The Satya Interview with Christine
is one of the co-founders of a community-based recycling group in the
Lower East Side. The recycling program started in 1987 and grew into
a beautiful community garden and a large operation at East River Park.
Samantha Knowlden caught up with Datz-Romero at the
Lower East Side Ecology Garden on a sunny Saturday, where she explained
the ins and outs of composting.
How did you get started in composting?
I co-founded a community-based recycling group in my neighborhood
on the Lower East Side because I always felt it was a shame to throw
out all my newspapers and bottles and cans. That was in the late 1980s
when the city really didnt have a curbside recycling program.
The community board supported us and we got this space, the Lower East
Side (LES) Ecology Garden, on East 7th Street, in 1990. It was an abandoned
lot, and we started developing the Ecology Center by collecting bottles
and cans there; but then we said, Hey! We can make this place
really look nice if we do composting and we can offer another service
to the community if people want to recycle their kitchen scraps.
This whole garden was really built from the rubble that was already
here and compost. It makes you realize what you can do if you recycle.
Its interesting to look at how nature comes back if you feed it,
if you work with it. Everything is naturalno Miracle Grow involved
here. I always find that sort of amazingyou look at that dogwood
flowering back there and its growing on rubble and compost, thats
In 1996, we approached the Department of Parks and Recreation to host
a composting operation at East River Park. I think that makes a lot
of sense because Parks is an agency that really has a lot of leaves
and they need to get into composting. Plus, they can use the end product.
Imagine what we could do in city parks if we actually fed the trees
and the plants instead of just raking all the leaves off, having bare
soil that gets hard and compacted, so that you wonder how any plant
survives in it.
How did you get started using worms to do composting?
When we used to do composting at the Lower East Side Ecology Garden,
I think we accidentally introduced earthworms by composting leaves
someones yard. So, low and behold, we had these little red wiggler
worms in our compost piles. It was really funny because shortly after
that, a friend did a workshop about worm composting. I wanted to learn
about it and I decided to get some earthworms for people to start their
own worm bins. So when the worms arrived in the mail, I said, Wait
a minute, we already have these worms. Whats going on here?
So sometimes things can come to you and you dont even understand
what they are. Thats how we stumbled into worm composting.
Where do you get your food scraps from?
At the LES Ecology Garden, were open every day of the week
and people can bring their kitchen scraps there. We also have a table
at the Union Square Green Market where people can drop off food scraps,
buy our finished compost and worm bins, and pick up literature. We collect
from about 500 households which averages about 1,500 pounds a week of
materials. The rest of our compost material comes from restaurants and
healthfood stores that have spoiled produce. We try to stay away from
meat and table scrapings because its not something that we can
handle at this time. All together, we process about 5,000 pounds, or
2.5 tons, of materials a week.
How does composting work?
You need to have the right mixture of carbon and nitrogen materials.
When most people think about composting, they think about their coffee
grounds and fruit and vegetable peelings, which are all nitrogen sources.
But in order to make the process happen, you also need a rich carbon
source, like leaves, wood shavings or anything from a tree.
At the East River facility, we have machines that blend the kitchen
scraps together with sawdust. It becomes a mushy mixture and naturally
occurring bacteria start to break it down. The bacterias biological
processes cause the mixture to get very hot, up to 130 degrees. If
want to sell your finished compost, the Environmental Protection Agency
requires that it run at 130 degrees for three consecutive days. This
ensures that any harmful bacteria like salmonella is killed, especially
if you are putting meat in your compost.
We have what is called an in-vessel composting system with sixteen
bins holding 1,000 pounds each. I like to say thats where we cook our
compost. The material stays in there for about 10 to 21 days. Then
we put it in other containers and introduce worms to the mixture. It
takes at least another two months before you get finished compost,
what people call worm castings.
After you process 5,000 pounds of material, how much compost do you
You get about a quarter of that, around 1,250 pounds of finished
compost. Where did it all go? Kitchen scraps are made up of 80 percent
water. Thats not going to turn into compost; that stays water.
Are the worms regular earthworms that you find in the ground?
Most people dont realize it, but earthworms are like dogsthere
are poodles, dachshunds and great danesthey look very different
but theyre all considered dogs. Similarly, there are many different
types of earthworms. For a worm bin in your house, you want red wigglers.
If you go to the woods and look in the leaves on the ground thats
where you would find them. They are not a worm that lives in and digests
soil like night crawlers. They specialize in eating surface organic
material like leaf litter and can eat their own body weight in food
Why should people care about composting?
For a lot of people recycling doesnt stop with separating
bottles, cans and newspapers. Composting is the next logical step because
what would be left in the garbage would be a lot of organic waste.
We all eat food and we like our food to be healthy and vigorous-looking.
Without food, we are basically history. Composting is a natural process.
When we take our leftover food and give it back to the cycle to renew
it, thats a real connection we are making with the earthacknowledging
that we get the food from the soil, and we might as well give something
back to the soil. I think food is something we are dealing with every
day of our lives and I think people can make a strong connection to
Composting is a unique form of recycling. We can all do it from beginning
to end by having a worm box in our apartment, or a compost bin in our
back yard or local garden. You put your banana peels in and by the
youre getting compost out.
I think a lot of people would say its gross to keep food scraps
in your house and to deal with the worms. How do you get people past
With worms, people either like them or they dont. If someone
is really phobic about them, youre not going to convince them
to have a worm bin in their house. But in terms of keeping kitchen scraps,
we tell people that they can keep them in their refrigerator or freezer
so it doesnt have to be gross. Collect scraps when youre
preparing food, put it in a plastic bag and keep it in your fridgebut
not for three months.
Are you ever concerned about using non-organic food scraps that may
have pesticides or other chemicals on them?
A study was done using grass clippings which typically contain a
lot of chemicals. The study found that because composting is a biological
process, it is able to break down the carbon chains of the pesticides
into less toxic chemicals. I would love to work with just organically
grown produce, but then you would exclude so many people who may not
be able to afford it. If you want to do a program that involves as many
people as possible then you have to set broader parameters.
If somebody wants to start a worm bin, where can they get information?
Is there someone they can call for worm emergencies?
At Union Square, we have literature available and a worm bin that
people can look at to see how it works. We also have bins and worms
for sale. And yes, Im the worm doctor too. People call me with
their ailing worm problems and I try to trouble-shoot. A lot of times
its hard because I cant see whats going on in the
bin and I have to ask a lot of questions to get to the problem. Its
all part of the job.
The Union Square Green Market compost stand is open Monday, Wednesday,
Friday and Saturday from 8am to 5pm. The LES Ecology Garden is located
on the north side of East 7th St. bet. Aves. B and C in Manhattan and
is open daily during the summer from 8am tso 7pm. The facility at East
River Park is located at Grand Street. For information or to arrange
a visit, call 212-477-4022 or e-mail email@example.com.