshops once COVID-19 restrictions ease.

"If you take it [food waste] out of your garbage and get it composted, there’s a relationship that changes within you," Doherty said. "There’s a connection to Mother Nature that just engulfs you."

Starflower Experiences-Sustainable Wyandanch's composting workshop in April 2018 at Community Nazarene...

Starflower Experiences-Sustainable Wyandanch's composting workshop in April 2018 at Community Nazarene Church; from left, Angela Sellers, Yvette Zavala, Emily Madrid, Frank Madrid (behind Emily), Charles Zavala, Pastor David Solomon and Natalie Prime. Credit: Laurie Farber

Composting at home

You can get started with home composting by visiting New York State’s Department of Environmental Conservation website dec.ny.gov/chemical/8799.html, which has information about do’s, don’ts and troubleshooting. The department uses this mnemonic to remember the basic principles: "Making compost takes some care; add greens, browns, water and air."

  • "Greens," which provide nitrogen, include food scraps: fruit and vegetable peels, coffee grounds, tea bags and old bread, fresh grass clippings, fresh weeds and manure.
  • "Browns," for carbon and airflow: fallen leaves, dry weeds, shredded paper, wood chips and straw.
  • Air speeds breakdown: Turning the pile twice a month increases airflow.
  • Water: If the pile is too dry, add water; too wet, add leaves, shredded newspapers or sawdust.

— Arlene Gross

Claire Treves Brezel, of Transition Town, uses these jars of...

Claire Treves Brezel, of Transition Town, uses these jars of "greens," "browns" and decomposition stages as a teaching tool. Credit: Claire Treves Brezel

Kinds of composting

Bokashi: an anaerobic process using inoculated bran to ferment kitchen waste

Vermicomposting: bins filled with red worms feed on such organic matteras food scraps and yard trimmings

Aerated windrow composting: also called turned windrow composting; good for community and food-processing businesses with large-volume composting; organic waste is formed into piles aerated by periodic turning

Aerated static pile composting: for composting large quantities of mixed organic waste, involves adding wood chips or shredded newspaper to aerate

In-vessel composting: good for smaller spaces, for any type or organic waste, this method feeds organic materials into a drum, silo or similar vessel

Source: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Planet Natural Research Center


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