Interview by Grace Chan
Image: The Lower East Side Ecology Center’s composting site located in East River Park (Source: Lower East Side Ecology Center)
Today I am interviewing Christine Datz-Romero, Co-Founder and Executive Director of the Lower East Side Ecology Center. Christine is here with us to explain what the Lower East Side Ecology Center is and how it makes NYC a more sustainable city to live in.
Grace Chan: Hi and thank you for taking the time to sit down with me today. So tell me, What is the Lower East Side Ecology Center?
Christine Datz-Romero: The Lower East Side Ecology Center was formed in the late ‘80s; I’m one of the co-founders and the executive director, and we are a not-for-profit that believes in community-based programs.
We offer recycling, composting, environmental education and stewardship programs, some of which is citywide like our e-waste program, but a lot of it is based and focused right here in the Lower East Side.
GC: How did you get into environmental activism originally?
CDR: My motivation was that I saw a lot of waste here in the city — I’m originally from Germany and I came here in 1980 — and I found it really overwhelming to see all newspapers getting thrown out.
In the ‘80s there was no recycling program, so I just took it upon myself to find places here in the city where I could recycle waste for myself; my own newspapers, metal, glass and plastic. I would bring everything to the Village where there was a group that collected those materials.
I started volunteering there and eventually decided to jump in and quit my job to really become involved in recycling. I just felt it was something important to do and there was a huge need in the city, and I saw opportunity to actually create programs.
GC: How did this lead you to become one of the founders of the Lower East Side Ecology Center?
CDR: Usually when you offer programs like ours you need to have a sort of structure or a network to raise funding, so we formed a group basically to receive funding for our programs. So that’s how the group was founded.
GC: Are the people you found to form this group from this area or were they just people interested in this?
CDR: We founded a not-for-profit basically and so it was a bunch of people that were interested in these issues and it’s basically a lot of paperwork in the end. My husband, Clyde Romero, was a big part of founding the organization. He was a longtime residence of the Lower East Side and also saw the need for this program, and he really encouraged me. I guess we both encouraged each other to start getting into the recycling world together.
GC: How has the compost program made a difference in New York City?
CDR: Union Square has become more and more of a hub for anything sustainable and so that was sort of the perfect location to spread the word about composting. I think it also showed and inspired other people. You know sometimes all it takes is only one group doing something and others saying “Oh we can do that too, we have a green market here in Fort Green and we have community gardens.” And so I think there were different things sprouting.
Especially in Brooklyn, I have to say, they took the model and the inspiration from what we were doing in Union Square. That of course is a wonderful thing.
GC: How much compost does the Lower East Side Ecology Center handle?
CDR: All together we have seven drop off locations; we handle about four to five tons of materials a week, which is about 200-250 tons of materials in a year.
GC: What do you do with all of the compost?
CDR: We are fortunate to have our own compost processing plant right here in East River Park, so none of the materials that we collect go very far, which is a very sustainable model. When we started the drop off location at Union Square we first processed everything on 7th Street in this empty lot that we had from the city. But then in ’98 we lost a lot of that space due to development. We looked around in the neighborhood and we couldn’t really find empty lots anymore. That’s when we found East River Park. At that point this was a very gorgeous park — it’s 59 acres and it’s a waterfront park — but like many parks in the ‘80s, especially large parks, it was really struggling from the neglect of the 1970s. So the park was underutilized to put it mildly.
The Parks Department was open to our idea of a partnership, and saw the benefits of a local group having a presence here to revitalize the park, so we entered into a licensing agreement with the Department to loan us the space for processing here and then we also were able to have our first offices outside from my spacious tenement apartment, right here in this building in the Fire Boat House.
GC: It seems this partnership has really helped the Lower East Side Ecology Center grow.
CDR: Our partnership has certainly helped the capacity of the organization grow tremendously.
As I mentioned we collect about 200 tons of materials a year, and not all of that of course is going to be finished composting — you lose a lot of volume because food scrubs contain a lot of water. So at the end we have about 50 tons of finished compost and we sell some of it at Union Square to cover our operating expenses. The rest of it we use here in East River Park for stewardship.
It’s been interesting being here in the East River Park. There has been a lot of improvement and construction, and while our compost operation has moved a couple of times we now have a permanent location a little bit further south from here just past the amphitheater. It’s about a half an acre site where we process all of the materials that we collect.
We also have a street tree stewardship program and are still feeding our garden at 7th Street, so we try to use this concept of why we started composting in the first place to apply the finished compost here in the community to really make our green space more vibrant.
GC: You also do the E-Waste Recycling Program. How does this help NYC become more sustainable?
CDR: Yes, it’s interesting because food waste is of course a huge portion of our waste stream; by weight about 17% of our waste stream is food scrubs. The only other big category that is really easily recycled out of the waste stream is newspaper, which is also about 17%. E-waste is only 1% of that pie, so it is “small” even though it still means 24,000 tons a year.
I think you also create a stewardship by explaining to people why native species are important and making connections for people…paint[ing] the picture of how something like a planting bed that looks pretty also has an environmental impact and supports biodiversity.
Because, of course, the city has quite a huge volume of waste, e-waste does not represent a large amount of what’s in our trash, but it co
ntains a disproportionate amount of toxic materials. We started the E-Waste Program in 2003 a little bit like the composting — nobody was really doing much about e-waste then and we had an opportunity to develop a program. The more we really learned about the impact of electronics in the waste stream and how toxic the materials are, the more we felt that it was really important to implement that program.
GC: Did other people recognize what the Lower East Side Ecology Center was doing?
CDR: I think our timing was really good. People in Washington, DC were also thinking about introducing legislation to help further e-waste recycling by introducing an extended producer responsibility law here in New York City. So we had really a great partnership to push for legislation by running our program and at the same time being able to apply for mechanisms to create even more programs like that.
The city introduced the e-waste legislation I think in 2008, but unfortunately it never became law because it was stopped by industry with a lawsuit. But then New York State stepped into the vacuum and created their own law and, of course, New York State supersedes City law. So we now have New York State legislation that is based on producer responsibility so manufacturers are responsible for offering these programs, and we have real mandates of how many materials need to be collected here in New York State.
GC: Are there still problems with the legislation?
CDR: The law has its problems. Just this week on Wednesday I went to Albany for a hearing about the implementation of the law; it just needs to be strengthened. What is really happening is that all over New York State we are right now collecting more materials than the amount manufacturers are willing to pay for, which is a huge problem if you are collecting materials and you are not going to get reimbursed for recycling them responsibly.
So there is somewhat of a crisis in that but the good news is that we have a law. It is now mandated that people dispose of their electronics in a responsible manner by finding recycling opportunities; I think we are doing our best to provide that to as many communities as possible. We offered over 60 events last year and go to all five boroughs. We also have a permanent drop off location in the Gowanus area in Brooklyn, which is basically a warehouse where people can drop off Tuesdays through Saturdays.
GC: What happens with the recycled electronics?
CDR: That is a really interesting question. Of the electronics we collect the vast majority is actually getting palletized by types — we put CPUs on a pallet and printers on a pallet and TVs on a pallet. It gets shrink wrapped and then we weigh it and stage it, and a tractor trailer comes and picks it up and brings it to the recycler. What is important is to work with recycling companies that are responsible so they have to be R2 certified or East Stewardship certified.
GC: What does it mean to recycle e-waste?
CDR: For example, a printer has certain materials in it that get removed, like the cartridges, and they usually have a metal bar in it, and then most of the materials that are left are plastic and circuit boards. They get put through a huge shredder and after the shredder cuts everything into small pieces there is an optical sorting system that can basically sort out plastic from the circuit boards.
Plastics that are used in electronic devices are sold on a global scale, most of which are going back to Asia for manufacturing, and metals that are taken out of these materials are also a commodity that is traded, but I think more of that stays on this continent. Circuit boards go through a smelter where all the toxic or the valuable materials are removed and get repurposed as fully as possible. That is the story of recycling e-waste, and it’s a good thing, but it shouldn’t be the only option of what you can do with e-waste because you lose a lot of the energy that was put into manufacturing these things.
GC: What are other options people can do with e-waste?
CDR: So what we really try to do with our program, and one of the reasons we rented a warehouse and created a permanent facility, is we wanted to reuse. People do drop off materials that are still working and so we try to test and refurbish as much as we can.
We carved out a little area in our warehouse as a reuse store where we sell those materials. We also curated a prop library where a lot of times people bring us really old amazing stuff that is…I don’t know, we probably have all the video games that have ever been created. I’m not sure about that but I’m sure we have a lot of them. I personally have never played a video game. I admit that freely. But there is the Gameboy and what have you.
You know people get rid of this stuff because they outgrew their urge to play with it. But then there are other people who are collectors or we also get a lot of production companies they might shoot something from the ’80s and want either the games or the computers that fit that area. So we have this prop library where we can rent out those materials to people that are searching for that. And again it is another way of reusing electronics and it’s also like creating a museum that shows how technology has changed and how the use of technology has also changed.
GC: Let’s shift gears and talk about the environmental education that LESEC provides. What kind of classes do you provide and what age groups do you focus on?
CDR: I think whatever we do is educational. If we collect computers, or if we collect food scraps, you know we always want to educate. But here in the Fire Boat House especially, we really focus on the estuary because we are steps away from the East River, which of course is part of the New York/New Jersey estuary system. It’s not a river — it’s an ocean strait with brackish water.
And so we are really trying to educate the community about this resource and also the water cycle, how to protect surface waters from pollution and all of that sort of stuff. And we work with all age groups, whether it’s elementary schools up to offering internships for high school students or college students.
GC: Another mission of LESEC is developing local stewardship of green space. How do you inspire people to become local stewardship of green space? What kind of activities do they do?
CDR: We offer opportunities on Saturdays where we just invite people that live here to come out and help with cleaning up. We pull a lot of weeds. To make it sound sexy we say removal of invasive species; it sounds a lot better than pulling out mugworts. We also invite families to come and plant bulbs in the fall, and then they come back in the spring and see daffodils or tulips popping up and really feel they were a part of something.
I think you also create a stewardship by explaining to people why native species are important and making connections for people, saying, “Oh this flower here might be a host plant for a butterfly”, and paint the picture of how something like a planting bed that looks pretty also has an environmental impact and supports biodiversity.
So we always try to educate people about the bigger picture and not just what meets the eye but also making these connections with the ecology.
GC: Last question: How has Lower East Side Ecology Center made a difference over the years?
CDR: Well I hope that we’ve made a difference by leading by example and by showing and inspiring people that improvements to the environment are possible through education and by raising awareness.
GC: Thanks so much!
CDR: Okay! You’re welcome.