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People Are Awesome: Meet The Woman Who Needs To Make 8 Million New Yorkers Compost

There’s no one more passionate about organic waste

Image courtesy of Louise Bruce

We’ve relaunched a GOOD online series, “People Are Awesome,” where we feature good people doing great things—and seek their advice, inspiration, and ideas. This week’s Awesome Person: Louise Bruce.

The notion of putting your career on the “composting fast track” might seem a little, well, outlandish. And yet, take a peek at the path of 29-year-old Louise Bruce.

When she moved to Brooklyn back in 2009, Bruce was only abstractly aware of composting as a concept. But when she learned more through NYC’s Master Composter certification program, she took it on herself to launch a compost program at a vacant lot near her house. The site took off; soon hundreds of her neighbors were pitching in.

Flash forward to 2016—Bruce is now in charge of the Department of Sanitation’s organic waste programs for all of New York City. And considering New York Mayor Bill DeBlasio has set a wildly ambitious goal to provide composting access for all of New York’s 8 million residents by 2018, her job is no small walk in the landfill.

She’s up to the task, though, and more than that—she adores her work. Bruce recalls a recent compost inspection, looking through a batch of organic waste that was a pristine model of how scraps should be separated. “I was standing there with all these chiefs from the agency, getting so excited like ‘Isn’t that just the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen?!’” she laughs. “I think they were like, “‘Oh my god, this lady is crazy.’”

Fresh on the heels of Bruce’s selection as one of UC Global Food Initiative’s prestigious 30 Under 30, we decided to pick the brain of a compost titan.

Who is your hero?

This probably won’t surprise you (laughs) but it’s New York’s sanitation workers. The men and women who collect this city’s waste are just amazing to me. They move close to 10,000 tons of garbage every day, 2,000 tons of recycling, early in the morning, late at night. It’s dangerous, too! Lots of on-the-job injuries. Going door-to-door in any type of weather. They’re this invisible, crucial part of the city.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

Make yourself dispensable. Looking back at the compost site I first set up, I hear about all the people who are involved now, doing amazing things. When I was there back in 2010, I started to realize how important it was for lots of other people to take ownership. Not only did it make the project stronger and more interesting, it gave longevity beyond its founders. It’s very important that something isn’t totally dependent on you.

How about the worst advice?

My gut instinct is to flip this question and say that sometimes you're going to get what seems like bad advice, or advice that doesn't work for you, but it's critical you stay open. People just see things so differently from each other. Sometimes I’ll stare and stare at a problem, not seeing the solution, then someone else comes along and sees it right away. It’s just important to stay open.

What’s the last thing to make you really laugh?

I really love the show Veep. I don't want to link it to my job because obviously it isn't at all like that. Still, I really like that it brings a sense of humor to the government world. Plus I really love the Richard Splett character, he has all these great moments. He’s kind of like the character everyone writes off, but in a lot of ways he is the most dedicated and optimistic one, in a world where everyone seems a little jaded. It makes me laugh, maybe it’s because I am so optimistic, and I get so excited all the time. It seems culturally new to [the Department of Sanitation] to get excited.

If you could be anywhere else in the world right now, where would it be?

The first thing that pops into mind comes from this poem I read in college, in a Southeast Asian lit class. I took the class by happenstance, just needed an extra credit, but I stumbled on this beautiful translation of an Indian poem, set in a field. It just captured the fragrances and plants of Southern India so vividly. I’ve never forgotten.

But the truth is, as much as I love to travel and explore new places, I don't want to be anywhere else! I feel very lucky to be right where I am.

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