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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.]

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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.”

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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.

About the author

Margaret Rhodes is a former associate editor for Fast Company magazine.

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