How Standing Rock Inspired Noel Altaha To Take On New York Food Waste

noel-altahaNoel Altaha is an Apache Native from Arizona. She lives in one of the biggest cities in the world, New York City. She walks the streets of New York for Big Reuse – a company that turns wasted food into compost. She brings her indigenous mindset to each person she comes across.

A lot of folks here have been raised in the concrete jungle,” she says. “They aren’t connected to those opportunities and recycling food scraps outside their buildings to gardens in their communities. It’s a big deal to talk to New Yorkers about something as big as food scraps and recycling. We come from reservations, connected to mountains. Recycling is about connecting with the earth.” 

Today, making that connection is critical. There’s about 14 million tons of waste per year in New York, costing the City almost $400 million annually shipping what it collects from homes, schools and government buildings to incinerators or landfills as far as South Carolina. And that’s not including the private companies putting trucks on the road to take away waste from office buildings and businesses.

The biggest chunk of trash piles is organics. That’s where Altaha steps in. In just the past few months, she’s talked to thousands of New Yorkers about what to do with all that waste. 

When Altaha catches people on the street, she’s breaking it down to the basics. What can you do with that apple core, banana peel, that untouched pasta, a bagel, or a famous slice of New York pizza? And what about the greasy paper plate it was served on? As they decompose, they release methane, a greenhouse gas. It all adds up.

She chats with people going about their day, each conversation a part of what former Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg has declared the “final recycling frontier.” Her passion and dedication to recycling is contagious, yet she never planned to take on NYC waste.

And while she didn’t anticipate getting into food compost, she is remarkably positioned to take on the compost challenge bringing a unique approach to environmental work. 

Altaha’s forged her way to New York City by holding strong to positive thinking and education.  She came to New York to become a social worker for indigenous people, as much of her upbringing was filled with domestic violence. She was just a teen when her mother was murdered near her homeIn those days after her mother’s death, Altaha continued attending school to try to maintain normalcy. She enrolled in college at age 18, but her studies were interrupted when she took over guardianship of her sister when her grandmother passed away.

Eventually, she made it through earning her bachelor’s degree, and then went on to complete her PhD at Columbia University. 

She goes day by day in a new life she’s created, consumed by a purpose that’s different from just a year ago, when she was focusing on social work. The moment she found herself involved in compost, she says, was when she was watching the nationwide movement of stopping the Dakota access pipeline at Standing Rock. 

The news coverage, shocking. People were getting tear gassed as fields turned into militarized zones. “I wanted to go, but only if I was helping.” Meanwhile, she was struggling to find social work. “It creates this situation where you’re spinning your wheels and you need to just stabilize who you are. I had this ‘all or nothing’ mentality and felt like I was setup for failure. There’s no margin for error. I had a clear cut path to get into social work, but  it didn’t work out. It was really hard. That anxiety of not knowing, ‘What’s my next move?’”

Watching the NO DAPL movement unfold ignited her passion to care for the earth. It was time to be open to a different path. “Go back to the basics,” she told herself. “It was watching Standing Rock protests that I realized I needed to understand how to use myself as a tool for reconnecting to my community, to share the connection and respect for the earth that I was raised with.” If she couldn’t be at Standing Rock, she’d get moving in NYC on work she could do everyday. That’s when Big Reuse caught her attention. “What do you do with the food that goes bad or that you throw away?” She asked. “How can it be composted to be turned back into soil?That led me to dealing with recycling food scraps into compost.”

Now a part of a pivotal environmental movement, Altaha says she’s learned more than ever to let life guide her. She can see how the seasons of her life are building to make her a better communicator with diverse perspectives. “The incredible people I’ve met in social work, the people I meet in recycling. It’s a path I never could’ve imagined.” 

noel-recyclingSelf-awareness and the ability to adapt. It’s insight she now shares with other Native Youth, many leaving their reservation for the first time when they go to college. “Once you step out of your culture, it’s up to you,” she said, recalling when she moved to Columbia University.  “Stay patient. Don’t be too hard on yourself. All of those doubts running through our mind – ‘I’m not where I’m supposed to be, not where society tells me to be.’   I’m able to be creative and make mistakesIt feels liberating.”

She’s an Outreach Associate at Big Reuse, and she has a hand in several projects to empower native women and girls.  She’s ready to support youth, and encourage setting goals. “Be intentional about what you’re doing, not just going through the day. Be clear how you spend your time.”

“Your stories, your struggle, your growth through it all. That’s made you find your path. You’re a light in this world.” 

Written by Samantha Mesa @SamanthaMM_

First published on August 21, 2017 in Millennial Hustler

E