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)

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