Across most of Brooklyn, fixed-gear bicycles are a plaything for latte-drinking gentrifiers. But, behind a colorful facade in the neighborhood of Bushwick, pedal power is making the city cleaner and greener.

The bike-driven compost sifter is just the latest recycling innovation at Sure We Can, a community center that provides a place for the city’s can collectors to store and redeem bottles, tins — and now — restaurant waste. Executive Director Agustina Besada oversees the sprawling operation, which opened its doors in 2007.

“I have always been passionate about waste,” she said. “It combines everything I believe in.”

The facility is reminiscent of an open-air market. The sound of “canners” — people who collect cans for a living — fills the air. People who come from different backgrounds and speak different languages may struggle to communicate at times, but they are united by a single goal: to sort used cans, plastics and bottles.

Canners have historically been ignored as they canvass the city’s streets collecting recyclables to redeem for cans. But they play an essential role in waste management, but their contribution is not lost on Besada. She is working to help them. For example, canners frequently collect more items than they can exchange in a given day. Sure We Can is giving them a place to store their inventory, and it’s helping them redeem their goods. It’s also creating a community for low-income, vulnerable people who are working to keep the city clean.

Canners have a safe place to store cans and bottles until they’re ready to redeem them. Source: Nexus Media

“We’re showing it as an example of the volume, of the economic empowerment it generates, and of all the positive aspects collecting waste can bring to a city,” said Besada about Sure We Can. “This is something that can be replicated.”

Recently, the organization adding a composting operation. Hundreds of buckets now line a walkway near the back of the center, where community members compost food scraps collected from local restaurants and coffee shops.

Bucket lids from the composting operation at Sure We Can. Source: Nexus Media

Eugene Gadsden, a former canner and co-founder of Sure We Can, manages the composting program. Gadsden says the operation diverts about 50 tons of organic waste that otherwise would have ended up in landfills, where it would have decomposed into methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

Through composting, Sure We Can is turning food waste into fertilizer. After collecting food scraps, volunteers add bacteria that will accelerate fermentation and minimize foul odors. After several weeks of fermentation, it’s time to combine the food waste with soil. Volunteers power a drum sifter that mixes these elements together to create a nutrient-rich fertilizer. The sift is powered by a fixed-gear bicycle. The fertilized soil is then sent to a community garden or sold to schools, businesses and gardening enthusiasts.

Mariana Surillo takes a spin on the pedal-powered compost sifter at Sure We Can in Bushwick, Brooklyn (top). Agustina Besada shows off the final product in the composting process (bottom). Source: Nexus Media

Sure We Can has made New York a cleaner, healthier place to live. It is recruiting community members to help cut carbon pollution from landfills and incinerators. In doing so, it’s helping to improve air quality, reduce energy consumption, conserve natural resources and create economic opportunities. Besada says it’s also creating a healthier, stronger community by giving people a shared sense of purpose.

“The recycling is almost a good excuse to bring all these people together,” she said. “We do it through art, through the garden, compost, bringing restaurants and young people together.”

Mariana Surillo writes for Nexus Media, a syndicated newswire covering climate, energy, policy, art and culture.