NY Jewish initiative gives back to the land, not the landfill
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Earth Day 2015

NY Jewish initiative gives back to the land, not the landfill

As composting in the city becomes easier, Jewish leaders spearhead new practical programs

Rich compost ready for use. (NormanAck, CC-BY, via wikipedia)
Rich compost ready for use. (NormanAck, CC-BY, via wikipedia)

NEW YORK – Upon entering the 14th Street Y Wendy Seligson makes a beeline for the black bin standing in the lobby. She pulls out a neatly sealed plastic bag filled with lemon peels, salad bits and carrots. It’s not her lunch. It’s her contribution to the center’s pilot composting program.

“It’s another connection to the community. Greening is really important to us,” said Seligson, the Y’s Associate Executive Director.

Open to members and non-members alike the center’s composting program accepts a wider variety of items — meat and dairy, bones and cheese, shells and paper – than most NYC urban composting operations or backyard compost bins.

“Composting is the sexiest thing we’ve done so far,” said Camille Diamond, the Y’s Director of Community Engagement and Communications. “We’ve had energy audits, changed light bulbs. While that’s important it doesn’t hit the same button. A lot of us here feel with this program we are creating a future for our children.”

‘Composting is the sexiest thing we’ve done so far’

In that way the East Village program embodies a core Jewish value: people are stewards of the earth and have a responsibility to leave the world a better place for future generations. It also recognizes the necessity for city dwellers to compost as landfill space runs out and disposal fees for garbage increase.

New Yorkers produce about 12,000 tons of waste a day. About one-third of that is organic waste, including food scraps and food-soiled paper, according a 2014 New York City Department of Sanitation, DSNY, report.

Composting diverts food scraps from overcrowded landfills. It returns nutrient rich food scraps back to the soil and helps reduce Methane gas in the atmosphere. It can also generate renewable energy to fuel homes or vehicles.

The Y hopes its two-year-old program will encourage other institutions to start similar programs for residential drop off compositing, said Diamond who runs the program.

Wendy Seligson, associate executive director of New York's 14 Street Y, drops off her compost. (Cathryn J. Prince/The Times of Israel)
Wendy Seligson, associate executive director of New York’s 14 Street Y, drops off her compost. (Cathryn J. Prince/The Times of Israel)

The idea for the program came from Laura Rosenshine a member of the Y. It gained further traction through Hazon’s Jewish Greening Fellowship, JGF, which has 55 Jewish organizations as members. They include JCCs, synagogues, camps, day schools and social service agencies. In the past six years these institutions have raised more than $3.6 million for green facility improvements and implemented innovative programming.

The center also uses the program as an educational tool. At its Staten Island summer camp, children learn what a landfill is, what compost is, and what refuse belongs where. They learn that eggshells and apple cores are not garbage.

The center collects about 2,000 pounds of compost a month from members and non-members.

About 180 member households signed up for the program. However, based on the amount of compost coming into the building, Diamond estimates at least 300 member households are participating.

“At home we fill up our milk cartons, which are compostable, with food scraps and I bring them here,” said Diamond, who participates in the program.

Convenience was key to making the program successful.

People can drop off their food scraps 7 days a week, between 6 am and 10 pm on weekdays and 7 am and 9 pm on weekends. There is no charge to drop off. There is also no limit to the frequency or amount of items one can drop off.

Nigel Savage, director of Hazon, which has a Jewish Greening Fellowship with 55 Jewish organizations as members. (photo credit: Courtesy Hazon/JTA)
Nigel Savage, director of Hazon, which has a Jewish Greening Fellowship with 55 Jewish organizations as members. (photo credit: Courtesy Hazon/JTA)

Rabbi Laurence Sebert of the Town & Village Synagogue on 14th Street drops off food scraps from his home between two and three times a week. He’s also dropped off food scraps following a synagogue-wide Tu B’Shevat dinner and hopes to start brining over scraps from Shabbat dinners.

“It’s an opportunity to educate folks about the environment. We are slowly encouraging our members to be more careful about composting and recycling,” Sebert said.

Andrew Winter changes the green bio bag in the lobby about four times a day. He brings the filled bag, which is made of corn and is entirely compostable, to one of six locked bins behind the brown brick building.

Soon a DSNY truck will roll to a stop, and collect the food scraps for free. It will transport it to a commercial compost facility in Delaware. There the compost is put into aerated static compost piles where it the material is broken down into valuable compost. The city then sells the compost to farmers.

The center’s program fits into a citywide effort to increase its composting efforts. Composting workshops are available in all five boroughs and interested New Yorkers can learn about indoor and outdoor compositing and sustainable gardening.

“When it came to doing things to being green we never wanted to get preachy about it,” Diamond said. “We just wanted people to see how easy it is to participate.”

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