Vivian Lin is a Brooklyn native and founder of Groundcycle, a company that provides local produce deliveries and compost collection services. She earned a Bachelor’s degree in architecture from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) and worked at Rafael Vinoly Architects for two years before shifting her career focus to sustainability. She founded Groundcycle in May 2020, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, when compost collections were suspended for more than a year and local growers were struggling to make ends meet. In her free time, Vivian loves spending time outdoors, visiting art museums, and traveling.
Food Policy Center: Thank you for connecting with us and taking some time to share your thoughts! Could you start by telling me about your background in architecture and how you made the transition to sustainability? When did you first learn about sustainability issues, and when did you start considering it as a new career path?
Vivian Lin: Sure, I’m super excited to share. Architecture is actually what brought me to sustainability in the first place—green buildings are a hot topic both in and outside of school, so that’s where the seed was first planted in my head. I learned a lot about new building technologies and techniques that would be better for the planet. However, the more I came to care about sustainability, the more frustrated I got about the state of the industry. Architecture is such a resource-intensive field, and I noticed plenty of architecture firms boasting about their green architecture designs when they didn’t even properly recycle or compost in their office. A lot of their day-to-day practices were extremely wasteful, and it felt hypocritical to me.
I’ve always been interested in improving my personal habits, and once I learned about composting, it just made sense. Growing up in NYC, south Brooklyn to be exact, composting was never something I heard about. We didn’t have brown bins in my Midwood neighborhood. I was not connected to my food system at all and thought that food just showed up at the grocery store. When I started opening my eyes to how food grows, I immediately fell in love and knew that I wanted to find a way to support local farmers.
Big change begins with small habits. We eat multiple times a day, and supporting the right food sources is just so important. We vote with our dollars, and it’s so empowering to know who is producing your food and processing your waste.
FPC: Tell me a little bit more about Groundcycle. What does the organization do, and how do you do it?
VL: Our mission is to close the loop between produce and compost, and we work with local farms to do it! I started a door-to-door residential bin swap service that delivers farm-fresh veggies and collects food scraps to get composted… all in one trip. We’re basically the middleman between New Yorkers and local farmers. This keeps people eating locally-produced food and also keeps organic waste out of landfills.
And recently, we’ve expanded our services beyond just residential to service business offices and events—first, by donating and then by composting. It’s still so surprising to me how wasteful these places can be.
FPC: You founded Groundcycle in New York City in the spring of 2020, when the city was one of the biggest hotspots for COVID. What were the biggest challenges you faced while trying to start a door-to-door delivery and pickup service during that time?
VL: There were a ton of challenges. First off, I would not recommend starting a delivery company without knowing how to drive. Early on, it was friends, family, and volunteers who all worked together to make Groundcycle possible… loading food scraps into their cars and driving to the farm with me.
In the beginning, everything happened super fast. I had the idea for Groundcycle and started the first bin swap just two weeks later. When I realized people would now be relying on me for their food and compost week after week, I knew I needed to get smarter about how we did it. I was totally winging it… we didn’t even have a website until three months in!
FPC: What changes, if any, have you noticed in sustainability issues in NYC between the time you started Groundcycle in 2020 and now, post-pandemic?
VL: In a lot of ways, I think people have “returned to normal” and have lost focus on some really basic, important things. As horrific as the pandemic was, it felt like people were a lot more intentional during that time. They had more time to care about things that truly matter… getting outside, connecting with nature, supporting local businesses, cooking, mutual aid, getting to know neighbors, being mindful about waste. My only hope is that people still remember what was important to them when NYC was stripped of its usual glitz and glam.
FPC: All of NYC will be mandated to compost by the fall of 2024. How do you think your work will change with the new law? Will there be new opportunities for collaboration between Groundcycle and the city or with other city-wide organizations?
VL: The mandate is very important because we need large-scale change. However, education and transparency are still going to be vital for the program to be successful long-term. If people don’t understand where their waste is going, they’re never going to respect those resources. Groundcycle really emphasizes knowing the process and the people behind the work.
Right now, most of the organics collected by the city are getting mixed with sewage to become biogas (methane). It isn’t the purest process and the waste often can’t become finished compost because the material is still highly contaminated. There also aren’t enough local processing sites. At Groundcycle, we care deeply about revitalizing soil health and putting nutrients back into the earth. We are always educating our clients on proper sorting and would love to help farmers establish more processing sites as the demand for composting increases.
FPC: Do you think Americans can make a closed-loop food system a reality? If so, how? What needs to be done first in order to get there?
VL: Yes, absolutely. The first step is for people to start eating as locally as possible. Again, we vote with our dollars, so the more we demand local, ethical food, the more of it there will be.
Another good example of closed-loop food is our partnerships with zero-waste grocery stores like Precycle and Maison Jar who offer everything from rice, pasta, spices, olive oil, sauces, nuts, snacks, and more in either compostable paper bags or returnable glass jars. We work with them to deliver all these items to our clients to make it easier to shop without plastic packaging. And a unique thing about Groundcycle is that everything we deliver, we also collect. Not many services can say that.
FPC: If you had the chance to enact a new law regarding food and sustainability, either locally or nationally, what would it be? In reality, how feasible do you think enacting that law would be?
VL: I would make it illegal for businesses to throw away food waste. France already did this, so it’s totally feasible. There are so many great organizations, charities, and food banks who already do amazing work with surplus food. We need to support and allocate more resources to them. And, better yet, I would also mandate businesses to compost. With those two simple practices in place, waste would be reduced significantly.
FPC: How has Groundcycle evolved since it started three years ago? What are your hopes for expanding the organization’s work in the future?
VL: We’re constantly evolving based on the needs of the time. When people were all at home, that’s where our focus was. But now that the world is fully open again, we’ve been focused on all the other places where food is being wasted. As long as landfills are not free of organics, we have more work to do.
I’m also constantly inspired by other people’s work—we’ve collaborated with many other sustainability-focused organizations and companies. Raising money for important causes, doing winter coat/nonperishable food drives with our clients, organizing volunteers, etc. I hope to do more of that in the future.
FPC: Any final thoughts?
VL: These questions were super thought-provoking and inspiring, so thank you! I encourage everyone who reads this to join the fight against food waste in whatever capacity they can. And reach out to us because we would love to help.
Grew up in: Brooklyn, Midwood to be exact
City or town you call home: Still a Brooklynite 🙂
Job title: Founder
Background and education: Bachelor of Architecture from RPI
One word you would use to describe our food system: Beautiful
Food policy hero: Anna Sacks (@thetrashwalker)
Your breakfast this morning: Rescued bagel & cream cheese, strawberries, cantaloupe, and iced-coffee
Favorite food: Anything homemade by my parents!
Favorite last meal on Earth: Scallion pancake, sweet potato sushi roll, cajun fries, ketchup chips, mango… wow, not cohesive at all but a few of my favorite things.
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