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?