Behind an apartment building on Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn, Vandra Thorburn turns food waste and sawdust into fertilizer. She digs several trenches in the narrow strip of soil that lies between the building and the sidewalk. She empties three bright green 5-gallon buckets of food scraps into a trench, then adds soil, sawdust and repeats these layers. She rinses the buckets and sloshes that water onto the pile, because wetting the material helps it break down faster. The trench is then sealed with yard waste, and the cheese-like smell of the decomposing food is also buried. Within a few months, almost all of the food scraps will have turned to soil.
Thorburn's business, Vokashi Kitchen Waste Services, collects food wastes from families and businesses and composts it. The service provides the buckets, a special bran that helps ferment the food, and home pick-up service for $40.00 or less monthly. If neighbors sign up together, the price is lower. Since starting her business in 2009, she has signed up 50 families and 15 to 20 business in Brooklyn and Manhattan. She composts at two sites, the other larger site is at Marine Park Golf Course.
What's special about the Vokashi method is the use of EM-1 bran, a mix of microorganisms that ferment food waste, both helping the decomposition process and reducing smell. The Vorkashi system is able to take any type of food waste, including dairy and meat products that the city's drop-off locations can't handle. "Our competition is the sanitation picking up from the farmer's market," says Thorburn. "But there they have the compost police, and they'll tell you what they will take and what they won't take, and they will not take pieces of cooked meat and pizza."
According to the United Nations Environment Program, food wastes are the second highest component of landfills in the United States. Composting food waste not only cuts down on how much material ends up in a landfill, but it also results in rich soil. At the Ocean Parkway site, the compost can be used by residents for potted plants and serves as a soil amendment.
Vokashi seems like a luxury in a city where the other option for apartment dwellers without a garden plot is schlepping frozen vegetable cuttings to the nearest farmers' market. Besides offering a much more convenient option, Vokashi is a kind of test case for what could be a larger service offered by building associations or even the city's sanitation service. "We're just proving the concept here," says Thorburn. "What we've been able to show is that we've been doing this now for almost three years with no problems, no rats, no infestations. It's clean and at the end of the day, we could serve a whole building."