A Conversation With BK ROT: This Youth-Led Compost Initiative Is Healing the Toxic Legacies of Environmental, Economic, and Racial Injustice in Brooklyn

Feature Image BK Rot BELatina Latinx composting
Photo Credit BK Rot

Like many others, I’ve spent a long time wanting to support and adopt more sustainable practices within my community but have been overwhelmed not knowing where to start. While exploring alternative ways to do so, I learned about BK ROT: an organization that holistically fosters a system that not only facilitates composting practices in their community, but also creates employment opportunities for youth within their community.

Serving as a gateway into home gardening and food sovereignty, I was curious to learn about the infrastructure that they’ve built. I got to chat with the Executive Director, Ceci Pineda, about the organization’s growth in sustainability efforts through their work with pioneering compost systems. 

Among the many things I admire about the initiative is the fact that you’re pioneers when it comes to community-based and fossil-free composting services in New York City. Just to leave no room for doubt, what is BK ROT?

BK ROT is an initiative that employs young people of color to collect food scraps by bike from commercial and residential entities, and transform it into high-quality compost at our site in Bushwick, Brooklyn. The compost then goes into local gardens where it heals the city’s intoxicated soils and provides a nutrient-rich amendment to support communities growing fresh foods. We were founded in 2013 by Sandy Nurse, a Panamanian born, Black mixed-race person who is an amazing organizer and human doing so much great work right now.  

Because BK ROT was the first bike-powered food waste collection in New York City, we not only had to create the physical landscape to make this possible but also the political one. It wasn’t necessarily legal to start what we did when we did, but we needed to prove we could do it. Eventually, we were able to get the support of local elected officials who saw the value in our work and the value we created in the community. 

BELatina Latinx BK ROT
Photo courtesy of BK ROT

I’m glad you mention the roots of the organization because it leads me to my question: What needs was BK ROT aiming to address when it was founded and how have those needs evolved? How has the organization adapted to meet them?

We emerged as a response to the concentration of waste in our district of North Brooklyn, rampant gentrification, lack of local and young leadership in the spaces that were being revitalized, and the high youth unemployment rates. It was born from an idea Sandy had while she worked as a delivery bike-rider. She had this moment of realization that, instead of doing deliveries, we should be dealing with our city’s massive waste issue. She took it a step further by making sure that the people who profit from this are local Black and brown youth from these neighborhoods who have been left out of environmental movements and policy-making that shape the landscape in which we live. That’s the inception of BK ROT and I think it’s something we continue to uplift and see the need for. 

In our current reality, a lot of the things that are being brought to light are the exact issues that BK ROT aimed to address. For example, we know that COVID-19 has disproportionately impacted Black and indigenous communities, specifically because of histories of accumulated environmental injustice. Employing young people to move around by bike reduces the amount of trucks going into the community. Alongside this, composting our food waste helps divert them from methane-producing landfills which also contribute to local air pollution.

It’s addressing a lot of issues at their root and uplifting youth leadership. We’re dealing with our waste on a local level rather than engaging in extractive practices because when a McDonald’s is established, for example, its profits leave the community but the health impacts stay. Sure, it offers employment to some but it’s not really providing meaningful leadership opportunities. BK ROT deals with waste in a way that reduces pollution and harm to folks, and the benefits stay in the community.

Latinx Composting BELatina BK ROT
Photo Credit BK ROT

Along with the conversation of empowering community and creating opportunities where, basically, there were none, how does the movement and composting as a practice help strengthen environmental justice movements?

I think that what we’re doing is modeling the type of world we want to create. When our team makes decisions, we do so as a group and engage everyone across the board. We’re also showing a way we can locally deal with the waste we produce in comparison to the city, which is used to exporting it. 

New York City’s soils have these toxic legacies of lead, and compost is one of the only true amendments to contaminated soils. Through our local gardens, we’ve seen pretty significant reductions in lead levels from four years’ worth of compost application. It also has a lot of benefits that I believe can help us adapt to local climate impact such as supporting the soil’s ability to retain water and plants’ ability to store carbon through their roots. As a source of mitigation, we’re using composting as a tool to offer healing to the land as we also offer healing to the folks who engage in this work. 

Composting is one of those keywords that is promoted a lot in the media as a great solution to addressing the climate crisis yet may not yet be entirely understood as a practice and a concept. So, can you explain what exactly is composting and why we should practice it at an individual level?

Composting is essentially the transformation of our organic waste into something that can go back into the earth more harmoniously. There are so many different types of compost systems, it can be overwhelming for folks to think about. However, it’s also something that happens naturally in a forest environment where organic matter goes into the ground and, slowly over the course of a couple of years, transforms into higher organic matter. 

What we use at BK ROT is a wind rose system where we mix food waste that we collect with nitrogen-rich and carbon-rich items. Then, we build these elongated pyramids that get hand-turned on a weekly basis — it’s a lot of labor that’s done by a couple of folks who turn this whole system every week. This process creates the right conditions with the support of microorganisms to change organic waste into compost. It’s an incredibly rich amendment that can be added to soil that can help plants thrive. 

What are the biggest challenges of composting in a big city and how does the organization help overcome those barriers?

One of the biggest barriers is access to land and space; we’ve had to get creative with how we do it. For example, we were founded in 2013 but didn’t move into a space that allowed us to sustain a larger operation until 2015 after Sandy and Renée (someone who was also very influential in the rise of BK ROT) were able to get access to a vacant lot. Now, our site is part composting site, part wildlife garden. 

There’s also a lot of work we have to do in educating folks about compost. Many think that it could attract more rats when, in reality, well-managed systems won’t contract them. With our method, we either have folks pay us to pick up their food waste or we host weekly drop offs where we encourage them to either donate or physically volunteer to process the food waste. So, in a place where a lot of people associate this with littering, they also don’t know where the water comes from or what elements are actually affecting our lives. They see it as something that doesn’t belong to them but this process allows people to have a connection with how they deal with their waste and recognize all the labor that’s involved in transforming it into something useful. 

Access and education seem to be the common thread in many of the issues plaguing communities nowadays. How can people overcome those same barriers on an individual level if they’re seeking to start composting?

There are other ways you can do it at home. Some more accessible things might be if people want to try working with worms (which is called the vermicomposting system). If you have backyard space, that also opens up what you can do. I would also say look online; there are so many resources available. One of the biggest ways I learn is by doing, so whatever you need to get started, don’t be afraid to go for it. Make sure you read up on what you should and shouldn’t include in your compost system because there are certain things you can’t use because it can be unhealthy for the process. 

I really believe some of the most efficient systems are those that are community-powered because you’re gathering enough organic material that it’s going to produce the heat necessary for a composting system to work well. I think that’s a beautiful point because it means we need community, and each other, to engage with this process.