NEW YORK’S “COMPOST CHAMPION” LEADS FIGHT TO SAVE THE PLANET

Encore: September 26, 2022

In New York City, where one-third of garbage is compostable, there’s a woeful shortage of composting services — especially for the one in 15 people who live in public housing. To prevent that trash from ending up in landfills and contributing to global warming, Domingo Morales has made it his personal mission to spread the power of composting to all New Yorkers. He started the organization “Compost Power” that maintains a growing number of public housing composting sites across the city. Tonight, he joins us to discuss how this grassroots campaign is helping combat global warming and promote inclusivity.

For more information on “Compost Power” and composting, click here.

Peril and Promise is an ongoing series of reports on the human impact of, and solutions for, Climate Change. Lead funding for Peril and Promise is provided by Dr. P. Roy Vagelos and Diana T. Vagelos. Major support is provided by Marc Haas Foundation and Sue and Edgar Wachenheim III. 

TRANSCRIPT

> IN A CITY WHERE ONE-THIRD OF ALL GARBAGE IS COMPOSTABLE, MOST TRASH ENDS UP IN LANDFILLS WHERE IT RELEASES METHANE AND CONTRIBUTES TO GLOBAL WARMING.

HOW OUR NEXT GUEST MADE IT HIS PERSONAL MISSION TO DO SOMETHING ABOUT THAT.

DOMINGO MORALES GREW UP IN NEW YORK CITY.

ON HIS OWN INITIATIVE, MORALES STARTED COMPOST POWER.

AN ORGANIZATION THAT MAINTAINS A GROWING NUMBER OF PUBLIC HOUSING COMPOSTING SITES ACROSS THE CITY.

HERE'S DOMINGO EXPLAINING WHAT HE'S TRYING TO DO.

I WANT TO BUILD A COMPOST SITE AND HELP THAT COMMUNITY STAND ON THEIR FEET SO THEY CAN TAKE OVER IT AND I CAN WALK AWAY AND HELP BUILD MORE COMPOST SITE.

THAT'S WHAT COMPOST POWER IS, GIVING THE POWER TO THE PEOPLE.

NOT ONLY AM I REDUCING THE WASTE THAT GO LANDFILL, BUT I'M CREATING A RESOURCE.

I WANT TO HIT THE AREAS THAT SANITATION, DSFY SORT OF MISSED.

THOSE SPOTS IN NEW YORK CITY THAT REALLY WANTED TO COMPOST, BUT THEY DIDN'T HAVE A FOOD SCRAP DROPOFF NEARBY.

JOININGS NOW AS PART OF OUR ONGOING PERIL AND PROMISE INITIATIVE, REPORTING ON THE HUMAN STORY OF CLIMATE CHANGE AND ITS SOLUTIONS IS DOMINGO MORALES.

THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR JOINING US.

THANK YOU FOR HAVING ME.

LET'S START WITH THE OBVIOUS FIRST QUESTION.

EXPLAIN TO US, IF YOU WILL, WHAT IS COMPOSTING?

SO, COMPOSTING IS BASICALLY THE HUMAN MANAGED PROCESS OF RECYCLING ORGANIC MATTER AND TURNING IT INTO SOMETHING WE CAN USE AS FERTILIZER TO GROW MORE FOOD, TO CULTIVATE TREE PITS, GROW PLANTS, SHRUBS THROUGHOUT NEW YORK CITY.

SO, GIVE US A SENSE, IF YOU WERE GOING TO ENGAGE IN SOME COMPOSTING TODAY, EXACTLY WHAT WOULD YOU BE WORKING WITH?

AND WHAT WOULD YOU BE DOING WITH IT?

YEAH, SO IF WE'RE COMPOSTING TODAY, WHAT WE'LL BE WORKING WITH IS RESIDENTIAL FOOD SCRAPS, SO THINGS IN PEOPLE'S HOMES THAT THEY CAN'T EAT, SUCH AS APPLE CORES, BANANA PEELS, ANYTHING THAT YOU CAN'T REALLY EAT, WE CAN'T USE.

GREEN WASTE THAT COMES OFF FARMS.

AND COMPOSTING IS WHEN WE TAKE THAT NITROGEN RICH MATERIAL AND BLEND IT WITH LEAVES, WOODCHIPS, WOOD SHAVINGS, AND THAT CARBON AND NITROGEN PUT TOGETHER STARTS A CHEMICAL REACTION, A BIOLOGICAL ORGANISMS -- I LIKE TO CALL THEM THE FBI, FUNGUS, BACTERIA AND INSECTS RECYCLE THAT MATERIAL AND TURN IT BACK INTO SOMETHING NEW PLANTS CAN USE AS NEWT RECENTS AND ORGANIC MATTER.

I'LL ASK IN A MINUTE ABOUT WHERE ALL THIS IS BEING DONE, BUT LET'S TALK ABOUT YOUR INVOLVEMENT IN THIS.

YOU'RE STILL A YOUNG MAN, CERTAINLY, BUT YOU BECAME PASSIONATE ABOUT THESE ISSUES AND WORKING ON THIS.

I ALSO READ WHEN YOU WERE INDEED A YOUNG MAN, YOU DID NOT LIKE GERMS.

YOU DIDN'T LIKE DIRT.

WHICH MAKES IT AN INTERESTING QUESTION, THEN, HOW DID YOU BECOME THE CHAMPION OF COMPOSTING IN NEW YORK CITY?

YEAH, I MEAN, I HATED THE THOUGHT OF GERMS.

I REALLY DIDN'T LIKE THE PUBLIC TRANSPORTATION BECAUSE OF HOW DIRTY IT CAN BE IN NEW YORK CITY.

MY FAMILY MEMBERS WOULD DRINK FROM MY CUP AND I WOULDN'T BE ABLE TO DRINK THAT ANYMORE.

SO I'VE ALWAYS HAD A FEAR OF GERMS.

AND I HATED FARMING.

WHEN I STARTED IN AN AMERICA CORPS PROGRAM THEY SORT OF JUST THREW ME UNDER THE TABLE.

THEY WERE JUST LIKE, HERE YOU GO.

YOU'RE GOING TO FARM IN A PUBLIC HOUSING COMMUNITY.

YOU'RE GOING TO WORK WITH FOOD SCRAPS.

I WAS WORKING WITH ROTTING FOOD.

AND IT REALLY -- IT WAS HARD FOR ME TO GET USED TO WORKING IN THESE CONDITIONS, BUT WORKING WITH MY MENTOR AT THE TIME, DAVID BUCKLE, WE ACTUALLY SHOWED ME THE IMPORTANCE OF THE GOOD GERMS, YOU KNOW, THE FUNGUS INTO THE BACTERIA THAT ARE ESPECIALLY FOR CREATING LIFE, AND SUPPRESSING THOSE DISEASES I WAS AFRAID OF.

SO REALLY IT WAS THE EDUCATION AND, YOU KNOW, THE HANDS ON TRAINING THAT GOT ME AWAY FROM THAT, UGH, I'M AFRAID OF GERMS.

AND NOW I LOVE GERMS.

SO IT TOOK A LIFE OF ITS OWN, AND NOW I'M TEACHING PEOPLE THE IMPORTANCE OF COMPOSTING AND WORKING WITH THESE GERMS.

YOU KNOW, WE OFTEN HEAR THE NOTION OF HOW ENGAGED A CONVERT CAN BE IN VARIOUS AREAS, AND CLEAR I THINK YOU FIT THAT DEFINITION -- SOMEBODY WHO SAID, NO, NO, NO, NO, NO, TO, WOW, I WANT TO DO THIS AND I WANT TO HELP OTHER PEOPLE DO THIS.

YOU MENTION TEACHING.

HOW IMPORTANT IS THE EDUCATION COMPONENT OF WHAT YOU'RE DOING HERE AND WHAT COMPOST POWER IS DOING?

OH, IT'S IMPORTANT.

WHENEVER I TALK ABOUT COMPOSTING IN NEW YORK CITY, THERE'S A LOT OF SYSTEMS THAT ARE IN PLACE THAT ARE CENTRALIZED.

AND WE HAVE, LIKE THE BROWN BIN PROGRAM WHERE YOU PUT YOUR SCRAPS IN THE BIN AND IT GOES AWAY.

THE DIFFERENCE FROM THAT AND WHAT WE DO IS WE'RE GIVING PEOPLE THE HANDS ON TRAINING, RIGHT?

YOU'RE GIVING ME YOUR FOOD SCRAPS, AND IT TAKES A LOT OF WORK.

IT TAKES PEOPLE SHOVELING, PITCH FORKING, CHOPPING FOOD SCRAPS, BLENDING IT.

IT TAKES MONTHS FOR THIS STUFF TO ACTUALLY TURN INTO A FINAL PRODUCT THAT WE CAN USE TOBY REBUILD OUR LAND.

BUT THROUGH THAT PROCESS WE'RE ABLE TO CHANGE PEOPLE'S BEHAVIOR.

THEY SEE HOW MANY PEOPLE IT TAKES.

WE CAN'T CHANGE THE BEHAVIOR OF AVERAGE RESIDENT WITHOUT GIVING THEM THE INFRASTRUCTURE TO COMPOST BE THE EDUCATION NECESSARY TO DO IT.

ONCE WE HAVE TO INFRASTRUCTURE AND THE EDUCATION, THE HANDS ON TRAINING, THEN AND ONLY THEN CAN AN AVERAGE RESIDENT START TO CHANGE THEIR BEHAVIOR IN THEIR INDIVIDUAL HOUSEHOLDS.

AN EDUCATION CAN HAVE A NUMBER OF COMPONENTS TO IT.

WHAT DO YOU SAY TO SOMEBODY WHO SEEMS TO BE INTERESTED IN THIS?

AND YOU EXPLAIN THE PROCESS YOU EXPLAIN IT TO US AND THEY SAY TO YOU, OKAY, I UNDERSTAND THIS, BUT WHAT'S A BIG PICTURE?

WHAT'S THE BENEFIT HERE FOR US OTHER THAN SORT OF GETTING RID OF THIS, MOVING IT FROM ONE PLACE TO THE OTHER?

HOW CAN IT BE HELPFUL TO US?

, SO ONE THING IS IF EVERYBODY WAS COMPOSTING THEIR ORGANIC WASTE IN A LOCAL FACILITY IN THEIR HOUSEHOLD, HOWEVER THEY WANT TO COMPOST, AND WE CAN REDUCE THE AMOUNT OF TRUCKS THAT ARE TRUCKING WASTE THROUGH OUR CITY, WE CAN REDUCE THE AMOUNT OF ORGANIC WASTE THAT GOES TO LANDFILL.

WHEN ORGANIC WASTE GOES TO LANDFILL IT GENERATES METHANE, WHICH CAN BE 80 TIMES MORE POTENT THAN REGULAR CO2.

IF EVERYBODY COMPOSTED WE COULD SLOW THE RATE OF CLIMATE CHANGE BY 30%, AND THAT'S SOMETHING THAT PEOPLE REALLY DON'T REALIZE IS IT REGENERATES OUR SOIL, ALLOWING US TO GROW FOOD IN SOIL THAT MIGHT BE CONTAMINATED WITH LED, ARSENIC.

WE CAN BUILD RAISED BEDS, GROW FOOD IN LOCAL COMMUNITIES.

SOIL.

WE'RE DIVERTING WASTE AND REDUCING THE AMOUNT OF GREENHOUSE GASES THAT WE'RE PRODUCING WITH OUR WASTE, AND THEN ON TOP OF THAT, WE'RE FEEDING PEOPLE.

LE.

ALL GOOD BENEFITS HERE.

YES.

TELL US WHAT YOU'VE DONE IN TERM OF SETTING UP AND HOW YOU'VE SET UP VARIOUS COMPOSTING SITES AROUND THE CITY.

THE GREAT THING ABOUT THE SITES I HAVE IS I'M PARTNERED WITH GREEN CITY FOREST, WHICH IS THE PROGRAM THAT THREW ME INTO FARMING IN THE FIRST PLACE.

THEY'RE GROWING FOOD IN PUBLIC HOUSING COMMUNITIES ON PUBLIC HOUSING LAND, AND THEY'RE GIVING THAT FOOD AWAY TO RESIDENTS FOR FREE.

SO WHAT I WAS ABLE TO DO IS I WAS ABLE TO UTILIZE THAT FARM, BUILD A COMPOST COMPONENT, WHERE WE'RE TAKING THE ORGANIC WASTE COMING FROM THE FARM, ALLEGATION TAKING FOOD SCRAPS FROM RESIDENTS THAT COME ONCE A WEEK TO PICK UP FRESH VEGGIES THAT THEY CAN EAT.

WE CREATE A BARTER SYSTEM.

COME AND GET YOUR FOOD FROM THE FARMER'S MARKET AND GIVE US YOUR FOOD SCRAPS.

WE BUILD A THREE BIN SYSTEM, A WOODEN STRUCTURE WITH THREE DIFFERENT BINS THAT HAVE DIFFERENT STAGES OF COMPOST.

YOU HAVE THE FIRST STAGE WHERE IT'S JUST FOOD SCRAPS, MIXTURE OF CARBON RICH MATERIAL.

SECOND STAGE IS THERMO FILLIC.

GETS UP TO 60 DEGREES CELSIUS.

THEN YOU HAVE THE MATURE STAGE WHERE YOU'LL SEE EARTHWORMS, PILL BUGS, BIODIVERSITY, AND THAT'S THE MATERIAL WE USE TO APPLY COMPOST TO THE CAMPUSES WE OPERATE.

WE HAVE FIVE SITE ON PUBLIC HOUSING LAND AND ONE ON PRIVATE SITE, AND THAT'S OUR PRIVATE SITE WHERE WE USE TO BRING LARGE GROUPS OF YOUNG ADULTS TO GIVE THEM THE TRAINING THEY NEED MANAGE THE SMALLER SCALE SITES THROUGHOUT THE CITY.

DO YOU ENVISION THIS AS MUCH MORE OF A GRASSROOTS MOVEMENT?

OR DO YOU SEE THIS EVENTUALLY BEING SOMETHING THAT GOVERNMENT TAKES OVER OR SOME COMBINATION OF THE TWO?

HOW DO YOU SEE IT?

WELL, RIGHT NOW IT'S A GRASSROOTS MOVEMENT.

EVERY TIME NEW YORK CITY FACES FINANCIAL HARDSHIP, THEIR SUSTAINABILITY TAKES A HIT, AND POLITICIANS PUT IT ON THE BACK BURNER UNTIL THEY CAN FIND THE MONEY TO DO THOSE PROGRAMS.

WHAT WE HAVE BEEN ABLE TO DO IS WE HAVE BEEN ABLE TO UTILIZE GRANTS, UTILIZE FUNDRAISING, UTILIZE THE POOL FROM THE RESIDENTS, FROM THE NEIGHBORHOODS, AND WE HAVE BEEN ABLE TO KEEP IT CONSISTENT.

SO SINCE COMPOST PILE STARTED WORKING WITH GREEN CITY FOREST IN LATE 2020, WE HAVE BEEN ABLE TO KEEP THESE FOOD SCRAP DROPOFFS CONSISTENT.

WE HAVEN'T SHUT DOWN ANY OF OUR PROGRAMS.

SO, THE IDEA IS WE KEEP IT GRASSROOTS, BUT IN ORDER FOR THIS TO WORK, WE HAVE TO WORK WITH LARGE-SCALE COMPOSTERS, WITH THE NEW YORK CITY PROJECT, WITH THE DEPARTMENT OF SANITATION.

IT'S GOING TO TAKE THAT CENTRALIZED SYSTEM THAT SANITATION HAS, THE DECENTRALIZED SYSTEM THAT NONPROFIT HAS TO GET TO THE ZERO WASTE GOAL.

IT'S GOING STAY GRASSROOTS BUT WE'LL DEFINITELY TAKE SOME CITY FUNDING IF THAT'S WHAT THEY WANT TO GIVE US.

QUICK QUESTION.

GOT ABOUT A MINUTE.

SOMEBODY'S WATCHING THIS AND SAYS, THIS SOUNDS REALLY GOOD, REALLY IMPORTANT.

I WONDER HOW I CAN GET INVOLVED.

WHAT'S THE ANSWER?

THERE'S MANY PROGRAMS YOU CAN GET INVOLVED WITH IF YOU GO ONLINE AND LOOK UP NEW YORK CITY COMPOSTING YOU'LL GET A LOT OF OUTLETS.

FOOD SCRAP DROPOFFS IS A KEYWORD IF YOU WANT A PLACE YOU CAN BRING YOUR FOOD SCRAPS AND YOU KNOW THEY'RE GOING TO TAKE IT TO A COMPOST FACILITY.

YOU CAN VISIT THE COMPOST POWER COMPOST SITES THAT'S ON OUR WEBSITE, SO COMPOST POWERYNC.ORG HAS A LIST OF SITES WE DO HAVE, AND YOU CAN VISIT THEM.

AND JUST REACH OUT TO THESE DIFFERENT PARTNERS THROUGHOUT THE CITY.

SEND A MESSAGE THROUGH INSTAGRAM, THROUGH EMAIL.

LET US KNOW YOU WANT TO GET INVOLVED.

ANOTHER WAY IS JUST SEPARATING YOUR WASTE AT HOME.

THAT'S THE FIRST STEP TO CREATING THAT BEHAVIOR.

THAT FIRST STEP.

AGAIN, THE FOUNDER OF COMPOST POWER.

GOOD WORK.

WELL DONE.

AND THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR JOINING US.

YOU TAKE CARE.

GOOD LUCK MOVING FORWARD.

ALL RIGHT, YOU AS WELL.

THANK YOU.

BE WELL.

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