From The New York Times
By MIREYA NAVARRO
Published: February 18, 2009
ON a recent Saturday afternoon, Stephanie Stern and her husband poured 1,000 wriggling red worms from a brown bag into a plastic bin outside their bathroom, looked down and hoped for the best.
If things went well, the worms, already burrowing into their bed of shredded newspapers, would soon be eating three pounds of food scraps a week, reducing the couple’s trash and producing fertilizer for their plants.
If not, the bin would stink up their one-bedroom apartment in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, and attract clouds of fruit flies.
“I’m a little nervous because I’ve heard the stories,” said Ms. Stern, 32, a museum educator.
Composting in New York City is not for the faint of heart. It requires commitment, space and sharing tight quarters with rotting matter and two-inch-long wiggler worms that look like pulsing vermicelli.
But an increasing number of New Yorkers have been taking up the challenge, turning their fruit skins and eggshells into nutritious crumbly soil in an effort they regard as the natural next step to recycling paper, bottles and cans. Food accounts for about 13 percent of the nation’s trash — it is the third largest component after paper and yard trimmings — and about 16 percent of New York’s.
“There’s a growing awareness of its value,” said Elizabeth Royte, the author of “Garbage Land: On the Secret Trail of Trash.” “We had a recycling revolution, now we need a composting revolution.”
Nationwide surveys by BioCycle, a monthly magazine that advocates the recycling of organic waste, have found that large-scale food composting projects among municipalities, colleges and farms nearly doubled between 2000 and 2007, to 267 from 138. Individual efforts are harder to measure, but appear to be on the rise, particularly in areas like New York City, where municipal programs are rare or nonexistent. Although some cities, like San Francisco and Seattle, offer residents regular curbside collection of food waste, large-scale composting presents challenges that may make it hard to catch on, waste-management experts say. The City of New York, which runs two compost facilities for backyard waste, has no similar program for food.
That leaves food-waste composting up to community programs and gardens that accept donations of food scraps, and to people like Ms. Stern and her husband, Chris De Pasquale, 34.
Ms. Stern had plenty of company, a few hours before the couple welcomed their 1,000 new roommates, at a workshop run by the Lower East Side Ecology Center at a library in the West Village, where a capacity crowd of about 70 people listened raptly to descriptions of how to set up and feed a “worm condo.”
The workshop covered the indoor composting method known as vermicomposting, in which worms are enlisted to speed up the decomposition of organic material, eating through scraps of it and excreting the “castings” that make up compost. (There are also commercial composters like the NatureMill, shown in the article below.) The “condo” where this should take place is a 16 1/2-inch-wide, one-foot-tall bin with air holes in which shredded newspaper sits atop green trash like the ends of carrots. Despite the enthusiasm of the audience, particularly the children, as containers of compost and worms were passed around, some of its members seemed to have misgivings. “Will the compost bin attract roaches?” one asked. (Not if you don’t let the covered bin get smelly, he was told.) “What happens when you go on vacation?” (The bin can stay unattended for up to three weeks.)
A few were trying again after unhappy first experiences.
“Everything got disgusting in there,” said Rachel Franz, 25, who tried composting in Ithaca, N.Y., in 2006, following instructions from friends. “The worms started dying, and it got really moldy,” she said. “When I opened it, the worms were trying to escape.”
If the worms want out, said Carey Pulverman, the workshop’s instructor and the project manager at the Lower East Side Ecology Center, “something is wrong.”
Happy worms eat about half their body weight in a day, and the compost is ready for harvesting in about four and half months, Ms. Pulverman said.
But if the paper is too wet, she continued, seepage or smell ensues. Certain food and organic matter is bad for indoor bins because it smells while decomposing (meat and dairy), attracts mold (bread) or may introduce insects to the bin (dry leaves).
None of this deterred Ms. Franz, the failed composter, who this time around planned to set up her bin under the kitchen sink of her father’s three-bedroom apartment in Chelsea, where she lives part of the time. Her father, she said, was resisting.
“He thinks it’s going to be a lot of work for him,” said Ms. Franz, who studied environmental science and is currently looking for work.
Experienced composters said that saving food scraps soon becomes part of a daily routine, and that the payoff is worth the extra work.
“To be actually able to reuse your food is amazing,” said Ben Stein, 30, a computer programmer who, along with his wife, Arin Kramer, 29, a nurse practitioner, composted for six years in their apartment on the Lower East Side before they moved to a brownstone in Brooklyn last year.
In Manhattan, they kept the bin under the bed, which Mr. Stein said led friends to think, “it’s disgusting, and you’re absolutely crazy.” In Boerum Hill, they can compost in their backyard (where microbial activity and decomposition slow down or stop in the winter, but pick up in the spring).
One friend recently surprised the couple by taking them up on their offer to compost his “veggie waste” for him.
“He delivered a bag of cuttings and scraps that took up half his freezer,” Mr. Stein said.
Is all this effort doing the planet good?
Composting does not have as big an environmental effect as recycling, Environmental Protection Agency figures show: recycling one ton of mixed paper is four times as effective in reducing greenhouse gas emissions as producing the same amount of compost.
But keeping food discards out of landfills does more than twice the good of keeping mixed paper out, E.P.A. officials said, because decomposing food that is buried and cut off from air releases methane, a potent greenhouse gas, at higher rates than paper. (The ventilation in composting prevents methane creation.)
The real environmental benefits, of course, come when composting is done on a large scale. Robert Lange, the recycling director at New York’s Department of Sanitation, said the city investigated this route a few years ago, testing food scrap collection in some neighborhoods but finding it a tougher sell than recycling.
“Most people will not store food waste in their apartment,” Mr. Lange said, adding that many worried about odors and vermin.
Still, groups that operate food scrap collection services say they have seen a marked jump in participation over the last year. The Lower East Side Ecology Center, which collects scraps at two Manhattan locations and runs its own food composting facility at East River Park, said that Saturday drop-offs to its Union Square Greenmarket location have nearly doubled, to almost 500 gallons.
But reducing the amount of trash produced in the first place should be the highest priority, experts say. And some note people would also do better to consider what they eat and to switch away from foods like beef, the production of which is associated with high emissions of carbon dioxide, another greenhouse gas.
Still, Mr. De Pasquale and Ms. Stern — who also get renewable power from ConEdison Solutions, a subsidiary of Con Edison that provides wind energy — are convinced they are making a difference with their at-home composting.
And after more than three weeks, the couple’s worms seemed to be doing well in their dark corner near the bathroom. So far there have been no escapes and only a slight smell that Ms. Stern said she fixed with some dry newspaper.
They plan to use the compost for their house plants and share any leftovers.
“I think it’d be a great holiday gift,” Ms. Stern said.
Her husband agreed. “We can send it out to my parents in California.”