For years, the food scraps collected around Manhattan and Brooklyn by the Lower East Side Ecology Center were piled high, turned over and eventually transformed into compost in East River Park.
Residents who are not in buildings serviced by the city’s limited curbside organics collection network can walk their banana peels, avocado skins and watermelon rinds to more than 20 drop-off locations. Each week, the center collects more than eight tons of these scraps — enough to balance out about four Ford F-150 pickup trucks on a scale.
When East River Park closed its lower half last year to begin a massive reconstruction effort aimed at making the park a buffer against rising sea levels and storms, the center had to find a temporary home.
Now, the city is transforming a lot in far eastern Brooklyn into a temporary site for the center’s collections with newly allocated funding, and has received an official commitment from the city that, when the park construction ends, it can remake the Manhattan compost operation there.
The interim site, in Canarsie, will also allow the center to bring local composting to a part of Brooklyn that is at least four miles from the nearest ZIP code with curbside food waste pickup.
Christine Datz-Romero, the center’s founder and executive director, said she also hopes the site will encourage the Canarsie community to push ahead with sustainable initiatives even as the city has paused efforts to expand full residential organics collection.
“We really believe in keeping materials local, and not traversing boroughs and adding a lot of highway miles,” Datz-Romero said. “Canarsie makes a lot of sense.”
The center, founded over 35 years ago, has one of the longest running compost operations in the city. Its efforts have taken on more prominence as the city has slowed its embrace of organic waste collection in recent years.
In 2020, the city suspended its own organics collection program because of sweeping pandemic-era budget cuts. This year, Mayor Eric Adams expanded a program to collect organic waste from schools and create drop-off sites at some educational buildings, but did not fund the citywide expansion of curbside food waste pickup that many advocates wanted.
At the end of the month, the city’s sanitation department is planning to again enforce a rule that requires most restaurants, grocery stores and hotels to separate food waste from general trash, NY1 partner newsroom THE CITY reported. The department stopped issuing tickets for failing to separate the waste at the beginning of the pandemic.
With its East River Park facility closed, the LES Ecology Center has been hauling the food scraps it collects to the city’s industrial-size composting operation on the western side of Staten Island, at the site of the former Fresh Kills dump.
The center is working with a firm to design its Canarsie lot, which Datz-Romero said she hopes to open next May.
The construction will cost about $2.1 million, said Bridget Anderson, the sanitation department’s deputy commissioner of recycling and sustainability.
“This is a site that’s never been developed — it was trees, and plants, and grass,” Anderson said in an interview. “These mid-scale, educational compost sites are paved, they’re fenced, there’s drainage that needs to be designed into the site.”
The site, however, is about half the size of the one-acre lot the center used in East River Park. Anderson said that any food waste that the center collects that it cannot fit in the Canarsie site can go to the city-run operation on Staten Island.
The Adams administration has also confirmed that the center will get its East River Park location back, and that construction of the compost area will happen during, and not after, construction of the main park.
In a June letter to Datz-Romero, Deputy Mayor Meera Joshi said that the city’s sanitation and parks departments will design a new facility of “comparable size” to the last one. The city will also start “good faith negotiations” with the center over its role in the park, Joshi said.
“Thank you for all the work LESEC has done to promote environmental sustainability within the Lower East Side and throughout the City,” Joshi wrote.
Anderson said that the center will also be part of the city’s process of designing a new compost site at the park, which she said will include the center’s earlier concepts for renovations of the site.
She added that the city is hoping to develop relationships with local sustainability and ecology groups in eastern Brooklyn to take over the Canarsie site when East River Park is rebuilt.
“It’s our hope that it becomes a site that is embraced by the community,” Anderson said.
Datz-Romero said that the center is working on that as well, and has set up a tent and planters outside the site to generate interest from residents.
“We’re trying to make the place look good,” she said. “We just want to get people in the habit of thinking of that site as a resource for the community.”