Hello Compost aims to change behaviors surrounding food waste, specifically in urban markets, by adding incentive (and a bit of competition, even) to at-home efforts.

Families freeze food waste in collection bags, which go to Project EATS (a New York-based nonprofit focused on urban agriculture), where they are weighed and assigned a value that translates into credits for fresh produce grown by local farmers.

Luke Keller and Aly Blenkin, cofounders and Parsons design students, want to make composting more streamlined, less of a chore: "We realized early on that composting is a tough sell to anyone,” Keller says. “Like recycling, it’s a process that requires sorting on the resident’s behalf, so it risks becoming a hassle.“

About 35 percent of the waste generated by more than eight million New Yorkers is organic matter that can be composted.

Part of Hello Compost’s appeal is the bags: They’re designed in brightly colored canvas by local students to make composting feel more attractive.

Keller and Blenkin want to discover the best way to incentivize for composting, so they’ll continue to experiment with outreach materials--to tell the story of food waste and economics in urban areas.

With approval from the New York City Housing Authority, Project EATS will pilot Hello Compost this fall.

A New System Turns Compost Back Into Fresh Produce

Hello Compost offers incentive to working-class communities, rewarding eggshell and apple core efforts with fresh food.

[This project is an entrant in our Innovation By Design Awards. Stay tuned for the announcement of winners on October 10.]

A city like New York, with a population of more than eight million, generates a gargantuan amount of landfill waste. Of that monster mess, about 35 percent is organic matter. And while the city plans to roll out a new composting program this fall—albeit a voluntary one—its recycling and composting rates have long trailed behind smaller cities, especially those on the west coast.

For the most part, the obstacle to thoughtful trash disposal is that…it’s easier not to think about it. And arguably, where’s the short-term incentive to sort or save something—especially when that involves breaking an everyday habit—rather than just throwing it away? That question becomes more acute for low-income families, where how to keep the food coming in is the concern, not how it goes out.

"We realized early on that composting is a tough sell to anyone living in New York City, let alone families in lower-income situations," Luke Keller, Hello Compost co-founder tells Co.Design. "Like recycling, it’s a process that requires sorting on the resident’s behalf, so it risks becoming a hassle."

The program he and fellow Parsons design student Aly Blenkin have proposed lets low-income New Yorkers exchange compost for fresh produce credits. It’s an ingenious overturning of the composting equation: Instead of turning food into muck, you can turn muck into food.

The multitiered Hello Compost system takes the complication of out composting: Families put food waste into freezable, odor-blocking collection bags. Those bags go to Project EATS (a New York-based nonprofit focused on urban agriculture), where they are weighed and assigned a value that translates into credits for fresh produce, grown by local farmers. Project EATS uses an iPad app to track progress—and appeal to the human drive to compete, similar to the gaming psychology that makes the Nike FuelBand so successful.

Hello Compost bags are designed by students from the community in color and canvas to trump unattractive black plastic trash bags with friendlier looks—like the rest of the process, promoting ease and neighborhood engagement. But Keller points out that recruiting for the compost is an ongoing process: "Solving for the incentive to participate has been and will continue to be one of the most important challenges we face."

If Hello Compost takes off, it can tangibly improve the kitchens, living conditions, diets and overall health of users. Its founders, of course, see a bigger picture: changing perceptions and behaviors. "We need to re-imagine the role of food waste from being a smelly, unattractive side effect of eating to an attractive resource for residents to positively impact their community and to help put fresh food on the table," Blenkin says.

With approval from the New York City Housing Authority, Project EATS will pilot Hello Compost this fall.

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  • morrb727

    Hello Compost!
     I too am a Parsons/ New School (soon to be) Alum and I read about your project through  The New School website. I think your project is an amazing idea, however, I'd like to offer a few suggestions. Coming from a person with experience in working with low-income families, what is your plan to find and keep the low-income families you are targeting and do you have any plans to promote the value of fresh produce to these people? In many areas, people may be suspicious and distrustful of people they do not know coming in to collect their waste in exchange for their personal information and credits for food they may feel like they don't need (even though the act seems innocent enough). Also, with many low income families not having access to smart phones, how are they to check their credit balances before they go to Project EATS? I know you will have an ipad on location, but are Project EATS locations in close enough proximity to these low income families that they can simply drop by and ask about their balances or would they have to travel or call in? Have you thought about expanding your audience to college students? After all, many of us are low income too! We're also more easily accessible, less likely to refuse your services, possibly possess a higher volume of compostable waste, and could really benefit from any form of subsidy that will allow us to carry out better eating habits ( I can't tell you how much ramen I ate my freshman year due to lack of funds and the high cost of produce, especially in Manhattan). College students would also make for great sources for social media advertising!I wish you the best of luck in your project!Best wishes,Brianna M.

  • Anthony Reardon

    Hello Compost!

    I have looked into your Facebook and Twitter campaigns. You should find me accessible through my DISQUS profile.

    Coming from the West Coast, I do see a lot of action in composting culture. Interesting to see a similar project taking shape in New York. For instance, my daughter is the big driver of composting at our house. Her school featured a very intensive composting education program with a hands on lab at the site wasting school lunches. Teaching her how and why, she asked me to build a compost bin at home, and takes charge of the collection after food preparation.

    In my home town of Chico, California, we have a CSA that operates as a farming collective where people buy shares and can pick up produce dividends at local farmers markets. It's a fascinating model that works through labor exchange, as well as cost-effective sourcing compost waste as organic growing material.  

    Locally, we have made or improved some industries based on "cradle to grave" awareness in product design. Our Sierra Nevada Brewery re-uses grain waste to help fuel production, and we have other startups like Klean Kanteen and ChicoBag. These are some great success stories that have both economic, environmental, and cultural impacts.

    Understandably, it might be a different challenge to incorporate in New York. Then again, you have different opportunities going for you. For instance, you can probably scale more faster. I heard the Sierra Club in Oakland is pushing for formal compost collection services through their waste management, and they probably have to make economic cost-benefit argument at a large city level. I usually run over to my local landfill to buy rich compost soil for our "backyard farming" on the cheap compared to buying fertilized soil at the store. I've heard of a movement to terra-form gardens on city rooftops, bringing produce closer to point-of-use, a little local economy opportunity, better insulation ($), and thermal benefits, etc. So I can see how Hello Compost might be right there in the mix.

    Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects to me is New York has a huge advertising media/ PR infrastructure. Getting featured in Fast Company, for example, you've got a lot of opportunity to make a big deal about what you are doing. To your success!

    Best, Anthony  


  • Hello Compost

    The iPad is dedicated to each Project EATS farm site and will be accessible by volunteers and participants in the service. Thanks for your interest!

  • Anthony Reardon

    Terrific Margaret!

    I will be interested to hear how this program goes. At first it sounds like the carbon credit system, but I like how the reward directly correlates to the root behavior- compost food waste in exchange for food products. 

    Wonder how the system actually operates. Do participants take their compost bags with them to localized farmer's markets, have it weighed onsite, and then use those credits on the spot? I like the bags, but it still sounds like a very manually intensive process. Perhaps that is useful in itself though...getting people to slow down and be more thoughtful about the cycle...and maybe the incentive structure is more likely to take hold in working class communities.

    I think what might be most impressive about this is the potential for it to evolve on a more industrial scale. The key might be just the slightest cooperation and incentive structure proven. Perhaps also the relationships with food producers. This sounds to me like one of those human sweat powered innovations that might pick up capital along the way, and end up becoming supported by technology.

    For instance, imagine a garbage disposal system in sinks, processes compostable waste at point-of-use thereby reducing compost lead time, transported via water through dedicated piping system to nearby tanks- or even directly to compost users, strained and weighed, sensor calculated real-time, a $ figure display above the sink, and a card swipe/ mobile scan the user takes with them to market.

    It might not seem practical to develop such a system until the cooperation is in place, the incentive structure proven, and the relationships with ag producers established. The potential the system has to go to the next level though might be special incentive itself for the stakeholders involved early on to drive its success.

    Best, Anthony

  • Hello Compost

    Hey Anthony,

    Thanks for you insightful comment! We're very interested in looking at ways food waste collection can differ from traditional waste management, and the opportunities it can create to improve community well-being beyond the environmental good it performs. We like to think of the way a farmer's market or a CSA works compared to a grocery store, and the differences in culture each produces. It is a manual process, but much of that has been shifted from the participant to the organization–creating opportunities for youth volunteers along the way. It requires a little more effort than recycling for participants, but becomes much more rewarding: extrinsically with regards to credits, and intrinsically with the environmental and community service participants are performing through their participation. We'd love to hear more of your thoughts on compost and our service, and invite you to visit our Facebook page or tweet us at @hellocompost:twitter - Thanks!