The Compost Kid: ‘I’ve Found a Way to Make My Own Impact’


Devin Milberg by one of his compost bins.

By Carol Tannenhauser

Composting — recycling food waste — is having a tough time catching on in New York City. In May, 2018, the city announced it was curtailing its curbside compost collection program, begun in 2013 under Mayor Bloomberg, because of the low participation rate, Gothamist reported. Of the 3.5 million people enrolled in the program, only 10.6% actually use the service, according to the Department of Sanitation. The city will be concentrating on increasing that rate, before expanding the program further.

Meanwhile, on the Upper West Side, a young entrepreneur has taken composting into his own hands. Devin Milberg, 17, is the CEO of 3Z Compost, which runs two early-morning compost drop-off sites, near the entrances to two highly trafficked UWS commuter subway stations, on 79th and 86th Streets and Broadway. The idea is that people can drop their compost off every morning on their way to work. It costs $1.

“The dollar charge is for convenience and allows us to maintain the bins and hire a private carter,” Devin explained, in a recent interview at the Starbucks on 88th and Broadway. “They take the food scraps to a farm in New Jersey or a compost processing facility in Queens, once a week. We opened our first site in March and our second in August of 2018. Right now, we’re collecting slightly over 64 gallons of food waste every week. That’s slightly less drop-offs than it costs us. I’m using some of my own money and my parents chipped in a little, because I also have to pay someone to run the sites when I’m at school. (Devin is a senior at Dalton.) The Church of St. Paul and St. Andrew, on West End and 86th, lets us store our bins there on off hours.”

WSR: How and why did a high school senior become the CEO of a compost collection company?

DM: One night, I was throwing out an especially large amount of food and I knew that I shouldn’t be. I knew that composting was incredibly important and good for the environment. Buildings have the option to compost their organic waste with the city, but many, including mine, opt not to, and bringing your compost to the farmers’ market on Sundays is really inconvenient. I started an entrepreneurial club at my school with the theme of environmental sustainability. In brainstorming environmental ventures, I thought, ‘What if there were a convenient way to compost?’” 3Z became my project.

WSR: Why is composting “incredibly important and good for the environment”?

DM: First, it keeps organic waste out of landfill. Second, composted food undergoes a much healthier process of decomposition. Food scraps in landfill have little access to oxygen, so instead of emitting CO2 as they decompose, food scraps in landfill release Methane gas. Methane is more that 20 times as potent as CO2 in terms of its greenhouse effect. Third, compost is used on farms to make the soil richer and healthier. This gives our food scraps a second purpose, putting them to work instead of to waste. Additionally, it decreases the need for synthetic fertilizers on farms, which both in production and use have negative effects on human health and the environment.

WSR: What does “3Z” stand for and how does it work?

DM: It stands for “three easy steps to composting”: (1) collect your food waste in any bag (Devin suggests storing it in the freezer overnight to avoid smells); (2) purchase a sticker at one of 3Z’s sites; (3) Affix the sticker to the bag and drop it into the bin on your way to work. We’re located on the northwest corner of Broadway and 86th Street, and the northwest corner of Broadway and 79th, both near the entrances to the downtown 1 train. We’re open from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m., Monday through Friday. We’re hoping to expand to other stations.

WSR: It’s obvious how 3Z Compost is helping the neighborhood — and the planet. How has it affected you?

DM: Especially as a younger kid, when you hear about global warming and other massive issues, it kind of feels like “What can I do as just one person?” I’ve found a way, at least for me, to make my own impact. When I learned about combining a viable business with a social mission, I realized a small group of people can accomplish a lot. I’m not so frightened about the future, because I’ve gotten a view into all these incredible people who are trying to attack problems in really creative ways. My goal is to make 3Z self-sustaining and hire someone to run it permanently. I believe, in the future, the city will be able to expand its composting program to the point where they’ll be able to do it at every building, just like recycling. I’m really hopeful. Just the speed at which humans can adapt and create new stuff is inspiring.

FOOD, NEWS | 23 comments | permalink
    1. 72nd Streeter says:

      72 Street would love your service!

    2. Sam says:

      Harvard, here comes Devin! (Or any other college of his choosing. Nice work, kid!)

    3. davidt says:

      What an incredibly good idea. It’s slightly inconvenient on a personal level, but at scale it is very, very valuable.

    4. Judith B. Edelstein says:

      This is great. I wish he’d have a bin at 96th & Broadway. There are bins at 97 at the Greenmarket on Friday that get very full. As soon as I empty mine off, it fills up again. I have to drag a huge bag full up to my daughter’s building at 113 & Broadway. My building is not willing to offer it. According to Jerry at the Greenmarket the UWS does the most composting. YAY!

    5. Meg Parsont says:

      What Devin is doing is really great. I’ve just started composting and try to bring my compost to the GreenMarket every Sunday, but i’d love to be able to drop it off in bins during the week.

      Can yo please tell readers what time each morning the bins are set up at the79th Street and 86th Street subway entrances?

      Thanks.

    6. Nina Duchaine says:

      There are enough rats on the UWS without encouraging more with a compost bin.
      I have composting in my building and the vermin are all over. This is a great suburban idea and not suitable for the city.

      • MJ says:

        We had the exact opposite effect when our whole block began composting. The rats stopped biting into plastic trash bags for food because it’s locked up in the compost bins. I almost never see a rat anymore.

      • MSD Compost says:

        The bins that NYC supplies to buildings that compost are vermin proof. In fact, composting reduces the amount of perishables in the regular garbage making it less attractive to rats, etc. Other buildings have found that the rat population declined after they started composting. My building has successfully been composting for the past year.

    7. susan b says:

      Bravo, Devlin.

      Thank you for being a leader and providing a practical and convenient way for your neighborhood to participate in composting.

    8. Jean Mensing says:

      HOPE YOU COME TO 72ND…. I’LL BE HAPPY TO DROP OFF. TO WHOM TO I GIVE A DOLLAR?

    9. Josh says:

      Awesome story. I’ve seen him in the morning while I’m rushing and never stopped to learn more. Good luck, Compost Kid.

    10. Brian Arnold says:

      COULD you please email me a copy of this article.THANK you.

      • libirder says:

        Wonderful! My kids in Queens save compost in special bags in a designated container (in their apartment) and drop it off every weekend at their local farm stand. Not very convenient for them but they are committed to it! They were disappointed when the citywide rollout of compost collection didn’t happen.

    11. Juan says:

      Great work by Devin! Thanks for your efforts.

      I believe PS9 also does composting at 84 and Columbus. I am not sure of the dates and times they collect but it is pretty often – hopefully someone more knowledgeable than me can post the details.

      • Rob on Broadway says:

        Food scraps can be dropped off at PS 9 (SW corner of 84th & Columbus) on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 8:00 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. The effort is spearheaded by Greg, a PS 9 parent. Well done, Greg!

    12. NotImpressed says:

      I have a niece I want Devin to meet!

    13. Marilyn Mitchell says:

      I am so grateful for you and your project. My confidence in younger generations has been renewed. You have implemented a program that addresses a solution to some of the errors of previous generations. Kudos to you!

    14. Composter wannabe says:

      I went this morning to the 86th and broadway stop. I didn’t see any composting and any corner. Does anyone know which corner? Am i just missing it…?

    15. Ellie Pfeffer says:

      Yes Devin! So incredible!

    16. Sharon, PS163 Dr Pepe Reading Garden says:

      Hi, Devin,
      Thank you for creating an environmental solution to increase composting by making it convenient for NYers to do so. When you’re ready to pass on operations consider contacting Goddard Riverside GreenKeepers, an UWS organization that trains & compensates homeless individuals to learn groundskeeping. Would be a terrific way to possibly expand collection AND help the homeless! https://www.westsiderag.com/2018/08/08/goddard-riversides-green-keepers-find-community-while-cleaning-up-the-neighborhood. Leslie Elizabeth Ewell, Business Mgr 646-505-1088.
      Good luck, Devin. We need compassionate youth like you to mitigate effects of climate change!