The pandemic has exposed many vulnerabilities in our nation’s cities, but it’s also highlighted preexisting opportunities and the power of community.
Jersey City, N.J., launched its first-ever composting efforts in 2018 with a Residential Compost Drop-Off Program and a Backyard Composting Program. With a lot of programming being scaled back nationwide — both in the public and private sector — the city’s residential composting program has grown exponentially in 2020.
“We started the year with three drop-off spots, and now we have 14,” said Melissa Kozakiewicz, who oversees the program as assistant business administrator in the Office of Innovation. “It’s been incredible to watch how the community has really embraced this program for sure.”
While the city didn’t start the year intending to grow per se, it happened organically — pun intended. Kozakiewicz attributes the recent growth to several factors. For one, community members were vocal about their eagerness to participate. Some expressed how they wanted a drop-off site closer to their home. So, every time Jersey City received an inquiry like this, it would follow up and find a way to make the program work in the respective neighborhood.
“Because we figured if that person was interested enough to reach out to us, then when we installed a composting bin in their neighborhood, they would help to advocate for it and tell their neighbors about it,” she said.
That was exactly what happened, and Kozakiewicz said the success of this program is really being driven by community partnerships. For instance, she said one woman was working in the Lafayette neighborhood and connected the city with her neighborhood group.
“And so now she’s not only connected with the neighborhood group and advocating for this program, but like there are larger community connections being made,” she said. “For instance, we have compost bins set up in our community gardens, in religious institutions, outside of school buildings, outside of libraries, municipal buildings and there’s one at the courthouse. So, we find partners wherever they arise.”
Harnessing that positive energy has meant success for the program. Kozakiewicz said, at the time of press, she was hoping to divert more than 100,000 pounds of waste from the landfill. Speaking of data, Kozakiewicz said while tracking certain variables can help, there is such a thing as too much red tape, which can negatively impact resident participation. That’s why Jersey City doesn’t collect a lot of personal data.
“We’re trying to normalize compost collection as similar to any other kind of waste management program — garbage, recycling, whatever,” she said. “So, our compost collection spots are just out in the world, just like a regular waste receptacle.”
However, demographic data about the city as a whole does shape the narrative.
“Jersey City is one of the most diverse cities in the country, and our data reflects that as well,” she said. “We have households in every neighborhood and in every income bracket participating in the backyard program. The only common thread is that they’re all willing (to help) and interested in the composting program. And they all have a backyard. But that’s about where the similarities end.”
Kozakiewicz said she’s proud of how Jersey City has rallied before this cause. Jersey City isn’t alone on this front. She cited examples like Denver, which has robust waste management programs. However, being out west, cities there have more room to grow horizontally. Whereas on the East Coast, they tend to be limited to vertical growth because they’re landlocked. Still, Jersey City did take inspiration from such programs while making the program its own and iterating as necessary.
With that in mind, Kozakiewicz said other municipalities can enjoy success with a residential composting program. They just need to have several elements in place. For one, an effective graphic designer will help communicate the message. The graphics need to be clear and easy to understand, so there are no questions about how to participate.
Secondly, you can’t overestimate the value of community partnerships and their role in getting such an initiative off the ground.
“There are people in every city in America, community organizations, sustainability groups and church groups who are all looking for ways to impact their own communities,” she said. “So, finding who those people are, and engaging with them, is a great first step.”
Kozakiewicz is also a big believer in owning your mistakes, which are going to be inevitable with the launch of any new initiative. “As long as we are continuing to iterate and continuing to push the program forward, then we’re doing the right thing,” she said.