Botanical Garden in NYC is a Hub for Composting, Food Recovery, Locally Grown Food (Episode 93)

Date: 5 Mar 2020 | posted in: Building Local Power, Composting | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

In this episode of Building Local Power, host Brenda Platt speaks with Elsa Higby and Aleks Jagiello of the New York City Compost Project Hosted by Queens Botanical Garden. Created by the NYC Department of Sanitation in 1993, the NYC Compost Project is rebuilding NYC’s soils by providing New Yorkers with the knowledge, skills, and opportunities they need to produce and use compost locally. The Queens Botanical Garden is one of seven host sites that NYC is funding. This national model underscores how municipal investment in demonstration sites and training inspires many more sites, increases food recovery, builds local soils, and spurs community engagement. 

Brenda, Aleks, and Elsa discuss how the site has grown over the last 25 years, and the many benefits their programming has brought to their community and beyond. Through their education and technical trainings, they’ve helped build a flourishing network of community scale composting sites at local schools, churches, residences, and community gardens. In turn, these community composting sites help grow local food, create local jobs, and protect the climate. Their conversation also touches on:   

  • Best practices for managing a compost site, from staffing to funding to pest control  
  • Tips for educating neighbors and cultivating local support 
  • The far-reaching impact of the Master Composter training program (a direct example of building local power: hundreds of residents engaged in building local infrastructure, volunteering in their community, cycling food scraps into local soils for local food)

“…so often we live in this topsy-turvy upside down world where the status quo is picking it up, putting it into a landfill or trash incinerator, creating all this pollution. Whereas the alternative can be something so easy as training your community members, cycling that food waste back into compost locally, growing local food, educating your community.”


Jess Del Fiacco: Hello. Welcome to this episode of the Building Local Power podcast. I’m Jess Del Fiacco, the communications manager with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, and I’m here with Brenda Platt who directs the community composting program here at ILSR. Good morning, Brenda. Can you tell me a little bit about our guests that we have on the podcast today?
Brenda Platt: Yeah. Well, Aleks and Elsa with the New York City Compost Project at the Queens Botanical garden, and we’ll be talking about the case for government support for community scale composting.
Jess Del Fiacco: Yeah, so this was a really interesting conversation and one of the things that I thought was so impressive about them was that so the city supports their program, right? And they’ve been around for, I think it was 25 years, and over that time they’ve spurred these far reaching benefits in their community, but then through their trainings I know people have gone off and established programs elsewhere, so maybe you could talk a little bit about the master composting program and just how important this program has been in spreading these benefits further.
Brenda Platt: It’s such a remarkable program. It’s not just that they’re training other members of their community to train others. That’s the master composter program. Train the trainers, and the graduates of their program have gone on to start multiple community scale composting at local museums, at local churches, at even a local university and colleges. You know, residential condominiums and gardens. Their demonstration site, their training site, they provide technical assistance. It’s really incredible.
Brenda Platt: And in light of what we would normally do with our food scraps is probably put it out in a garbage bag at the curb. If it’s not local government picking it up it’s one of these huge waste management companies that are making billions of dollars a year, so I feel like so often we live in this topsy-turvy upside down world where the status quo is picking it up, putting it into a landfill or trash incinerator, creating all this pollution. Whereas the alternative can be something so easy as training your community members, cycling that food waste back into compost locally, growing local food, educating your community. It’s remarkable what they’re doing in New York city, and if you can do it in New York city, you can do it anywhere.
Jess Del Fiacco: Yeah, so my next question was basically for other communities who might be listening in here, what are your tips on where do they start to establish a program like this?
Brenda Platt: Starting with a master composter train the trainer program is absolutely a great way to start. You can be teaching others how to do it at their community sites if you’re not in a really dense urban area. There’s huge opportunities to promote home composting and you don’t need to have a facility. A lot of communities say, “Oh we can’t compost food scraps because we don’t have the land. We don’t have a facility to take it.” Well if you’re teaching people how to do it at their local gardens and urban farms and community gardens and backyards, you don’t need land to do that. That’s one thing you can do.
Brenda Platt: The other thing New York City has been leading is in community drop-off sites for food scraps, and they’ve started these at farmer’s markets all throughout the city, including in Queens that the Queens Botanical Garden runs. This is the New York City Compost Project, and we’re seeing that model replicated in many cities across the country. It’s been done in Washington DC. Baltimore has got a pilot now. Little towns like Alexandria, Virginia are doing it as well. So we’re seeing the model of farmer’s markets are great places to start a food scrap collection program.
Jess Del Fiacco: That’s great, and I just want to note for the folks listening in, if you want to dig even deeper into the story, we actually have an extended conversation with Elsa and Aleks of the Queens Botanical Garden compost site on the next episode of the Composting for Community podcast. With that, Brenda, is there anything else you wanted to add before we dive into the interview?
Brenda Platt: No, I just think anybody can compost food scraps and when you send it to a landfill and incinerator, you’re creating potent greenhouse gases and when you convert it into compost locally, you’re drawing down carbon from the atmosphere and sequestering and helping to grow fertile soil. So starve a landfill, feed the soil, feed the community.
Jess Del Fiacco: All good things. Thanks, Brenda.
Brenda Platt: You’re welcome. Today we’re talking about that case for government support of community composting with a spotlight on Queens Botanical Garden, and I’m pleased to be joined today by Elsa Higby, project manager and Aleks Jagiello, operations coordinator of the New York City Compost Project hosted by the Queens Botanical Garden. Welcome guys.
Elsa Higby: Hi.
Aleks Jagiello: Hello. Hi Brenda.
Brenda Platt: So glad to have you today. We’re going to cover your food scrap composting history, activities, financing, future plans, and more, so let’s just start. Elsa, let me start the question for you. Just tell us, what is the New York City Compost Project hosted by the Queens Botanical Garden?
Elsa Higby: Well first off, I better start with the New York City Compost Project. It was created by the New York Department of Sanitation back in 1993 and Queens Botanical Garden is one of seven host sites. So here, the New York City Compost Project hosted by Queens Botanical Garden runs outreach and education. We have a one-acre farm. We have a compost processing site. We have a beautiful perennial border on our farm. It’s a pollinator habitat, and here we really take pride in the fact that we are demonstrating the closed loop system of crops grown gone to food, food waste going to composting and compost being applied back to the farm.
Brenda Platt: Wow. I mean I’m so envious. I want all of those things here in DC where I am at, and you’re doing all that right within the borough of Queens. One borough growing food at your farm, collecting food scraps, converting that into compost locally, growing local food.
Elsa Higby: You know Brenda, not only are we doing it in one borough, but we’re doing all of that at Queens Botanical Garden. For our outreach and education and our technical advice, we go out into the field but in terms of our physical site operations, that all happens here at Queens Botanical Garden.
Brenda Platt: Amazing. Is all your compost used at your farm or do you share some with the community?
Aleks Jagiello: Well, we had started our operation to feed the soil at the farm and at this point we’ve grown to such a scale that we’re still providing several yards, whatever the farm needs on an annual basis, but that tends to be a fraction of what our total production is. So a small percentage goes to the farm. A larger percentage goes to residents of Queens, of New York. Some of it goes to our drop-off participants, the individuals who drop off at our food scrap drop-offs just to show them what the finished product looks like so they can use it on their house plants, and the vast majority goes to public green projects where we’ll usually work with a park or a nonprofit to help them beautify a public space.
Brenda Platt: Great. Great. You mentioned you’ve been around for awhile. How long have you been around? And I would love to just hear how the project, the program has grown over the years. Elsa, that might be a question best suited for you.
Elsa Higby: Well we just celebrated our 25th anniversary for New York City Compost Project actually last year, and so basically the complex project has been residing at the botanical gardens for 25 years. It started out initially doing backyard composting education and distributing compost bins to residents, and then outreach and education grew to finally include a master composter certification program. As we certified master composters, they developed community compost sites so then we got into providing technical advice and services to community composting sites. Then finally, Aleks can talk a little bit more about this, but accepting residential food scrap.
Aleks Jagiello: Yeah, that’s right. About four and a half years ago or so, we started to collect food waste from residents of Queens. So it’s been a journey of learning how to … It’s taught us how to manage materials from a very basic, elementary scale, from the smallest scale possible to a much larger and more complex scale. So for us, that’s been a great learning experience.
Brenda Platt: Yeah. Well first, congratulations on 25 years. That’s very notable, and you referred to moving to larger scale systems, but even within your operations, you’re not even near large scale. It’s not like a commercial industrial scale, so maybe you can explain or just share with us how many pounds per week or per month, per year, whatever you’re measuring of food scraps. What is the scale? Tell us a little bit more about actually what you’re handling.
Elsa Higby: We essentially take in 66 tons of food waste pretty much on a year on average, so if you multiply that times two, a ton is 2,000 pounds, you’re looking at 132,000 pounds of food scraps a year, which is really small compared to industrial compost.
Brenda Platt: Yes.
Elsa Higby: You know, you can think of it too as 11,000 pounds a month, and that includes a weekly intake of twelve to fifteen hundred pounds, which we process manually as part of our outreach and education, and then a monthly intake of 5,000 pounds. All of that material right now is coming from GROWNYC, and Aleks will talk about that maybe a little bit more, but it’s all residential food scraps. It’s all really clean material. We collect a small amount at our public food scrap drop-off here at Queens Botanical Garden, maybe 500 pounds a month, and so I’m just talking about the nitrogenous material. 132,000 pounds or 66 tons of just nitrogenous material, but then we add three times as much carbon by volume. So if I had to guesstimate a weight on that, I have like 150,000 pounds maybe. I’m looking at Aleks for his, see what he thinks. Plus we do a little bit of horticulture waste.
Aleks Jagiello: Yeah, that’s right. GROWNYC is an organization that’s also subcontracted through Department of Sanitation and among many things that they do is they manage many of the green markets in New York city, and for many years now they’ve been collecting food waste at those green markets in New York and with the intention of actually being able to process that material within New York City so that rather than sending it to a large industrial compost site, just keeping it local and producing compost from that feed stock and then being able to use that finished compost locally for a public benefit. So GROWNYC, actually at this point we just transitioned our food scrap drop-offs to GROWNYC meaning they are now going to be managing our drop-offs and bringing the material to us, but this is one of several partnerships that are really important for us to do to do the work that we do.
Brenda Platt: Yeah, good. So often we hear, “Oh, community composting in urban areas won’t work. It’s a no-go because, you know, rats.” You’re in an urban area. How do you avoid having the rodent problems and dealing primarily with the naysayers?
Aleks Jagiello: Well, one of my teachers on this was David Buckel of New York City Compost Project at Red Hook Community Farm. He was a master at rodent management and taught all of us at the New York City Compost Project a lot of lessons about responsible management. One thing that we do is we will keep our site as tidy and as clean as possible. We’ll try to make sure that we’re not leaving any fresh material, any fresh food waste lying around or on the pad surface. Every time we’ll do a build, we’re going to sweep that pad. We’re going to use the bucket of the loader to scrape off any material, any food waste material. Then what we’ll do is we’ll put a nice thick biofilter on the windrow that we’ll create and that biofilter acts as a kind of a shield so to speak, and repels rodents. Then on top of that, we’ll put a ComposTex cover, which is a breathable fabric cover. And actually on the very bottom, we’ll fix the cover in such a way that we’ll use boards and pavers to create no entry for rodents into our compost piles.
Aleks Jagiello: But mostly what we found, and I think this is David Buckel’s philosophy, is that you really just have to keep your site as clean as possible. The first moment that you see any rodent activity, you have to address that immediately and take it very seriously, and we’ve had to do that because obviously, you know, we’re here by the good graces of the botanical garden, and we need to make sure that the garden is happy with the way we’re managing our site.
Aleks Jagiello: So knock on wood, we’ve definitely come across a few times that we’ve seen rodent activity, but for the most part we’ve been able to really avoid any major issues, and I think the key to that is a lot of just diligence, just keeping that site clean and for other people who want to know a little bit more about this, you can look up on YouTube. David Buckel has a video on rodent management at his community compost site, which I think is great and goes over the main ways to avoid rodent issues at compost sites.
Brenda Platt: Yeah, that’s good to hear. Given that you’ve been operating for 25 years, you must be doing something right. They haven’t kicked you out yet.
Jess Del Fiacco: Thanks for tuning in to this episode of the Building Local Power podcast. If you’re enjoying this conversation, we hope you’ll consider making a donation to the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. Not only does your support underwrite this podcast, but it also helps us produce all the resources and research we make available for free on our website. Please take a minute and go to to make a contribution. Any amount is welcome and sincerely appreciated. That’s Thank you so much, and now back to the show.
Brenda Platt: And I’m glad you mentioned David Buckel because I also consider him one of my key mentors in composting and we’ll put a link to his video with this podcast, and we also did a webinar that he was one of our featured presentations on how to avoid rodent problems at community compost sites. We’ll include that link, and you mentioned him and he was a master at this, and this is actually a perfect segue into my next question, which was about your master composter certificate course.
Brenda Platt: Because David was a graduate, maybe not of your program but of the New York City Compost Project master composter program, and that’s where he got interested in composting and it’s a train the trainer program and he came out and he started the Red Hook community compost site and trained so many of us, and so I know you’re not for profit, and Elsa, you talked about how you’re only handling 52 tons. You know, at the end 52 tons, and you have this cost, but it seems to me your program is so much larger than just the food scraps you’re diverting from disposal facilities. That you’re doing this education. You’re doing this outreach. You got a demonstration site. So I’d really like to hear just how important is the master composter certificate course? What are you doing? How are you seeding other experts or trainers to lead more stuff in the community?
Elsa Higby: Well, the master composter certificate program has become this really incredible network of advocates and composters for not only organics recycling, but recycling in general, and David Buckel’s a shining example, but I will also say Aleks here graduated from the Queens Botanical Garden master composter course and started the Eastern Queens?
Aleks Jagiello: Eastern Queens Composters. Yeah, and we started a community compost site at Queens County Farm, and I think that’s been the story for so many master composters, many who’ve done some amazing work and started a lot of, like David for example, who’ve started these community compost sites that have taken off.
Elsa Higby: But in addition to, you know, I’m just going to name a few. JH SCRAPS, which is part of Jackson Heights Beautification Association, is not only a community compost site but they’re also a public food scrap drop off. That’s a master composter from Queens. We also have St. James Composting, which is in Elmhurst. A little piece of land outside of St. James Church. That’s a master composter community compost site and also a public food scrap drop off.
Elsa Higby: But we also have people who’ve done other things. We have teachers in education who take our class and they really work with their kids on either doing composting in the schools or vermiculture in the schools. We have some people. We have one woman who was an author and she wrote the book Compost Heroes. We’ve got community gardeners and New York City parks gardeners who’ve become really, really knowledgeable on how to apply compost and then become advocates within these larger systems for organic practices or for using more compost and more mulch. Then we also often more and more now we’re getting staff and students from universities who are interested in having food scrap collection at the university, if not also a small community compost site, which is actually leaving us. We’re now working on a compost leadership training program that’s being piloted on Staten Island with some of the colleges out there, and actually we’re working with the local agricultural high school here in Queens, hoping to get it rolling there.
Elsa Higby: So there’s a lot of ways in which master composters have enhanced the network here, and then I should also just mention we have an internship, a compost and farm internship and this year all of those interns happened to be master composters who’ve decided that they also want to get more into farming and into compost operations and really be able to teach and become leaders in that full cycle.
Brenda Platt: That’s just amazing to hear all those examples. Do you have any idea over the 25 years or I don’t know how long the master composter program has been around, but how many have graduated from your program? How many have you trained? Do you know?
Elsa Higby: We have trained 20 people a year for the last four years, and previous to that the master composter program I think started back in 2005 I want to say. I think they were doing 12 to 16 people a year during that time. That’s here just at QBG, so you imagine five sites are teaching this class once a year, so let’s say you have a hundred people throughout the city every year being trained to be a master composter.
Brenda Platt: Yeah. That’s amazing, and so through this program and through other efforts, I know you’re supporting other community compost sites in Queens. Do you know how many other sites there are and how do you, are you supporting them? Because those are more volunteer based. They’re not staffed, so it seems to me through your program you’re seeding all these other efforts.
Elsa Higby: Right. Well, the borough of Queens, we have about 36 community compost sites that are active, and that might be a small compost site in a community garden. It might be a community compost site actually connected to someone’s house that they’re sharing with a neighborhood. It might be a community compost site at the church, or it might be a community compost site that’s taken over a vacant lot, and somebody owns the lot and they’ve taken over that lot, and we support community compost. It’s pretty much a give and take to the extent to which they want to be supported. The largest amount of support that we’ve done is we’re actually coming out with a group of volunteers and helping them do a three-bin build, building three-bin.
Elsa Higby: Sometimes we’ll simply just go out and provide them with tools. Let’s say that if they had a couple extra choppers or if they had a sifter, just a handmade square made with two-by-four and screen, and we can help them acquire those things either by doing kind of a DIY build with them or actually by purchasing it and bringing it to them, and then we can also run workshops for their community members that helps get people jazzed up about composting or reinvigorated, or just to train new people essentially.
Brenda Platt: Amazing. 36 community active community compost sites. Congratulations.
Elsa Higby: That’s in Queens. I need a number for New York City and I think it’s over 200 in the city of New York.
Brenda Platt: Yeah. It’s remarkable.
Aleks Jagiello: If I could just add, there’s been some incredible people that have gone through the program and have done some incredible work within New York City. For example, there was two master composters in the year before I was involved, Stephanos Koullias and Leanne Spaulding who started Western Queens Compost Initiative in Astoria and Long Island City, which became later on a DSNY funded site and now is known as Big Reuse, which is one of the biggest intake sites. But it’s incredible that this investment in educating individuals and empowering individuals in tools and how to make compost actually created these individuals who went on to just do incredible work that has served the city in tremendous ways.
Brenda Platt: Yeah. I knew Leanne. I knew her after she left New York. She went on to work for the US Composting Council, which is how I met her. So the city and Queens is giving birth to these experts who go on even to work in the larger kind of composting field. It’s amazing. And one of the things you’re just doing so well is harnessing the power of volunteers to keep things going at these, you know, spreading the work you’re doing. The city’s supporting you, and then you’re helping to support these volunteer run systems, so just to break it down for people again and I think Elsa, you may have mentioned this at the beginning but how many in terms of employees full time or part time do you have, and then how many are volunteer volunteers? Just so we can get clear like, the city supporting X number of people.
Elsa Higby: At our site we have, we have five full time staff persons and one seasonal staff person, but we have two CUNY Culture Corps throughout the year, so that’s a total of like 24 hours a week for probably about eight months, right? We have three to four compost and farm interns, which are two days a week for six months. We often will get an ad hoc intern from Queens College or from somewhere else who might only spend about three months with us. Then in addition to that, we have volunteer Wednesday where basically we have about I would say 15 to 20 people every Wednesday divided between volunteering out at the farm or volunteering with processing, and then we’ll have ad hoc volunteer opportunities throughout the year as we can schedule them and as needs arise.
Brenda Platt: Let’s just move into a little bit just, what are your tips? Well first of all, let me ask you this. What are your recommendations for other small scale composting to kind of replicate what you’re doing in terms of getting at least the funding and financing from local government? Then I want to move into what kinds of tips and lessons learned you have for other cities and local government.
Elsa Higby: My experience has really been in the state of Ohio, city of Youngstown, and then the state of New York, city of New York City and I’ve found that state EPAs, local city councils are really good sources to go to for funding for community composting, and in some cases states will provide matching dollars for industrial compost sites through state EPA or federally funded dollars that have come down to the state level to be distributed for that purpose. I guess in a large city, I think your funding opportunities are going to be through possibly your city’s department of health, department of education, soil and water conservation district. NRCS or any organization that’s funding projects that are concerned with environmental education, clean water, methane emissions and recycling.
Aleks Jagiello: I just have a note that when planning a compost site, a small compost site, one of the considerations one might make is between what’s the role of equipment and what equipment can really actually dramatically increase your production and efficiency. Where you might have four staff members turning a windrow by hand, it may be more beneficial to have two staff members and purchase a small tractor or a skid steer to turn that equipment, so there’s definitely a trade off between having more people and having the right equipment.
Brenda Platt: Yeah, good point. I hear that so often. The trade off between labor and just investing more in equipment that can do some of that labor for you. My last question is just what tips for replication do you have for other local governments who want to support community composting endeavors like yours in their communities? What should they do? How can they help?
Elsa Higby: I think the investment in education is huge, and then second, the investment in policy that’s going to support that local composting, like a lot of cities don’t allow open piles, and so policy needs to change at the city council level generally to first off allow that so that you can have community composting go on that is not going to be largely expensive. Then I think for community composters, I want to say don’t let the dollars get in your way. A small impactful educational operation can be put together with a little bit of land and a few thousand dollars. If you’re planning to run a hauling business, you might need to check to see what your local legislation allows you to do or doesn’t allow you to do, but be sure to put your site on a route where the population from which you’re hauling and your composting site isn’t too far away from each other. Yeah, that’s pretty much it.
Brenda Platt: Yeah, thank you, and thank you so much Elsa and Aleks with the New York City Compost Project hosted by the Queens Botanical Garden. I look forward to following the journey here and see what else you’re cooking up at your site.
Elsa Higby: Thanks Brenda. It was a pleasure.
Aleks Jagiello: Thank you Brenda.
Brenda Platt: Thank you. Alright, take care.
Elsa Higby: Bye.
Jess Del Fiacco: Thanks again for tuning in to this episode of the Building Local Power podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. You can find links to what we discussed today by visiting and clicking on the show page for this episode. That’s While you’re there, you can sign up for one of our newsletters and connect with us on social media. Finally, you can help us out with a gift that helps support our work, including the production of this very podcast. You can also help us out by rating this podcast and sharing it with your friends on iTunes or wherever you find your podcasts. This show is produced by Lisa Gonzalez, Zach Freed, and me, Jess Del Fiacco. Our theme music is Funk Interlude by Dysfunction_AL.

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Audio Credit: Funk Interlude by Dysfunction_AL Ft: Fourstones – Scomber (Bonus Track). Copyright 2016 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial (3.0) license.

Photo credits: Volunteers with wheelbarrow: Elsa Higby, Queens Botanical Garden. Collage, clockwise from top: Queens Botanical Garden, Vanessa Ventola, ILSR.

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