The Scrappy Women at the Forefront of Queens’ Composting Movement
If female composters in Queens reflect what’s happening in the industry overall, women are a far cry from the “pretty lonesome bunch” that Ginny Black found when she got her start in the field 25 years ago.
“Composting grew out of the traditional recycling arena and that was a male-dominated industry,” said Black, chair of the Composting Council Research and Education Foundation. But they’ve come a long way, baby.
Black has seen an ever-growing number of women composters. “Composting has grown along with the local and organic food movement, and community leaders teaching self-reliance and independence,” she said.
And as businesses follow residents’ cues, Queens restaurateurs like Claudette Flatow of Far Rockaway’s Cuisine by Claudette and Sarah Obraitis of Long Island City’s M. Wells are investigating composting at their restaurants too.
“It really is a crime that we’re not doing this,” said Flatow. “We are looking to get a system into place.” Obraitis has been visiting composting sites and talking to waste management companies that offer composting services. GrowNYC’s Emily Bachman said, “There’s been so much innovation on the residential side that it’s only a matter of time until restaurants follow suit—they need to demand a commitment from their commercial waste management companies.”
Here are four innovators making waves in composting.
Compost Program Manager, Queens Night Market
“We don’t really say ‘I love you’; we ask if someone has eaten yet,” Rena Lee, 25, said of her Chinese heritage. Growing up in Flushing, her passion for food was nurtured with the fruits and vegetables grown in her family’s backyard. Last year, as part of her master composter certificate program through the Lower East Side Ecology Program, Lee took her desire to create a more sustainable food industry and started a pilot compost program at the Queens International Night Market.
The market uses a composting method called bokashi to deal with fatty foods; it’s a form of fermenting the food waste before putting it into the soil. Lee’s compost booth collected approximately 200 pounds of food waste from visitors and vendors in its first operating year.
This year she’s aiming to “grow an army of citizen composters” and place a compost bin near every vendor. She is also a student farmer at Crown Heights’ Youth Farm, part of Farm School NYC, and diligently composts from her Astoria apartment.
Lee even maintains an open pit compost in her parents’ garden. “They may not understand exactly what sustainability is, but they now understand composting.”
Educator, Red Rabbit
“Inspiring the next generation to be the voice of our Earth.” That’s how Jennifer Plewka describes her work as an educator with Red Rabbit, a New York City company that provides healthy meals and food education to charter schools, pre-K and Head Start programs—45 of them in Queens.
Plewka said the mission of her work as an educator and volunteer “is to teach compassion and mindfulness through food.”
Her passion comes through as she describes introducing children to vermicomposting—part of her overall curriculum on how to make healthy meals from scratch. Plewka takes it a step further and teaches people what they can do with food waste.
“The kids then think about worms in a whole new way.”
Plewka, 42, also volunteers at Smiling Hogshead Ranch, a community farm in Long Island City. “It’s a very well-known community composting drop-off point,” she said. “It has no fence around it, so people can drop off food scraps 24 hours a day.” She works on biodynamic composting at the ranch, which she’s found has a quick turnaround on transforming food waste into compost.
Plewka has combined her loves of gardening, teaching, sustainability and environmental science to enrich the lives of children, seniors, international refugees and people in need. During her tenure as director of environmental education at Phipps West Farmers Market in the South Bronx, it won an award from New York City for its program to improve nutrition and healthy lifestyles among the borough’s residents.
Acting Director of Agriculture, Queens County Farm Museum
Jen Griffith’s love of farming started at a young age—her mother’s side of the family lived in Iowa and were farmers. Her love for New York City was nurtured at Columbia University, where she majored in environmental science.
After spending some years traveling and working on farming and nutritional programs in Nicaragua and Tanzania, Griffith’s two loves found the perfect home at the Queens County Farm Museum, where she is the director of agriculture.
Beyond relishing the community and the educational opportunities and urban outreach the Farm Museum provides, Griffith said composting is “really a special part of the farm.” Waste is taken from both livestock and the vegetable garden, and composting is done in windrows, to maximize space. “Space is a precious and rare commodity in New York City, so we really appreciate what we have here,” said Griffith, 36.
The Farm Museum is also a community drop-off site for GrowNYC and last year over 12,000 pounds of food scraps were delivered. “We’re able to keep what we do hyper-local; the composting program benefits the farm, our neighbors and the environment.”
Compost Program Manager, GrowNYC
The highest geographic point in the town where Emily Bachman grew up was the Seneca Landfill. “I think I was subconsciously inspired to go into the composting field by seeing the impact New York City’s waste had on the greater region.”
As compost program manager for GrowNYC, a nonprofit fully funded by New York City’s Department of Sanitation, Bachman, 26, is on the front lines of the Zero Waste program. GrowNYC works with 40 interborough locations, such as farmers markets and green markets, where residents can bring food scraps (six are located in Queens). The scraps are then taken to 45 drop-off locations, nearly half of which are in the Q-boro. These leftovers all stay local, with the majority of the scraps collected at the drop-off point hauled to a network of community compost sites.
“My job is answering the question I started asking in college: ‘What is the value of food that we traditionally waste as a society?’” In getting out and doing the work—driving trucks and collecting food scraps—she has seen the slow and steady growth of composting among New Yorkers. “We are constantly thinking of ways to reach more people, but are finding more residents seeking us out, seeing their neighbors composting and talking to us at the greenmarkets.” Emily believes the local food movement and GrowNYC’s mandates “close the loop” by keeping the scraps within Queens, improving the city’s soil.