A New York Compost box in East Harlem. Debbie Ullman

Why one New Yorker transformed newspaper racks into homes for food scraps.

Have you heard? Print is dead. What is not dead, however, is fresh dirt. Wriggling with microorganisms from the foodstuffs that came before, soil created from compost is dark, rich, and productive—the urban farmers’ dream.

The former New York Daily News graphic designer Debbie Ullman has been excited about composting for about nine years now. She decided to use her designing chops to get other New Yorkers pumped about the process, as well.

Ullman turned to newspaper boxes. You know, those things on your corner that you haven’t opened up in years. “Newspapers are familiar to me, print is sort of dying, newspapers are old news— pun intended—[so] what can we with [the boxes]?” Ullman says.

So the designer turned lonely boxes—one donated and two purchased from a prop company—into compost bins. She painted them yellow, designed some graphics, convinced friends to print them on a real newspaper printing machine under the cover of darkness, and voila: the New York Compost was born. (She’s hoping the multinational media corporation that owns the New York Post is cool with the joke.)

The goal, Ullman says, is to simply raise awareness about composting the fun way, by taking an everyday city element and “tweaking” it a little. “I like being surprised by….things that are so ubiquitous and part of the urban furniture,” she says. “[Composting] isn’t sexy, but I want to make it fun and familiar.”

The three boxes have been placed around New York City—one in East Harlem, one on the Lower East Side, and the last on Governor’s Island. The shops and community gardens that play host to the boxes have promised to maintain them, and residents can drop off their food scraps whenever they like. The resulting compost will be used in local gardens and urban agriculture centers.

New York City is piloting its own compost program, but the service is only available in some places. The New York Compost could help communities fill in the gaps, and make sure that the compost collected there is used in the neighborhood, and not shipped elsewhere.

In the meantime, it looks like the New York Compost is blending in quite nicely. As Ullman took one of her boxes around the city for a photoshoot, she decided to place one next to a subway. Distracted for a moment, she looked back to see a man using her box to balance his coffee and bagel. Ah, New York.

A New York Compost box on the Lower East Side. (Debbie Ullman)

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. photo: Police line up outside the White House in Washington, D.C. as protests against the killing of George Floyd continue.
    Perspective

    America’s Cities Were Designed to Oppress

    Architects and planners have an obligation to protect health, safety and welfare through the spaces we design. As the George Floyd protests reveal, we’ve failed.

  2. A photo of a police officer in El Paso, Texas.
    Equity

    What New Research Says About Race and Police Shootings

    Two new studies have revived the long-running debate over how police respond to white criminal suspects versus African Americans.

  3. photo: Protesters gather at Dolores Park in San Francisco, California on June 3.
    Environment

    Amid Protest and Pandemic, Urban Parks Show Their Worth

    U.S. cities are now seeing the critical role that public space plays during a crisis. But severe budget cuts are looming. Can investing in parks be part of the urban recovery?

  4. Equity

    What Happened to Crime in Camden?

    Often ranked as one of the deadliest cities in America, Camden, New Jersey, ended 2017 with its lowest homicide rate since the 1980s.

  5. Four New York City police officers arresting a man.
    Equity

    The Price of Defunding the Police

    A new report fleshes out the controversial demand to cut police department budgets and reallocate those funds into healthcare, housing, jobs, and schools. Will that make communities of color safer?

×