For the last few months, Big Reuse, a compost processing site in western Queens, has been fighting to try to stay on its current land. But at the end of the month, it may have to find a new place to process the roughly 1.7 million pounds of residential food scraps and park leaves it handles every year.
For the last three years, Big Reuse has been processing New York City’s compost from its two lots in Queensbridge and Gowanus. Big Reuse processed almost 34 percent of the food waste picked up and processed in 2019 by the seven New York City Compost Project partners. More than half of that amount gets processed at the Queensbridge site. But the New York City Parks Department, which owns the Big Reuse Queensbridge lot, doesn’t plan to renew Big Reuse’s lease when it expires at the end of the year.
But Big Reuse isn’t the only site at risk of losing its compost facility. The Lower East Side Ecology Center, whose lease also ends at the end of the year, will have to discontinue its compost operations while the East River Park is rebuilt and fortified against storm surge and sea level rise as part of the East Side Coastal Resiliency Project. The Parks Department has yet to find another site to relocate the Lower East Side Ecology Center’s compost yard during the construction, and “Parks is refusing to firmly commit to the return of the site once the construction is completed,” Christine Datz-Romero, Co-founder and Executive Director of the Lower East Side Ecology Center said during a press conference on Tuesday.
In 2015, New York City announced a goal to send zero waste to landfills by the year 2030. Processing food waste into compost benefits local farmers and community gardens who use the compost to grow fruits and vegetables. Composting also means that less food waste piles up in landfills, so it’s an essential part of the city reaching its zero waste goal.
In a statement addressing the decision, Parks Commissioner Mitchell Silver said that he is an “ardent supporter of composting,” but that the arrangement with Big Reuse was predicated on an understanding that it would seek an alternative permanent location by the end of its lease. Parks plans to move regional operations into the vacated space, freeing up parkland elsewhere and providing recreational amenities for the community, the statement notes.
But it’s not clear exactly what recreational amenities would be provided. Devin Reitsma, a project manager at Big Reuse, hopes to be able to stay at least until there is a more specific plan for the space. “Until there’s some specific plan, or scoping, visioning for this space that’s a legitimate use, I don’t see why we can’t stay until that project’s ready to go,” said Reitsma.
He’s confident they would be able to find another lot in the long-term, but Big Reuse isn’t sure how they would continue composting in the short-term, until they find a permanent site. There are five other New York City Compost Project partners who process compost in total, all of which are at near capacity and wouldn’t have the space to process all of Big Reuse’s food scraps.
One option would be to bring the food waste that is collected by Big Reuse to the Department of Sanitation’s composting facility in Fresh Kills, Staten Island, but that is also not ideal. The site is far from the locations where Big Reuse picks up food waste in Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx, so operationally this would add some challenges for Big Reuse.
“That facility is not necessarily open at hours that are convenient for food scraps drop-offs,” Reitsma said. “The hours that food scraps drop-offs close make it hard to get to Fresh Kills before that location closes.” This would also only be a temporary solution. It’s not clear for how long Fresh Kills would be able to support Big Reuse.
Lou Reyes, an employee with Big Reuse, has been using his personal Instagram account to advocate keeping Big Reuse’s site at its current location in Queensbridge.
“I haven’t taken a day off,” Reyes said. “I just go around trying to get the word out. I go to a lot of drop-off sites on Sundays, which are typically my days off, and I just start advocating for this.” Reyes has also organized several phone-banking events calling Commissioner Silver and other City Council members to advocate for the space.
“My motivation is the reality behind all of this, it’s that we are in an environmental crisis. If we take one step forward and then five back, just for the sake of building whatever the commissioner wants to build, that is to our detriment,” Reyes said.
Reyes is advocating not only on Big Reuse’s behalf, but also on behalf of Astoria Pug, a Queens-based food waste collection service that he and his partner Caren Tedesco Cardoso started in April when food scrap drop-off sites in the city were closed down.
The program grew very quickly– within a couple of weeks they collected 500 pounds of food waste from their eight pick-up spots in Astoria and were taking it to Smiling Hogshead Ranch, one of the only community gardens that they found that was accepting food scraps. “It was just insane, our car was completely full, both the truck and the backseat– there were mountains of thawing, leaking food-scraps juice,” Tedesco Cardoso said. The quickly increasing amounts of food waste meant that Astoria Pug, named after Reyes and Tedesco Cardoso’s pug Rocky, once even had to hire a commercial hauler to take the bins to Smiling Hogshead Ranch.
When Big Reuse opened back up a couple of months later, things got much easier as Big Reuse was able to pick up the bins collected by Astoria Pug. If Big Reuse’s site in Queensbridge is forced to shut down, Astoria Pug could remain in operation at their current capacity, but it wouldn’t be able to expand to reach more residents. In order to expand, Astoria Pug would have to hire a commercial hauler to transport any additional food waste at a hefty cost of $28 per bin. These days, Astoria Pug is collecting 14 to 16 bins, or about 3,000 pounds of food waste per week.
“Our expansion plans of implementing 24/7 drop-off stations throughout Astoria beginning next year, it’s just not gonna happen,” Tedesco Cardoso said. “It’s going to be impossible to expand considering all the costs involved.”
In a press conference on Tuesday, several city council members, composting advocates, and the executive directors of Big Reuse and Lower East Side Ecology Center spoke in support of saving the two sites. A hearing on Friday with the New York City Department of Sanitation and Parks and Recreation Departments may help give insight into the future of the two locations.
Reitsma is still hoping they can strike an agreement with the Parks department to extend the lease, at least until the end of the fiscal year so that they can have some more time to seek out alternative sites and make a seamless transition from one site to another.
“I’m definitely hopeful, and I think there’s a lot of movement just in terms of both public and political pressure just to maintain these sites beyond December 31. So I think Parks is going to have to sort of respond to this and make a call,” Reitsma said.