Starting a Community Compost Site
Your composting operation, whether large or small, will be an important element in NYC’s efforts to divert organic material from landfills.
1
Finding And Registering A Site

If there isn’t a compost site in your neighborhood you should look into finding a location. 596 Acres is a project that provides the maps, tools, and resources for NYC community members to find and access vacant public land.

Now, that you’ve located a site that you’re interested in, 596 Acres can help you procure a license from the agency that owns the land. Depending on the plot of land, it may be managed by GreenThumb, the NYC Housing Authority (NYCHA), or a city agency. It could also be part of a land trust or privately owned.

Once you have land, you can start your compost operation. Keep in mind it is always best to start small, larger composting operations may require a permit from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.

2
Starting Your Compost Operation

The type of composting system that you implement will depend on the amount of:

  • Organic material you want to compost
  • Space you have
  • Funding for the system
  • Available labor

It takes trial and error to come up with the right “recipe” of greens, browns, and mixing for your compost.

Backyard-Style Composting, Bin or Tumbler

This is usually an operation in which a resident, small organization, or community site processes some organic materials outdoors. There are many types of on-site composting systems, ranging from a simple pile on the ground (not recommended in NYC), a contained bin, or a tumbler. These types of bins are very low maintenance and make turning your compost easy, which will speed up the process.

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Three-Bin System

Easy to build in just a few hours, the three-bin system can be made of rot-resistant cedar, built with removable front planks that allow for good air movement. It helps to efficiently produce compost in just weeks.

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Vermicomposting

This is the process of using red worms to break down organic material into high value compost. A pound of worms, or about 1,000 worms, can eat up to a half a pound of compost a day. Operations can range from a small bin to a large system that processes thousands of tons per year. Worms are sensitive to temperature, and prefer an environment that is 55 to 77 degrees F. Therefore, it’s ideal to keep worm bins indoors. The worms will eat almost any type of organic material other than compostable plastics.

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Turned Windrows

Windrows are long piles of organic material, typically 4-8 feet tall and 14-16 feet wide. They are organized in rows, which allows them to be manually turned into the next row or to be turned in place by a machine. Windrows are big enough to retain heat and moisture, but small enough to allow air to pass through. They are typically covered with a biofilter, like finished compost or wood chips, to help trap odors. This system requires a fairly large amount of space and labor, but is very effective.

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Aerated Static Piles (ASP)

ASP is air forced into organic material through a ventilation system, which speeds up the composting process and reduces labor. Usually, an ASP system is a series of tubes or pipes with holes. Air is pushed through the holes with a fan. The organic material can sit on top of the pipes in a pile, or in a closed container. Since setting up an ASP system can be expensive, they are usually used by larger-scale operations.

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Bokashi

Japanese for “fermented organic matter”, Bokashi is the process of breaking down food scraps via anaerobic fermentation. Typically considered a type of composting, bokashi does not use oxygen, fermenting the organics instead.

Food scraps (including meat and dairy) are placed in an airtight container and sprinkled with a mixture of something carbon-based (such as bran or saw dust) and Effective Microorganisms (EM1).

This mixture can be purchased or made at home. Once the food and mixture are added, the container is sealed to keep oxygen out. Bokashi is easier than some other forms of composting because it is low maintenance, can be done indoors or outdoors, and does not produce foul odors. However, keep in mind that “finished” bokashi is not really compost. It needs to be buried or composted before it can act as a soil amendment.

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In-Vessel Systems

In-vessel composting is exactly what it sounds like – organic material is broken down inside a vessel or container. The vessel’s temperature and air levels are controlled, and it usually has a mechanical apparatus for turning the material for proper aeration. It often has a biofilter with negative pressure, meaning that the air is sucked into a pipe and through a filter – this reduces odors.

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3
Training Staff And Volunteers

Whether you operate a small or large composting system, it will require maintenance. You will likely need one or more dedicated staff or volunteers to help with your operation, community is key when starting a project like this!

Here are suggestions for finding volunteers:

  • NYC Compost Project. Use this form provided by Brooklyn Botanic Garden to request volunteers at a Brooklyn community garden compost site.
  • GreenThumb. They help direct locals who want to participate in a community garden, and help with both the garden and composting.
  • New York Cares. The is the city hub for volunteer opportunities. You can set up a one-time or weekly/monthly event, and volunteers can sign up online.
  • Corporate Volunteer Days. Engage with a corporation that participates in volunteer days. On these days, groups of employees use the day to volunteer at an organized event.
  • Contact Common Ground if you have a project in need of helpful hands.

Once you have recruited volunteers, it’s important to train them on how to do the work, but also why what they’re doing is so important. If they feel that they are part of an effort to increase sustainability in NYC, they are more likely to feel connected to the community.

Added Value’s composting operation at Red Hook Farm is an excellent example of how to train and educate volunteers. Learn more about how they trained their volunteers to operate a turned windrow system at the farm.

4
Special Considerations For Urban Composting

Rats and Odors: Rats may be attracted to the compost, and with rotting foods, odors are always possible, if a site is not properly managed. See these Guidelines for Urban Composting for a comprehensive look on how to approach these common issues.

Browns: Browns are at a premium during spring and summer, since there is little leaf and yard waste during these seasons. If you are having difficulty finding browns – contact us, we can tell you where to go next.

Contamination: Your community compost site will be managed by volunteers. Educate participants about removing things like fruit stickers, twist ties, and rubber bands from food scraps to keep contamination low.

5
The Importance Of Maintaining Metrics

Whenever you start a composting operation of any size it’s good to track the organics that go in and the output that comes out.

  • Log Check is a great mobile app for tracking a variety of materials on the go. You can add different clients, and organize recyclable materials into the categories that work for your site
  • Farming Concrete is a website that provides information and education on how to organize the organics you farm and compost. And it’s also a way to log your produce and other foods in an easily to understand system
6
Learn From Successful Composting Operations

There are a number of nonprofits and community gardens in NYC that process the communities compost on a regular basis. Over 200 of them in fact.

Find the Community Compost site closest to you to learn more about starting your own site.

Find out what’s happening now in NYC, in terms of city compost pilots and recycling legislation. Learn More!