Few New Yorkers delight in creepy crawlies—especially inside their apartments. But when Rebecca Louie emptied out her first thousand mail-order red wiggler earthworms, she felt elation at what she recalls as a “writhing, beautiful, shiny mass of worm spaghetti and green potential.”
That potential has to do with the fact that every day, New Yorkers send around 12,000 tons of organic material to landfills. These coffee grounds, banana peels, wilted lettuce and leftover takeout account for nearly a third of all of NYC’s garbage and, unlike sanitation departments in San Francisco and Seattle, New York City does not provide curbside compost pickup.
From an eco perspective, this waste-of-waste-recycling opportunity really stinks. Because when food scraps and other compostables decompose in landfills, they release methane gas, which is a greenhouse gas 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide.
Yet it doesn’t have to be that way.
If food scraps are composted instead of being tossed out as if they were just another foam cup or dirty diaper, they become beautiful soil within a matter of weeks or months. And while few city apartments come equipped with backyards, wiggly little earthworms can happily live in a plastic bin under the sink where they will chomp away on your carrot tops, celery bottoms and other forsaken food. As a bonus, the worms will poop out rich potting soil for use in windowsill agriculture or to fertilize any tree pit or neighborhood garden.
“To think that one-third of this gigantic city’s refuse could be funneled into making mountains of compost is sort of mind-blowing to me,” Louie says.
Which is why Louie’s working to spread the worm box love, one urban kitchen at a time. The lifelong New Yorker is equal parts educator and eco entrepreneur, introducing these tiny beasts into apartments, offices and schools throughout the boroughs, where they turn eggshells and apple cores into potting soil, rather than landfill fodder. She calls herself “the Compostess.”
Despite her love of all things worm, Louie’s Queens childhood was devoid of animals. She never went fishing, did not enjoy playing in puddles and was only exposed to “nature” during token visits to Central Park.
By her 28th birthday, Louie enjoyed a career in entertainment journalism, spending her days interviewing the likes of Sarah Jessica Parker and Mary J. Blige while her evenings were full of dinner dates booked three weeks in advance. But one day she realized the glamour had lost its glitter. Louie struggles to explain what changed, exactly.
“Basically, I started to notice and listen to nature,” she says. “It was like things got quiet.”
She became infatuated with the trees lining the avenue blocks during her morning commute, started cooking Greenmarkety meals and planted an herb garden on her apartment windowsill. Hungering for more, she decided to take a breather from the city and spent a year first at a yoga and wellness commune and then exploring the jungle in Costa Rica.
“I moved out of my head and into my body,” she explains. “I was living in the world in a very different way.”
Upon her return to the city, Louie resumed her Greenmarket lifestyle but began fretting about her excessive kitchen scraps. These concerns, with the help of Google, led her to composting, which she took to like a worm to dirt. She became an online forum junkie, reading all she could about DIY decomposition. She ordered a pound of gloppy red wigglers and set up an indoor worm bin. And just like that, her life was changed.
“It’s so fun,” Louie gushes. “It’s like having this little universe in your house.”
In the beginning, that little universe suffered from the typical beginner’s mistakes, like adding food scraps faster than the worms could munch through them or not adding enough “browns” (such as bread or even shredded newspaper) to balance out the wetter “greens.”
“You are managing a mini ecosystem, so things can go awry if you don’t have certain tools and information,” she says.
As she struggled to work out these kinks, she learned about the city-sponsored Master Composter Certificate course. For $40, anyone over 18 can sign up for approximately 20 hours of class time offered in a number of city locations, plus two field trips and a couple days’ worth of community training and volunteer service. At the end, former nature novices emerge as composting connoisseurs who have mastered everything from a worm’s choice temperature, humidity and diet to how much soil a worm bin can yield.
Louie realized that typical busy New Yorkers—people like her former self—may love the idea of keeping their food waste from spewing iceberg-melting methane in the landfill but could not spare the time to hang out at a community garden in the far reaches of the Bronx all day taking the city’s composting course. And that’s when the idea hit her: Why not bring composting to them instead, boiling down the bare essentials and shaping it to suit busy schedules?
The idea for the Compostess emerged from the rich soil of these ponderings. Louie decided to start a one-woman business to provide professional, personally tailored composting instruction to individuals or groups—anytime and anywhere.
To get the soil cranking on her new start-up, in 2010 Louie curated the garden section of Score! Pop-Up Swap—basically, a flea-marketesque stuff-swapping event—talking to crowds about composting, giving demos and converting dozens of hipsters into conscientious composters, all the time advertising her services as the Compostess. Then she hosted her own earth-making compost table at the weekend-long Maker Faire—a giant do-it-yourself meet-up—encouraging strangers to pick up handfuls of dirt, hosting a composting storybook reading for kids and teaching the DIY-inclined to build their own bins. She was struck and encouraged by people’s enthusiasm and curiosity.
“The path from squeamishness to joy with playing with worms occurs in seconds,” she says.
While volunteering at these events in order to sharpen her composting pitch and get the word out about her services, Louie was also steadily accruing paying clients, who hired her to visit their homes, offices or organizations in order to teach the gospel of dirt.
The Compostess has come a long way since those early efforts. Currently, Louie spends her days working in New York’s digital space, but like a superhero alter ego, on nights and weekends she pulls out her worm fork and morphs into the Compostess eco-avenger. She speaks to Girl Scout troops, classrooms, community groups and even friends just getting together for a learning-friendly party. She also gives presentations to businesses looking to green up their act.
Much of her time, however, is spent conducting one-on-one home sessions with composting hopefuls across the boroughs. Louie says her clients range from Midtown programmers to Village artists to “fancy people who drink expensive Manhattans” in Upper East Side penthouses. For $75 Louie will swoop into the apartments of befuddled New Yorkers to ease their concerns and answer their questions about composting. She will set up a worm bin for clients, help them solve composting mishaps they might be contending with or just talk to them about what composting is and how they can do it. During the chats, she works her way through a cute iPad presentation of facts and numbers and calmly alleviates her clients’ fears about odors (save for the occasional “gentle onion breeze,” composting done right only produces perfumes of “beautiful earth”) and cockroaches (they can’t invade so long as the bin is properly sealed).
“Things can be done to prevent whatever people’s greatest fears are,” she says. “Like a personal trainer or accountant, I know that every client has his or her own schedule, set of needs, concerns and degree to which they want to engage with their compost system.”
Once she formulates a novice client’s custom composting strategy (“A vegan who burns through 40 pounds of scraps every day will have a very different strategy than someone who says, ‘I have an orange on Sunday,” Louie says), she helps sniff out the ideal corner for their bin, whether under the sink, tucked into a closet or on top of the fridge.
“Whether you have a penthouse or a studio, I will find a space in your space where you can start doing this,” she says.
Sometimes her services focus as much on feelings as they do on feedings. At one home visit, for example, the wife was totally into it. The husband, on the other hand, was repulsed, refusing to come out from behind the kitchen island and join his family, Louie and her worm bin.
“Oh, no—no, no!” he kept repeating from behind the countertop.
Louie began talking through what he found just so unappealing, and one by one addressed his concerns. As the evening progressed, he crept out, first from behind the counter, next to the chair by the television set, and finally to join everyone—including the worms—on the couch.
For Louie, such conversions are what it’s all about.
The Compostess consulting keeps her plenty busy, but Louie has decided that 2013 will be “Year of the Worm” and plans to launch a YouTube channel that highlights composting across the city.
“I think the moment is right now for the city and people to do this,” she says. “This isn’t a fringe behavior anymore.” •
Photo credit: Sari Goodfriend