Earth Matter NY – Learning, teaching, partnering, doing

Earth Matter NY is a tiny not-for-profit organization headquartered in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, “dedicated to advancing the art, science, and application of composting in and around New York City.”

Earth Matter might seem to be about compost, but there is so much more to what they do. They are not composting so much to simply make compost … they:

  • learn and evolve composting  techniques in an urban context.
  • solve logistical challenges around collecting, transporting, and working compost.
  • maintain a community “composting hub” within an East Village garden where neighbors can drop off their food scraps and learn about composting.
  • sustain connections and partnerships with other groups involved in composting and community gardening in and around New York City, with schools in the city, and with many other organizations with compatible missions.
  • offer workshops in composting, gardening, bin-building, and numerous other topics.
  • provide leadership training for interns from organizations such as Americorps and Green Guerrillas.
  • collect spent beer-making grain from a Brooklyn brewery to use it as animal fodder and a compost resource, and similarly establish relationships with other food vendors who become aware that their “waste” is actually a resource.
  • reach out for volunteers and interns and thus communicate the motivation and the know-how for reducing our waste stream and participating in various aspects of urban agriculture as well.

In the summer of 2010, Earth Matter was given the opportunity to start a composting center on Governors Island in New York Harbor, which is now a public park with many summertime events. The group was to collect food scraps from a popular island event, and turn those into compost. From this one event their involvement on Governors Island continued, with multiple “sourcing stations” around the island inviting visitors to separate out their food scraps into a separate bin. Thus none of the food waste generated by vendors and picnickers on the island ends up getting shipped off-island — it becomes compost at the Earth Matter Compost Learning Center.

In 2011, Earth Matter added a flock of chickens to their Learning Center, to assist in “processing” food scraps, and as a draw to pull the public into the Center where they can learn about compost, can take home literature, join a workshop, and look up on a map what gardens and greenmarkets in their New York neighborhood they may drop off their food scraps for composting collection.

Up to this point, Earth Matter was effecting bubble up change in many ways, from taking on interns who will propagate the practice of composting in New York, to helping with construction and training in gardens, to engaging in long-term projects with schoolchildren.

In 2012, though, there was a big shift in the scope of the change created by Earth Matter. The New York City Department of Sanitation (DSNY) has set a goal of removing all of the city’s food scraps from the waste stream within a few years. (Compostable scraps comprise 20% of the waste stream.) But DSNY has no particular on-board experience with the logistics and techniques of composting, they have no metrics by which they can plan transport and processing sites. So they reached out to Earth Matter and two other groups that were already involved in composting operations to process many tons of food scraps dropped off by the public at gardens and greenmarkets. DSNY also began to contribute financially to Earth Matter’s Compost Learning Center on Governors Island and other educational programs run by the organization.

Thus, Earth Matter has influenced not only youth, young adults and the general public who live nearby or who visit Governors Island to tune into the fact that much of what we throw away is actually a resource, and to gain awareness of the environmental issues at stake such as soil health and energy savings — but the work of Earth Matter and other groups like it has served to push awareness of what is possible upwards into a giant bureaucratic New York City agency that has opened its institutional mind to the notion that it has something to learn from these small groups.

Before too long, New York City residents will hear from their Department of Sanitation about new trash-separation rules and new programs related to composting, and it will be Earth Matter and their peers who showed the way and facilitated this change. Earth Matter’s mission speaks to something so much larger than environmental stewardship and waste reduction … it speaks to bubble-up change.


About ilyse kazar

Ilyse Kazar is a planeteer. She is also a writer, small-org consultant, solutions architect, community organizer, animal lover, eternal student, and amateur artist. She lives and works in the Lower East Side NYC.
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