Garbage Day | The Greenmarket’s Queen of Compost

Today, we tip our hat to a couple of locals who are making the East Village a greener, cleaner place.

compostSteven Burke Christine Datz-Romero

At the Union Square Greenmarket one Saturday morning, Christine Datz-Romero milled around the back of her utility van, handling clear bags of what looked like dirt. Wearing airy gardening clothes and a friendly smile, she moved with a calm energy and a spryness that belied her age of 53.

The material in the bags was compost. Ms. Datz-Romero, Manhattan’s mystic of food waste, was there to sell it, teach about it, and collect materials to make more of it.

Since 1994, Ms. Datz-Romero and the Lower East Side Ecology Center, which she co-founded 25 years ago, have run a collection service that takes local kitchen scraps, diverts them from landfills, and turns them into compost – a rich organic material that helps to provide plants with nutrients and to sequester carbon when added to soils.

The group currently collects four tons of food waste per week, from 1,500 households.

compost 2Steven Burke

When Ms. Datz-Romero came to New York City from Germany in 1980 there was no municipal recycling pickup. “I was always just really astonished, if not to say appalled, by the amount of trash that people throw out,” she said in a soft European accent. “I certainly did not grow up like that.”

In 1987, the Ecology Center started providing collection services for metal, paper, and plastic. It began collecting kitchen scraps for composting in 1990, and about four years later it partnered with the Greenmarket.

Since then, the interest in composting has grown. “I think that people are a lot more aware of it and willing to participate in a drop-off program,” said Ms. Datz-Romero, citing table-scrap drop-off sites that have sprouted up in Brooklyn and Queens. Last year The Local profiled an East Village resident who kept a bin of worms in his living room in order to create compost.

At the same time, municipal progress has been slower, said Ms. Datz-Romero: she felt the discontinuation of yard waste collection may have dealt a blow to the credibility of city composting programs and compromised the average resident’s support for them.

According to the Ecology Center’s Website, around 13,000 tons of garbage are collected in the city every day, and almost 40 percent of that is eligible for composting. But it will likely be some time before the city can adopt the sort of centralized municipal compost systems that have proven successful elsewhere. Residents of San Francisco and Seattle, for instance, are required to separate their food waste into a separate container, to be collected along with trash and recycling; last year San Francisco passed a million-ton milestone of compost waste diverted from landfills.

“We are not even close to sighting a really significant composting site in the city, and I think that is really going to be the stumbling block that prevents us from doing any sort of program that is citywide,” said Ms. Datz-Romero.

And so the Lower East Side Ecology Center continues filling the void, with its drop-off at the Greenmarket on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays. On Oct. 10, it will host an indoor composting workshop at REI Soho. Visit the Center’s Website for details.

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