Volume 78 - Number 46 / April 22 -28, 2009
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

Villager photo by John Bayles

Christine Datz-Romero and Lucky at the Lower East Side Ecology Center.

Local nonprofit says reuse better than recycling

By John Bayles

The Lower East Side Ecology Center is known for its composting, but Executive Director Christine Datz-Romero is promoting a new message: Reuse is the best thing we can do.

A lot of thoughts pass through peoples’ heads when they visit New York City for the first time; what big buildings, the Statue of Liberty seems small, everyone is so rude. But for Christine Datz-Romero, her first thought was a dirty one. She was amazed at how much trash New Yorkers create.

“I’m always a little bit mind-boggled by the amount of trash here in New York,” said Datz-Romero. “I did not grow up making trash like that.”

Datz-Romero is the co-founder as well as executive director of the Lower East Side Ecology Center. Datz-Romero and her husband, Clyde, landed in the Lower East Side in 1987, via Germany, and since their arrival on the recycling scene, have created quite a reputation. After being struck at the lack of recycling in their local community, they began working with a now-defunct nonprofit called The Village Green Recycling Team.

“When the city started curbside pickup, we said to ourselves, ‘We don’t need to duplicate something that’s already being done,’ so in 1990 we got our first space,” she recalled.

The two decided to start focusing on composting instead of recycling. They found an empty lot on Seventh St. and “greened it” themselves, and began a small composting business. They would collect food scraps from friends in the neighborhood and local restaurants, and they let people drop off compostable materials at the garden. It was a 24/7 operation, so to speak. Even at night, when the gate was closed, people began dropping off small bags of food scraps, squeezing them between the locked gate’s black bars.

The Romeros had never really composted prior to opening the garden. It was a trial-by-fire learning experience and there were certainly unforeseen issues to contend with.

“We had our bouts with compost vectors,” she said. “Which are anything that can transmit diseases, like rats and flies.”

But according to Datz-Romero, composting is also an empowering process.

“You don’t need much to do it,” she said. “You need some space and you need the right ingredients.”

The main ingredients, said Datz-Romero, are made every day by just about everyone.

“Most people eat food,” she joked.

Today, the Lower East Side Ecology Center collects up to 2 tons of compostable materials every week. And, in the last two years, Datz-Romero said they have seen “a significant bump in the interest of composting.”

“It had a lot to do with Al Gore’s movement and the public’s realization of global climate change,” she said. “And people really wanted to do something in their daily lives to address it. People were like, ‘O.K., I can be an advocate, but I can also change some of my own habits — at least steer the wagon in the right direction.’”

These days, however, the Ecology Center has moved beyond just composting and recycling. As a matter of fact, Datz-Romero believes recycling is no longer enough, and it’s no longer the primary message the center is promoting. Instead, it’s all about reuse.

Datz-Romero just returned from Italy, where she purchased a “trophy designer handbag,” as she calls it, that is made of bottle caps, strung together. She loves the ideas new clothes designers are having, like turning old bicycle tire tubes into clothing accessories.

And she has high hopes of starting a new program at the center, where students would be taught to fix old computers. The center currently runs a computer-recycling program where the public can drop of old or broken machines and the center takes care of the rest.

“Computers are not going away. They’re just going to get sexier and sexier,” she said.

The students might simply have to install a new chip, or memory card, in order to turn a clunker computer into a fully functioning one.

“There are social benefits besides environmental ones,” she said. “There are families without computers, schools without fancy computer labs and even nonprofits.”

The center is currently seeking funding to get the computer program up and running.

And one thing about the Ecology Center: They practice what they preach. Go to their offices in the Fire Boat House in East River Park and there is complimentary tea. However, don’t think of throwing away the tea bag. That goes directly into the “earthworm condo” to begin the composting process.

And every piece of equipment — from the computers, to the printers and the scanners, to the binders they use when distributing materials to the public at their community events — all had previous lives. And then there’s Lucky, a lap-loving black cat. She was rescued, so in a sense, the center’s pet is also an example of reuse.

Datz-Romero’s vision of a perfect picnic, say on a Sunday afternoon in East River Park, would involve the use, not of biodegradable plates and cutlery. On the contrary, she would rather see people bringing their best china to the park, so they can reuse the dishes again; she’d like to see a young couple sitting on a blanket, one made perhaps from old pillowcases sewn together. Simply put, she hopes people start reusing more, because reusing is even better than recycling.

“Recycling,” she said, “should be the last resort.”

For a comprehensive list of programs and for more information, visit the Lower East Side Ecology Center’s Web site at www.lesecologycenter.org or call 212-477-4022.

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