Alireza Vaziri

The Composter
Former Pace University student, Alireza Vaziri

Every year, up to 40 percent of food in the United States is wasted, creating major environmental problems and tragically setting back efforts to eliminate hunger and food insecurity in our communities. This mismanaged food instead ends up disposed in landfills, where it is slowly converted into the harmful greenhouse gas methane. Landfill-bound food waste around the world, led by the US, contributes over 3.3 gigatons every year of CO2 equivalent climate pollution. That's equivalent to 10% of total global annual CO2 emissions. Beyond the environmental impact, food waste also creates serious problems for our communities. In New York City alone, more than 1.3 million people are food insecure, meaning they do not have a reliable idea of when/where their next meal is coming from. More than 50% of food insecure people are children and senior citizens, and nearly 30% of the city's veterans are food insecure.

This is where RoHo Compost comes in. Co-founded by Alireza Vaziri ’14, RoHo is educating and demonstrating to the public that a zero-food waste NYC is possible. We spoke with Vaziri, who began working on sustainability initiatives when he was a Pace student.

As a student, you conducted research with a professor on campus-wide environmentalism and understanding Pace’s sustainability initiatives through its dining halls, which ultimately led to you winning the research showcase in NYC. Can you talk a little about the research and what resulted from it?

I took a volunteer class at Pace called Animals in Society with Professor Marley Bauce. This class and the relationship I developed with Professor Bauce transformed my life and career. I learned about animals and their impact on our planet—specifically, how our diets and the way we treat animals through industrial farming has a direct impact on the climate. The IRB-approved research Professor Bauce and I conducted focused on the relationship between a meat diet and the University’s sustainability goals. Research has shown that meat consumption plays a significant role in global warming. Meat production releases methane and carbon dioxide emissions from cradle to grave. First through the growing of animals, the waste (manure) they generate is massive; the amount of water and grain we need to feed animals; the transportation of meat; and finally, the potential food waste sitting in our landfills releasing more carbon dioxide and methane. 

What did your research entail?

Our research focused specifically on Pace’s sustainability goals and the paradox between aiming to be a sustainable university yet serving meat at the school’s cafeteria. We interviewed students, the provost, and other faculty on campus. We found overwhelmingly that much of the student body and faculty cared for the planet’s wellbeing, did not understand the connections between their diet and climate change, and would appreciate more education/direction from the cafeteria and the University. This included being told by the cafeteria what was more sustainable to eat/consume and why. In a way, students and faculty wanted guidance and education. Our research group was awarded that year out of many other amazing groups. After the research I conducted with Professor Bauce in May of 2013, I started another research project in San Francisco with Pace Professor Judith Pajo. 

How did you end up in San Francisco?

At the time, I was directing a documentary film on food waste. I went out to San Francisco the summer of 2013, where I worked on my documentary and interned with a food waste nonprofit in Oakland, CA, called Food Shift. After being in SF, I realized that I had a passion for environmental issues and wanted to dedicate my life to solving some of these issues. I met some great people in SF and some were actually environmental lawyers that I still talk to this day. They encouraged me to apply to law school and take the legal route. For me, I wanted to expand my skills and make more of a difference through direct action. Whether it was through litigation—going after polluters in court—or through legislation.

I needed to gain the necessary skills and tools to do so. When I got back to NYC in September 2014, I finished my last year at Pace and then immediately began studying for the LSATs. I started law school at Vermont Law School in August 2015.

What was it like to be recognized with a GreenPace Sustainability Award, Project Pericles Leadership Award, and Jefferson Award for Public Service? Did it encourage you to continue your work?

It was definitely rewarding to be recognized for my work. It gave me the extra motivation and encouragement to continue. It was also validation that my passions were important to others in my communities—family, friends, mentors, Pace faculty and staff. Regardless of all the awards I have received, I have definitely had my fair share of setbacks and I firmly believe that my setbacks made me stronger; I am not afraid of failure or challenges. I think challenges are actually positive opportunities for growth!

Those awards were more than just awards for me. For each award, I had great people around me that inspired and motivated me throughout my undergraduate career. Specifically, Daniel Botting from CCAR, Professor Marley Bauce, PhD; Sue Maxam, EdD; and Professor Judith Pajo, PhD.

I think without those people, I would not have been able to achieve all those awards and all of the success I have had today. 

You mentioned Vermont Law School. What led you there and how did RoHo Compost come to fruition?

While in San Francisco for summer long research with Professor Pajo, I met some amazing people within the environmental world that inspired me to pursue environmental law. I worked with a nonprofit group in Oakland called Food Shift that made me realize I could run my own nonprofit one day. I volunteered with SF Environment (San Francisco Department of the Environment) and met some amazing attorneys that taught me a lot about environmental law and the challenges and opportunities there to make a difference. I had never thought of going to law school even though I was involved with a law program at my local YMCA and enjoyed my business law class at Pace. Vermont Law School at the time was the second-ranked environmental law school, so I applied. After my first year, I met another student named Marc who was also from NYC. We immediately hit it off and became close friends as we both shared a passion for waste. 

Marc was involved with the local community more than I was. He knew of some restaurant owners around the law school who were worried about being in compliance with the composting/recycling laws that Vermont had recently passed Act 148 which banned food waste from the landfill. Restaurant owners believed compliance with Vermont’s Act 148 would be a logistical nightmare for their staff. It distressed us that small business owners disliked a law designed to maximize sustainability. As students of environmental law, we wanted to ensure the implementation of Act 148 would not increase pessimism towards environmental regulation by economically harming the average mom and pop Vermont business. We proceeded to create a charitable operational model that addresses the concerns we heard from 5 Olde [Tavern & Grille] and other restaurants. 

We soon realized that there was a loophole in Vermont’s recycling law—since there were no composting facilities within a 20-mile radius of the businesses near the law school that we were working with, those businesses did not have to comply with the composting laws. From here, Marc and I decided to start our own facility! We obtained a license to use about two acres of land at a local farm. Unfortunately, we were unable to obtain some funding to purchase equipment so we decided to move our operations down to NYC where Marc and I are both originally from. I ended up transferring to CUNY School of Law to be closer to home and my family. Marc graduated and we began doing compost work in NYC.

What has been RoHo Compost’s impact so far? What has been your biggest accomplishment to date?

RoHo has truly been a breath of fresh air for many people. We are newcomers and pretty young compared to other CEOs or execs in the waste management world. We communicate well, we actually care about waste, lowering waste, feeding people surplus food. Many waste haulers only care about their bottom line and are in the business of landfilling. They are not concerned with increasing diversion rates and making sure that everything that is recyclable ends up in the right bin. 

Moreover, we provide a lot of transparency which other garbage or food waste haulers may not provide. We actually tell people where our food waste goes and where it turns into compost. Surprisingly, it’s very hard to find out where your food waste goes; waste haulers are vague and just overall shady.

Our biggest impact to date would be our 2017 impact numbers—we composted 1.1 million pounds of food waste; recovered and donated more than 6,000 pounds of food to local food banks and shelters which is about 4,600 meals. Our environmental impact from composting is equivalent to removing 30 passenger cars off the road and preventing 16,000 gallons of gasoline from being combusted. 

We have been able to hire staff and create green jobs: two part-time staff and two full-time staff members. And, we have done a lot of education at local schools and residential communities—informing people why wasting food is a problem socially and environmentally and how composting or reducing waste in general can help prevent climate change. Moreover, we have provided financial incentives for businesses to start composting. We determine how much it would cost a business to landfill their food waste and we try our best to provide a savings. 

What are you most looking forward to?

I would say I am most excited about finding more innovative solutions with some of the food we recover. On a weekly basis we are picking up hundreds of pounds of fresh produce. This produce is clean and healthy. We are in the process of developing our own kitchen so that we can cook this food down and prepare meals for people to receive for free or at a low cost. Currently, we are taking this food to local shelters or food banks, but they are overwhelmed with the amount of food they already have and the space or capacity to handle all the materials. And, unfortunately local food banks and shelters are also wasting food which is a huge problem. So we think having our own kitchen and our own ability to cook surplus food will allow us to lessen the burden many shelters or food banks currently have. 

One out of four New Yorkers do not know where their next meal will come from. Our proposed kitchen/catering service business model was recently selected for a grant through the DSNY/Hack Trash Event.

Also, I am really interested in learning more about compost as a remediation tool. There is a lot of fascinating research coming out of Washington and Vermont that shows compost as a remediation tool for erosion, water-run off, and improving water quality. RoHo is looking to partner with various NYC Agencies to develop programs where we use compost to remediate areas in NYC that are either in the 100-year flood plain or current facing serious erosion problems.   

Finally, I have been doing some independent investigative work on private garbage haulers in NYC who are potentially committing fraud or violating consumer protection laws. Many garbage haulers will charge businesses to compost their food waste, but instead they will actually landfill the food waste. 

You just took the bar. What are you hoping to do with your law degree?

I am hoping to continue working with RoHo and developing our programs and educational efforts. Also, I have been working with other legal nonprofits in developing an expose against other waste haulers in NYC who may be committing fraud or consumer projection violations when it comes to recycling or composting.

Where do you see yourself in five, ten, even twenty years?

Hopefully working within the food waste/waste management world in a different state or country! I have an interest in moving to the west coast at some point to work on waste management issues. If I can build enough experience I think I could be useful to other city or state governments in helping them achieve zero waste or other similar composting laws. Zero Waste laws have become more and more popular in the USA as landfill space is running out and the cost to landfill has been skyrocketing. State and city governments are realizing that food waste is a resource and it should not be in a landfill! 

Read more about the incredible work being done by RoHo Compost.

Former Pace University student, Alireza Vaziri

Every year, up to 40 percent of food in the United States is wasted, creating major environmental problems and tragically setting back efforts to eliminate hunger and food insecurity in our communities. This mismanaged food instead ends up disposed in landfills, where it is slowly converted into the harmful greenhouse gas methane. Landfill-bound food waste around the world, led by the US, contributes over 3.3 gigatons every year of CO2 equivalent climate pollution. That's equivalent to 10% of total global annual CO2 emissions. Beyond the environmental impact, food waste also creates serious problems for our communities. In New York City alone, more than 1.3 million people are food insecure, meaning they do not have a reliable idea of when/where their next meal is coming from. More than 50% of food insecure people are children and senior citizens, and nearly 30% of the city's veterans are food insecure.

This is where RoHo Compost comes in. Co-founded by Alireza Vaziri ’14, RoHo is educating and demonstrating to the public that a zero-food waste NYC is possible. We spoke with Vaziri, who began working on sustainability initiatives when he was a Pace student.

As a student, you conducted research with a professor on campus-wide environmentalism and understanding Pace’s sustainability initiatives through its dining halls, which ultimately led to you winning the research showcase in NYC. Can you talk a little about the research and what resulted from it?

I took a volunteer class at Pace called Animals in Society with Professor Marley Bauce. This class and the relationship I developed with Professor Bauce transformed my life and career. I learned about animals and their impact on our planet—specifically, how our diets and the way we treat animals through industrial farming has a direct impact on the climate. The IRB-approved research Professor Bauce and I conducted focused on the relationship between a meat diet and the University’s sustainability goals. Research has shown that meat consumption plays a significant role in global warming. Meat production releases methane and carbon dioxide emissions from cradle to grave. First through the growing of animals, the waste (manure) they generate is massive; the amount of water and grain we need to feed animals; the transportation of meat; and finally, the potential food waste sitting in our landfills releasing more carbon dioxide and methane. 

What did your research entail?

Our research focused specifically on Pace’s sustainability goals and the paradox between aiming to be a sustainable university yet serving meat at the school’s cafeteria. We interviewed students, the provost, and other faculty on campus. We found overwhelmingly that much of the student body and faculty cared for the planet’s wellbeing, did not understand the connections between their diet and climate change, and would appreciate more education/direction from the cafeteria and the University. This included being told by the cafeteria what was more sustainable to eat/consume and why. In a way, students and faculty wanted guidance and education. Our research group was awarded that year out of many other amazing groups. After the research I conducted with Professor Bauce in May of 2013, I started another research project in San Francisco with Pace Professor Judith Pajo. 

How did you end up in San Francisco?

At the time, I was directing a documentary film on food waste. I went out to San Francisco the summer of 2013, where I worked on my documentary and interned with a food waste nonprofit in Oakland, CA, called Food Shift. After being in SF, I realized that I had a passion for environmental issues and wanted to dedicate my life to solving some of these issues. I met some great people in SF and some were actually environmental lawyers that I still talk to this day. They encouraged me to apply to law school and take the legal route. For me, I wanted to expand my skills and make more of a difference through direct action. Whether it was through litigation—going after polluters in court—or through legislation.

I needed to gain the necessary skills and tools to do so. When I got back to NYC in September 2014, I finished my last year at Pace and then immediately began studying for the LSATs. I started law school at Vermont Law School in August 2015.

What was it like to be recognized with a GreenPace Sustainability Award, Project Pericles Leadership Award, and Jefferson Award for Public Service? Did it encourage you to continue your work?

It was definitely rewarding to be recognized for my work. It gave me the extra motivation and encouragement to continue. It was also validation that my passions were important to others in my communities—family, friends, mentors, Pace faculty and staff. Regardless of all the awards I have received, I have definitely had my fair share of setbacks and I firmly believe that my setbacks made me stronger; I am not afraid of failure or challenges. I think challenges are actually positive opportunities for growth!

Those awards were more than just awards for me. For each award, I had great people around me that inspired and motivated me throughout my undergraduate career. Specifically, Daniel Botting from CCAR, Professor Marley Bauce, PhD; Sue Maxam, EdD; and Professor Judith Pajo, PhD.

I think without those people, I would not have been able to achieve all those awards and all of the success I have had today. 

You mentioned Vermont Law School. What led you there and how did RoHo Compost come to fruition?

While in San Francisco for summer long research with Professor Pajo, I met some amazing people within the environmental world that inspired me to pursue environmental law. I worked with a nonprofit group in Oakland called Food Shift that made me realize I could run my own nonprofit one day. I volunteered with SF Environment (San Francisco Department of the Environment) and met some amazing attorneys that taught me a lot about environmental law and the challenges and opportunities there to make a difference. I had never thought of going to law school even though I was involved with a law program at my local YMCA and enjoyed my business law class at Pace. Vermont Law School at the time was the second-ranked environmental law school, so I applied. After my first year, I met another student named Marc who was also from NYC. We immediately hit it off and became close friends as we both shared a passion for waste. 

Marc was involved with the local community more than I was. He knew of some restaurant owners around the law school who were worried about being in compliance with the composting/recycling laws that Vermont had recently passed Act 148 which banned food waste from the landfill. Restaurant owners believed compliance with Vermont’s Act 148 would be a logistical nightmare for their staff. It distressed us that small business owners disliked a law designed to maximize sustainability. As students of environmental law, we wanted to ensure the implementation of Act 148 would not increase pessimism towards environmental regulation by economically harming the average mom and pop Vermont business. We proceeded to create a charitable operational model that addresses the concerns we heard from 5 Olde [Tavern & Grille] and other restaurants. 

We soon realized that there was a loophole in Vermont’s recycling law—since there were no composting facilities within a 20-mile radius of the businesses near the law school that we were working with, those businesses did not have to comply with the composting laws. From here, Marc and I decided to start our own facility! We obtained a license to use about two acres of land at a local farm. Unfortunately, we were unable to obtain some funding to purchase equipment so we decided to move our operations down to NYC where Marc and I are both originally from. I ended up transferring to CUNY School of Law to be closer to home and my family. Marc graduated and we began doing compost work in NYC.

What has been RoHo Compost’s impact so far? What has been your biggest accomplishment to date?

RoHo has truly been a breath of fresh air for many people. We are newcomers and pretty young compared to other CEOs or execs in the waste management world. We communicate well, we actually care about waste, lowering waste, feeding people surplus food. Many waste haulers only care about their bottom line and are in the business of landfilling. They are not concerned with increasing diversion rates and making sure that everything that is recyclable ends up in the right bin. 

Moreover, we provide a lot of transparency which other garbage or food waste haulers may not provide. We actually tell people where our food waste goes and where it turns into compost. Surprisingly, it’s very hard to find out where your food waste goes; waste haulers are vague and just overall shady.

Our biggest impact to date would be our 2017 impact numbers—we composted 1.1 million pounds of food waste; recovered and donated more than 6,000 pounds of food to local food banks and shelters which is about 4,600 meals. Our environmental impact from composting is equivalent to removing 30 passenger cars off the road and preventing 16,000 gallons of gasoline from being combusted. 

We have been able to hire staff and create green jobs: two part-time staff and two full-time staff members. And, we have done a lot of education at local schools and residential communities—informing people why wasting food is a problem socially and environmentally and how composting or reducing waste in general can help prevent climate change. Moreover, we have provided financial incentives for businesses to start composting. We determine how much it would cost a business to landfill their food waste and we try our best to provide a savings. 

What are you most looking forward to?

I would say I am most excited about finding more innovative solutions with some of the food we recover. On a weekly basis we are picking up hundreds of pounds of fresh produce. This produce is clean and healthy. We are in the process of developing our own kitchen so that we can cook this food down and prepare meals for people to receive for free or at a low cost. Currently, we are taking this food to local shelters or food banks, but they are overwhelmed with the amount of food they already have and the space or capacity to handle all the materials. And, unfortunately local food banks and shelters are also wasting food which is a huge problem. So we think having our own kitchen and our own ability to cook surplus food will allow us to lessen the burden many shelters or food banks currently have. 

One out of four New Yorkers do not know where their next meal will come from. Our proposed kitchen/catering service business model was recently selected for a grant through the DSNY/Hack Trash Event.

Also, I am really interested in learning more about compost as a remediation tool. There is a lot of fascinating research coming out of Washington and Vermont that shows compost as a remediation tool for erosion, water-run off, and improving water quality. RoHo is looking to partner with various NYC Agencies to develop programs where we use compost to remediate areas in NYC that are either in the 100-year flood plain or current facing serious erosion problems.   

Finally, I have been doing some independent investigative work on private garbage haulers in NYC who are potentially committing fraud or violating consumer protection laws. Many garbage haulers will charge businesses to compost their food waste, but instead they will actually landfill the food waste. 

You just took the bar. What are you hoping to do with your law degree?

I am hoping to continue working with RoHo and developing our programs and educational efforts. Also, I have been working with other legal nonprofits in developing an expose against other waste haulers in NYC who may be committing fraud or consumer projection violations when it comes to recycling or composting.

Where do you see yourself in five, ten, even twenty years?

Hopefully working within the food waste/waste management world in a different state or country! I have an interest in moving to the west coast at some point to work on waste management issues. If I can build enough experience I think I could be useful to other city or state governments in helping them achieve zero waste or other similar composting laws. Zero Waste laws have become more and more popular in the USA as landfill space is running out and the cost to landfill has been skyrocketing. State and city governments are realizing that food waste is a resource and it should not be in a landfill! 

Read more about the incredible work being done by RoHo Compost.