Helping Hell’s Kitchen residents “waste not”, the bustling Mathews-Palmer Playground food scrap drop-off is celebrating two years of growing the neighborhood’s composting efforts.
Open seven days a week during park hours, the compost drop-off site at W45th Street between 9th and 10th Avenue offers a year-round space for locals to unload their compostable household scraps, which are picked up weekly by the Lower East Side Ecology Center and processed at the Sanitation Department’s compost center.
The Mathews-Palmer site, which started in November 2020 with a first-week haul of 450 pounds of scraps now collects nearly 6,000 pounds a week. “We have grown tremendously,” said Chana Widawski, one of the center’s organizers and a LES Ecology Center-trained master composter.
“We’ve increased our trust with the Parks Department, we’ve presented at Block Associations, we publicize at the Hell’s Kitchen Free Store, the Solid Waste Advisory Board publicizes us, and we’ve also just had lots of people walk by and want to get involved — our collection has been increasing steadily over the past two years,” she added. “I’m looking at our six bins and they’re already nearly full!”
When we visited the site, a steady stream of neighbors strolled by to drop off scraps, many commenting on how thankful they were to have additional composting resources in addition to those at the Hudson River Park.
Local resident Tanya Kamens, who freezes and drops off her food scraps at the center, told W42ST that she was already in the habit of composting but the added option of the expanded Mathews-Palmer site “has just saved our lives.”
As West Sider Joel Straughen dropped off his scraps from W57th Street, Chana explained: “This is a model for what should be happening all over our city. This is how we get rid of rats on our streets. This is how we minimize the volume of the trash on our streets, and it’s all coming back full circle to our plant beds, to our tree beds, to our gardens, into our park space.”
Longtime volunteer Linda Novenski found her way to Mathews-Palmer as a COVID-safe volunteering opportunity that has since grown into a beloved source of community. “I was looking for something to focus on in my neighborhood that didn’t involve getting on subways and buses and being in public indoor places,” she said. “I learned about the bins and the free store and I just jumped in and started.”
Linda was one of several volunteers on hand last week when the LES Ecology Center, City Council Member Erik Bottcher, and Assembly Member Tony Simone honored the group for their work in making Hell’s Kitchen a more eco-friendly place.
LES Ecology Center outreach coordinator Jimmie Costello told W42ST that the city’s community engagement around composting was encouraging. “We have had a tremendous, truly overwhelming response to the relaunch of the Master Composter certificate course which relaunched in March 2022,” he said. The center supports a wide scale of composting efforts, from hyperlocal community gardens to mid- and large-scale initiatives like their upcoming Rockaway Avenue processing center, which will open around spring 2023.
Back in Hell’s Kitchen, Chana, Linda and the other organizers of the food scrap drop-off have plans to keep community awareness and understanding of the composting process growing. One challenge? Finding compostable refuse dropped off in…plastic bags. “We really want to encourage folks to use reusable containers to dump out the scraps,” said Chana, rather than purchase one-time use compost bags or use plastic, which won’t break down at all. She also commended the “amazing volunteers”, who, dedicated to the cause, have been brave enough to “dig with their bare hands to fish plastic from the bins.”
But even with the challenges of maintaining a public compost bin, the group is happy to reflect on the enriched sense of community they’ve gained from being involved. “We have people who have met at the drop off, who’ve made all kinds of connections and community and shared other resources,” said Chana. “People just feel good about being able to do something that is productive. Everything else in our society is so much about producing more, consuming more and just creating more waste. So this is a process and a circularity that I think people really appreciate being able to be part of.”
Linda agreed, “I’ve had really good talks with neighbors — not just about the composting either, about all kinds of things in the neighborhood. Collecting food scraps for composting and turning into ‘black gold’ feels like a metaphor for gathering my memories and thoughts, and processing it all into positive actions.”
In the future, they hope to return composted product to Hell’s Kitchen’s own parks and playgrounds, an initiative supported by the LES Ecology Center. “My vision as a master composter would be for us to actually keep everything here in Hell’s Kitchen, to process it ourselves, and then be able to put it right back into our gardens and our tree beds. Right now, in terms of real estate, it’s not happening, but I still dream of the possibility,” said Chana.
If you’d like to take compostable waste at the Mathews-Palmer Playground food scrap drop-off, a complete list of accepted items can be found here. If you’d like to become a volunteer, email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.