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Rebecca Louie with her worm bin in her Queens NY apartment.

The Conjurer of Compost

Rebecca Louie ’99 empowers the eco-curious

Rebecca Louie ’99 pauses outside the door of a quiet cubicaled room and whispers, sotto voce, “This is where the magic happens.” She’s joking, but there’s something to the notion. Inside the cavernous shared writers’ space, Louie undergoes a magical transformation into the green goddess of blogging, The Compostess, and author of 2015’s Compost City: Practical Composting Know-How for Small-Space Living. Beyond, there is more wizardry. In the kitchen area, Louie cracks open the lid of a yellow 5-gallon bucket she keeps under the sink and lifts from the mound of refuse a crinkled tamped-down grocery bag, which aids in creating an airtight environment needed for the fermentation of food waste, a process known as bokashi. 

“Bokashi is like precomposting through fermentation, and its big benefit is being able to process all food waste—cooked food, meat, dairy, bones—things you normally wouldn’t put into your compost pile,” says Louie.

The room fills with an earthy, sweet smell of 30-plus pounds of fermented food waste as she sprinkles a sort of magic dust—wheat bran inoculated with “effective microorganisms,” a patented collection of microbes that are anaerobic fermenting machines—readying the mushy coffee grounds, wrinkled cherry tomatoes, and crumbly chunks of tofu for transformation from waste to soil nutrients, from garbage to goodness. Louie, who takes pride in diverting any little bit of waste from landfills, delights in this potion. 

“These buckets were upcycled from the Potbelly Sandwich Shop downstairs,” Louie says as she folds even more office-users’ food scraps into the mix. “I used to have to ask the workers for them, but now they save them for me. You can transform this vessel into a tumbler, a worm bin, a bokashi bucket …” 

Louie is never short on ideas for ways to compost, a knack she attributes more to the scalable nature of composting than to her own guile. 

“Composting takes time and care and attention, but I think it’s worth the challenge for people with busy schedules or who live in cities,” says Louie. “I get excited about helping find the intersection where it all fits. We make choices all of the time to do things we want like go to Zumba or happy hour. So my goal is to find where composting also fills some sort of need, without feeling intimidating or scary or gross.”

Louie’s methods for casting the composting spell extend beyond her blog and her book. The eco-curious of New York can schedule a one-on-one consultation; attend an informational boot camp or one of her many lectures delivered to community, cultural, educational, and gardening groups; or book her and wiggly trash-eating worms for a child’s birthday party. 

 “Composting is very democratic—people can participate at the level they’re interested in,” says Louie. “Not everyone is going to become an urban farmer, with a garden on their roof. But imagine a parent says, ‘Instead of a hamster, we’re getting a worm bin,’ and they feed them lettuce cuttings every week. Sure, it’s not all their garbage, but you have to start somewhere.”

 

LOUIE'S TRANSFORMATION INTO a composting guru came in her late 20s and somewhat out of the blue. 

“I was a city girl; I was never environmentally inclined,” she says. But then in 2005, she experienced sustainability-as-lifestyle at a Costa Rican yoga farm, which immersed her in green living—from composting toilets to solar power. She had just left her New York Daily News entertainment reporter job, when the work became celebrity obsessed, making it increasingly difficult “to sneak in all the critical-cultural theory that I learned at Swarthmore.” When Louie returned to New York, she found the green lifestyle had followed her home. 

“I started cooking a lot more, and then I had all these scraps. I was like, ‘I can clearly use this. I will not waste,’” says Louie. Her freezer in Queens quickly filled with food scraps (eventually even family members were loading her up), and every few weeks she made a long slog with the heavy, leaky bags onto the subway to a compost drop-off in Union Square. 

Next, Louie tried her hand at vermicomposting, composting with earthworms, and “totally killed them.”

 “Overfeeding is a common problem in worm keeping, but they’re just so cute!” she says. “It’s like a dog, you want to see them eat, but you have to resist overdoing it.”

Finally, in 2010, she enrolled in a master composting class at the Queens Botanical Gardens, a three-month course that gave her the knowledge to balance her approach. 

“I was a terrible composter when I started, so I’m very into providing easy gateway drugs into composting,” says Louie, who does bokashi and worm composting in her Queens apartment. “By diverting a banana peel into the soil, you’re putting carbon and nutrients where they should be, underground, which will create plants that suck more carbon from the atmosphere outside. The cycle is very literal, and it predates all of us. To participate in that is very healing.”

 

BACK AT THE writers’ space, Louie hefts the unwieldy bucket of fermented waste down the steep stairs, her folding grocery cart waiting below. Every two weeks Louie hauls away a full bucket, taking it either to her cabin in the Catskill Mountains or to The Children’s Garden, a community space in Manhattan’s East Village. 

“I am able to divert at least 10 gallons of office food waste a month just because collectively, we do this one very low-maintenance thing,” she says during the 10-minute bus ride to the garden. “This is the corner of the world where I can participate right now. It’s that simple.”

The garden is little more than a 20-by 50-foot plot of earth at the corner of Avenue B and 12th Street. Since 2009 it has digested an average of 4 tons of fermented bokashi buried there each year. The ground is level; there is no towering mound of refuse. The soil ecosystem processes and transforms waste every few weeks, and luckily, the city’s rats
disdain fermented food. A volunteer, one of four there to help Louie bury the waste, mentions a man who bicycles from Brooklyn to drop off his food waste, because he likes the garden and his child attends school nearby.

“That’s the magic of New York,” says Louie, instantly enlivened. “You can create these systems that make it really easy for people to participate. They’re literally passing by, and—blink, ‘I’ve participated.’ It’s amazing. It’s mind-blowing.” 

+To see Rebecca Louie's work, visit thecompostess.com