Final Blog Post: What I Learned

The research process is not linear. This is a challenge that I hadn’t expected, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that is a bad thing. The looped and curving nature of research brought me from studying compost in the frame of zero-waste goals, to community gardens, to organizational networks, and finally to niche networks of residents in the city. All of those steps were integral to getting me to the conclusions I’ve drawn now. 

The question I ended up answering (at least in part) in my research was ultimately “What drives the urban composter to compost?”. In more developed terms, what does background, experience, and learning mean to the person who composts? Some of the major conclusions were as follows:

(1) Contrary to the “Education > Self-Efficacy > Composting” framework I originally conceived of, the data supports a framework that looks more like “Composting > Self-Efficacy > Education”.

(2) There is a network of peer-to-peer education that occurs when composers feel self- efficacy in (proud of and confident in), their composting abilities and are compelled to share that information.

(3) Experience and background is extremely individual, and there is no one passage to composting. As such, environmental education can not be seen as a blanket process. 

The research experience has taught me many things about knowledge, work ethic, collaboration and myself. The expectations and realities of designing and conducting a research project overlap in some areas, and differ completely in others. Through my research, I learned that knowledge exists in many capacities. It is not just the articles I found sifting through Google scholar, but the stories, backgrounds, and perspectives of the public that propel us towards more holistic understandings of the world. I was challenged to abandon some of my ineffective work routines in favor of more labor intensive, yet ultimately more productive styles of working to get the job done. Additionally, I learned that working with a mentor is essential. Concepts can become more well-rounded in just one brainstorming session. And finally, I opened the door for myself to explore topics and issues that I didn’t realize I cared about. Overall, I feel enriched by the experience, and more developed as a knowledge seeker and environmentalist.

Third Blog Post

At this point, my research is near complete. I have collected all of my data and am now in the analytical stage. One of the most central questions that my survey inquired about was the “environmental background” of the participant. The environmental background of a person is the extent to which they have engaged with the physical and conceptual principles of the environment and environmentalism. These experiences vary greatly, as conveyed in the survey responses. Some participants identified the location in which they grew up, such as rural areas or on farm land, as their background in environmentalism. Others indicated that they pursued Environmental Science or a related discipline for their college degree, and counted this as their background. 

So now, I am taking the data I have gathered and comparing the survey answers against each other. I am trying to find similarities and frequencies in the survey responses. This is the method that I used to reach the conclusion that I mentioned before. In addition to connecting simple themes, there is a lot of thought that must going in to figuring out what this all means. This not only requires pulling from my own experience, but also from the texts that I have read to prepare for this research. One tool that my mentor taught me was writing out a web of my data to discover connections and more in depth meanings of the survey answers. This helps to lay out all of the information in front of you so that you can then begin to process and analyze the data.

I found success in that my thesis questioned opened the doors for more conclusions to be drawn. For example, I am finding that it is not only direct experience that influences people to compost, but indirect experiences as well. For example, some participants indicated that they grew up composting their food scraps at home, or that they had volunteered at a garden or farm that composts. This is considered direct. Others indicated experiences that range from having recycled other types of waste in the past to experiences that involve broader interaction with the environment, environmental volunteerism, or environmental education. I am considering these indirect experiences.

Blog Post #2: Progress – Food Waste Education

Since my last blog update, I have been researching educational theory and STEM educational practices. Through this research, the concept of ‘Experiential’ or “Hands-on’ education has become a central theme. The premise is that experiential education is a way to supplement formal, facts-based learning with the goal of increasing the understanding of this knowledge. In this research, I assert that experiential learning does more than just increase understanding of scientific processes, but empowers learners to own and become stewards of this knowledge.

So, what does this mean for composting and food waste? Compost is a fundamentally hands-on process, but can appear abstract on paper. It is recycling in which people can become engaged through every step of the process from food to soil, and back to food. While we struggle with participation in food waste recycling, it is experiential learning of the process which can help people understand it uses and thus empower them to participate.

This project has required a great amount of collaboration with my mentor. My biggest struggle is trying to articulate and organize my ideas and findings into a paper. In my meetings with Professor Dupuis, we do brainstorming sessions on the whiteboard where these ideas flush out and take a more clear shape. She helps me recognize the connections in my ideas and in turn empowers me to investigate further. In a sense, it is much like experiential learning where engaged problem solving prompts a greater understanding of my research, and greater motivation to continue.

 

What’s in your soil? – Food Waste Education

Food waste management is a huge operation with many moving parts, and the success of each part is heavily reliant on the others. In this research, we split these parts into levels; grassroots, intermediate, and city level operations. We found that each level supplies a different type of education process and different levels of engagement which fit together to form the larger conversation about food waste. We’re really focusing in on the education aspect of food waste management, and our current goal for this project is to understand the value in each level of education. We want to define what it means to be “compost literate”, and further to identify the key components of compost education. We also want to explore the educational role of being able to see the entire closed loop of food waste composting. That is, seeing the process from start to finish, from food to soil. The ultimate goal is to find the most successful and efficient methods of educating people about what is in their soil, and getting people to understand why they should care.

At this point in the research we know the challenges to achieving food waste composting, operationally speaking. Through interviews we found that community gardens, non-profit organizations, and waste carting businesses all experience temporal and spatial issues regarding their resources to compost and their capacity to process large amounts of food waste. Now that we have identified our interest in the education components of these organizations, it is time to go back and conduct more interviews with community gardens. We found that the weight of the education process seems to be leaning on the grassroots organizations (community gardens) as a foundation, so through more interviews we will be exploring in depth what that role means.

Zero-Waste Research: Final Report

My summer research, supervised by Dr. DuPuis, was focused on the state of food waste management in urban and suburban areas. The goal is to identify the barriers to properly managing food waste and achieving zero-waste goals. We identified the main players in food waste collection, food waste recycling (composting), and some sources of food waste production.  Additionally, we will be using the Frank Geels’ Multi-Level Perspectives model to create a cohesive flow of information between the two entities, hopefully for each to inform the other of their best practices produce ideal food waste management practices

In conducting the interviews I had two approaches. The first approach was to go to community gardens on the weekends and find someone who worked there. The gardeners and volunteers at community gardens were always eager to sit down and talk about their projects, even show me around their facilities. However, this approach only works with the nature of the community garden; a generally easy going environment that is mostly community based. In order to get interviews with catering companies or more large scale projects I had to take a more formal approach. For these organizations, I had to first email and then schedule phone interviews.

Something that helped me a lot in the process of organizing my interviews objectives was creating a matrix in Excel. This matrix split up the different categories of interviewees under which I could list potential organizations and check off as I went through. Those categories included “Farms/Gardens That Compost”, “Farms/Gardens That Don’t Compost”, “Farmers Markets Collecting Food Scraps”, “Farmers Markets NOT Collecting Food Scraps”, “Municipal Contacts” and “Others”. I also created an option to list the contact email or number for easy reference. I would suggest this method to anyone dealing with a large number of contacts spanning several different categories.

As of now, I have conducted interviews with 6 organizations including Stone Barns Center for Food & Agriculture, Hilltop Hanover, Tompkins Square Farmers Market, Earth Matter Governor’s Island, La Plaza Cultural Community Garden, and OxVerte Catering Company. These 6 interviewees span most of the categories I intend to cover, so I feel as though I already have successful coverage of my bases. I will be working to at least double this number of interviewees before I can move onto my next steps.

What I really appreciate the most about this work is that it has that ability to change shape and flex. With social research, work needs to be able to shift as you learn more about the people that you’re talking to. I’ve found that through these interviews, the farmers have actually guided me in the direction of the questions that I should be trying to answer.Overall, I have enjoyed the research process very much. Food waste management is a topic that is incredibly interesting to me, so the question that I’m asking is something I’m genuinely curious about. I understand my own barriers in my experience with being responsible about my food waste but with each interview I learn more and more about the challenges that are faced across the board. 

Changing Shape and Moving Forward

The research process so far has proved to be surprising and challenging, but nonetheless enjoyable and interesting. Something that I really appreciate about this work is that it has that ability to change shape and flex. With social research, I think the work needs to be able to shift as you learn more about the people that you’re talking to. I’ve found that through these interviews, the farmers have actually guided me in the direction of the questions that I should be trying to answer.

I’ve had the chance to conduct 4 interviews in total, 3 of which being in person. These interviews have covered a wide array of the subsets of organizations and types of people that are involved in the composting process. My first in person interview was with 2 volunteers at a local community garden. They provided great intel on the strengths and weaknesses of community run compost operations from the perspective of the concerned citizen. My most important takeaway from that interview was that there’s great pressure on these small grassroots orgs to bare the weight of the city’s waste stream. My second in person interview was with a farmer in Westchester whose expertise on compost taught me about compost systems that I didn’t yet know about. I was also able to send out an interview to another Westchester farm. These two interviews work together to paint a more clear picture of the process of dealing with the food waste that one’s own company or organization produces. My latest interview was with a woman who runs the food waste collection stand at a local farmers market. This one was great because it pushed me into the realm of city-level planning, a piece of the research puzzle that’s still trying to find its place.

Through the information that I’ve gathered thus far I can begin to see the work maturing, taking steps towards its final form. There’s much work to be done, which is daunting, but the prospect of seeing this development propels me forward!

Is Zero Waste by 2030 a Reality for NYC?

    The title of this paper is ‘Is Zero Waste by 2030 a Reality for NYC: The Limitations of Urban Compost’. This research project seeks to address the issue of food waste management in New York City. In a city famous for its filth it can seem impossible to do the right thing when it comes to your waste. While we still struggle to manage even the baseline of recycling ( i.e. plastic, metal, and paper) the #OneNYC zero waste plan claims that it will also eliminate food waste from landfills. With food waste management being a complex system, and community gardens being the nucleus for radical and innovative composting, it is clear to me that these organizations hold the key to success.

Throughout this research, I will conduct semi-structured interviews about the cultural and social experiences of raising and organizing urban farms and gardens and I will gain information about their most valued composting and food waste management practices. Additionally, I will do the same with city-officials involved in the planning and implementation of the #OneNYC zero waste plan, and gain information about their practices and plans. Ultimately, I will use Frank Geels’ Multi-Level Perspectives model to create a cohesive flow of information between the two entities, hopefully for each to inform the other of their best practices produce ideal food waste management practices. In this paper, I ask the question: Is zero waste by 2030 a reality for NYC, and what are the limitations of urban composting?