’Post Men

“You’re going to see the disgusting part, and then the beautiful part.” 

It’s 8:30 in the morning on a blustery spring Tuesday, and Domingo Medina is standing in the shadow of the Phoenix Press wind turbine, at the end of James Street, along the river. Here, in a lot he shares with New Haven Farms, Medina operates his composting business Peels & Wheels.

Medina arrived on the “wheels” of the business, a bicycle hooked up to a slender trailer loaded with 18-gallon plastic bins full of organic refuse. He’s picked these up from participating homes and businesses, bringing them here for processing. He weighs the waste to calculate its ratio of carbon to nitrogen, then lays down a base of leaves, wood chips and finished compost on a tarp. Then come the contents of the bins: peels, leaves, cobs, coffee grounds, rinds, pulp and something that can best be called slop come gushing out onto the pile. The smell is shocking—rancid enough to send me running upwind.

“I see your face,” Medina says as he and his assistant, Christopher Montano, dig in with their shovels, mixing the leaves and compost with the fresh ingredients. “We are so removed from our waste and our responsibility. It should be second nature, like brushing your teeth,” Medina says. I try to unwrinkle my nose.

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Medina grew up in Venezuela, where he got his start working “in rainforest environments with indigenous people” on conservation programs as well as malaria treatment until “things got really messed up with the political situation. The kind of work I was doing… was considered a threat.” When he arrived in New Haven, he felt he had to “reinvent himself,” founding Peels & Wheels in 2014.

After an hour, Medina points out that I’m no longer shrinking from the waste, or the smell. “You’ve gotten used to it already,” he says happily. It’s true. While the smell is still pungent, it does smell milder to me, and strangely sweet.

When Medina and Montano finish mixing the waste—intense work which includes breaking up the larger chunks and, some cases, marveling at the quality of the food that’s found its way into the pile (Medina spears a butternut squash with his shovel and calls it “perfectly good!”)—it’s time to shovel it into the wheelbarrow.

For all the effort expended—the weekly compost takes Medina and Montano two hours of constant shoveling—the material moves very little, from bin to pile to wheelbarrow, from which it’s wheeled about two feet away, into a crate that’s hooked up to aeration pipes. Once it’s all been shoveled in, Medina adds a thin layer of compost on top to act as a “biofilter,” which helps keep outgassing and smells contained. In five weeks, this pile of scraps will be usable compost.

During the entire work session, Medina offers up passionate appeals in defense of composting. “The environment cannot wait. We have to pay the costs of our waste management,” he says, pointing out that all of the things we throw away now—30 to 40% of which is food waste, according to his calculations—is incinerated, adding to air pollution. “Imagine what we could do,” he says, shovel aloft, “if we recycle and reuse this waste for urban gardens, farms, parks…” He trails off and starts hacking at a stubborn grapefruit rind.

Once the week’s compost—almost exactly a ton—is shored up, Medina shows me compost that’s been sitting for weeks. He opens the bin to reveal a dark mass covered in white fungus and writhing with bugs. While the new compost he’s been working with still looks like many disparate parts, or, as he calls it, “a big salad,” this compost looks uniform. Everything is breaking down, getting smaller, becoming soil again. He probes it with a thermometer and sees it’s the correct temperature, 130 degrees. He prods it a little bit, sending up clouds of fungal dust. The smell is rich and fertile. “Nice, fresh dirt,” he says.

“This is not a job for everybody,” Medina says as he and Montano hose down the plastic bins and prepare for the next batch of compost. “We do this every week, summer and winter, raining or snowing. The earth doesn’t stop, and we can’t stop either.”

Peels & Wheels
(203) 444-8955 | [email protected]

Written and by Sorrel Westbrook.

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Sorrel is a California transplant to New Haven. She studied English at Harvard and fiction at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She spends her free time among her house rabbits and houseplants, looking at maps of Death Valley. She loves New England for its red brick and rainstorms and will travel great distances in pursuit of lighthouses and loud music.

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