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June 2001
Connecting Through Composting

The Satya Interview with Christine Datz-Romero


Christine Datz-Romero 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 didn’t 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. It’s interesting to look at how nature comes back if you feed it, if you work with it. Everything is natural—no Miracle Grow involved here. I always find that sort of amazing—you look at that dogwood flowering back there and it’s growing on rubble and compost, that’s it.

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 from someone’s 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. What’s going on here?” So sometimes things can come to you and you don’t even understand what they are. That’s how we stumbled into worm composting.

Where do you get your food scraps from?
At the LES Ecology Garden, we’re 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 it’s 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 bacteria’s biological processes cause the mixture to get very hot, up to 130 degrees. If you 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 that’s 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, or what people call worm castings.

After you process 5,000 pounds of material, how much compost do you get?
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. That’s not going to turn into compost; that stays water.

Are the worms regular earthworms that you find in the ground?
Most people don’t realize it, but earthworms are like dogs—there are poodles, dachshunds and great danes—they look very different but they’re 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 that’s 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 every day.

Why should people care about composting?
For a lot of people recycling doesn’t 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, that’s a real connection we are making with the earth—acknowledging 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 that.

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 end you’re getting compost out.

I think a lot of people would say it’s gross to keep food scraps in your house and to deal with the worms. How do you get people past that?
With worms, people either like them or they don’t. If someone is really phobic about them, you’re 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 doesn’t have to be gross. Collect scraps when you’re preparing food, put it in a plastic bag and keep it in your fridge—but 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, I’m the worm doctor too. People call me with their ailing worm problems and I try to trouble-shoot. A lot of times it’s hard because I can’t see what’s going on in the bin and I have to ask a lot of questions to get to the problem. It’s 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


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