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The Beauty of the Brown BIn

When Rei Moya moved up from Florida last year to take the job as director of environmental services at the massive Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village apartment complexes on the East Side of Manhattan, he didn’t know much about recycling in New York City. But it quickly became apparent to him that the city’s longstanding campaign to recycle the usual suspects – glass and plastic, paper and cardboard – was failing to address a huge part of its waste output, namely organic kitchen waste and yard waste.

In fact, as Moya soon learned, organic matter – eggshells, coffee grounds, chicken bones, grass clippings, and such – accounts for about one-third of the city’s residential waste, roughly one million tons a year, and the vast majority of it is still being sent to landfills, where it generates methane, a greenhouse gas. This presents a huge challenge to a city that has announced its intention to eliminate all shipments to landfills by the year 2030.

But Moya saw encouraging signs close to home. Since 2015, Stuyvesant Town had been running an organics recycling program at its weekend farmers’ market in conjunction with GrowNYC, a nonprofit that promotes recycling, green markets, and community gardens. And the city’s Department of Sanitation (DSNY) was already engaged in an aggressive campaign to expand its pickup of organic waste, both at curbside and at designated drop-off centers, then ship it to composting centers, and finally bring a portion of the compost back into the city to nourish urban farms, parks, tree pits, and community gardens. Nearly one million New Yorkers are already participating, with more than two million more expected to sign on this year. The city’s goal is to make organics recycling available to every city resident by the end of 2018. It dawned on Moya that he was looking at an astonishing opportunity. 

“After a couple of months on the job, I realized waste is a huge issue in New York City,” says Moya, who started meeting in late 2016 with numerous DSNY officials and with David Hurd, the director of Zero Waste Programs at GrowNYC. Hurd was delighted by the prospect of having a property with 27,000 residents in 110 buildings participate in curbside pickup. It would be by far the largest in the city to recycle its organic waste – and a signal to smaller properties, including co-ops and condos, that it can be done.

“Rei saw it as workable,” Hurd says, “and management wanted to pursue it. A lot of credit goes to Blackstone, which is making a commitment to the complex.  Sustainability is part of their 20-year plan.” Hurd is referring to the Blackstone Group, which, along with Ivanhoe Cambridge, bought the two complexes for $5.3 billion in October 2015.

Once the decision was made to move ahead with curbside organics  recycling, GrowNYC worked with Moya to educate residents, setting up tents on the complex’s outdoor common areas. “We talked to as many people as possible, gave them DSNY literature, just tried to get the word out,” Hurd says. Mailers were sent to residents, and instructional videos played on TV screens in laundry rooms and other indoor common areas. Moya trained his 195 staff members, thrice weekly curbside pickup schedules were worked out, and a total of 330 sealable brown plastic bins were delivered by DSNY (three per building). Finally, in December 2016, Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village became part of the city’s organics recycling program. 

Early Adopter

Deborah Brozina, a filmmaker, has lived in Stuyvesant Town since 1992, and she has been recycling her organic waste nearly as long. She started by taking her food scraps – stored in a plastic bin in her freezer – to the organics recycling drop-off at the Union Square Greenmarket once a week. Then, in 2015, her weekly half-mile trip was cut considerably when organics recycling came to the weekend farmers’ market on the Stuyvesant Town oval.

Now, Brozina’s life is even simpler. She still stores her food scraps in her freezer, forgoing the new generation of small countertop bins that allow the organic matter to dry out, thus reducing odors. “My countertop space is too precious,” she explains. When her container gets full, she simply removes it from the freezer, takes the elevator down to the recycling room in the basement, and empties the container into the brown bin. Each bin originally came equipped with a latch, designed to keep the lid sealed tight and keep rodents out. But when users kept failing to close the lids properly – to the loud dismay of residents who opposed the program – Moya’s staff retrofitted all 330 bins with magnets, ensuring that they always close snugly. No odors, no vermin, no complaints.

“There’s always resistance to change in this place – we’re stubborn people,” says Brozina, referring to the widespread initial opposition to the program, which was largely driven by fears that the bins would emit odors and attract rats. “But once people see how much it reduces their waste, they’re more willing to do it. Several of my neighbors are really committed  to it. Look, there’s no reason for a banana peel to be inside a plastic bag going to a landfill. As a descendant of refugees, waste is anathema to me.” Her advice to doubters? “Try it, you’ll like it,” Brozina says. “There’s a low cost to trying it. You don’t have to invest in anything. Experiment. There’s a low threshold to entry.”

Black Gold

According to Moya’s calculations, about 15 percent of the residents at Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village are now participating in the organics recycling program, and the complex is diverting an average of 10,000 pounds of waste a week from landfills. Where does it go, and what becomes of it?

There are now only two sites in the five boroughs that can process food waste – one on Rikers Island, the other at Fresh Kills on Staten Island – so the city has contracted with six out-of-town companies. City trucks deliver the organic matter to these contractors, who proceed to turn it into compost or usable biogas.

Composting, or controlled decomposition, uses billions of microorganisms to break down organic waste. The process requires a proper mixing of “green” organic materials  (nitrogen-rich grass clippings, coffee grounds, and food scraps) and “brown” organic materials (carbonrich dry leaves, wood chips, and branches). The mixture is churned by hand or machine to promote decay. It takes six to nine months for matter to decompose completely and arrive at the state farmers refer to as “black gold” – nutrient-rich  fertilizer that prevents soil erosion and helps plants take root. 

And then there is anaerobic digestion, which has been called “the next revolution in recycling.” These facilities use microbes to break down organics into biogas, primarily methane and carbon dioxide. Machines grind organics into a slurry, which is fed into a large airtight tank called a digester, where it is heated to about 100 degrees. This produces biogas, mixed with water and solids. After
refining, the biogas can be fed into a natural-gas pipeline or used as fuel for trucks and buses. It can also be converted to electricity and heat. Only a small portion of the city’s food waste is currently converted into biogas, but as the collection program expands, that is sure to change. Completing the Circuit One beneficiary of the city’s composted organic waste is the 5,000-squarefoot community garden, La Casita Verde, in South Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The garden, which was founded on a neglected lot in 2013, now produces its own compost and receives a dump-truck’s worth of free compost from the city each growing season. The garden yields a yearly crop of eggplants, tomatoes, watermelons, squash, herbs, and medicinal plants. When DSNY announced the expansion of its organics recycling pickups this spring, it staged the  announcement at La Casita Verde.

“The point of composting is that it’s the right thing to do, and it’s magic,” says Brooke Singer, a professor at SUNY Purchase who helped establish La Casita Verde. “You bring in waste and see what a fabulous resource it is. Compost is so much richer than regular soil, and people who do composting say they can’t believe how much less garbage they send out to the curb. About half of our garbage is organic matter.” 

Singer, who began composting long before she helped establish the community garden, believes New Yorkers are finally overcoming resistance to the notions of recycling organic matter and returning its byproducts to the city’s soil. “There are a lot of barriers to acceptance,” she says, “but DSNY is making it happen – not only physically, but through PR and education and outreach to get people on board. I have no doubt they’ll succeed.”

Hurd, at GrowNYC, agrees, and he cites Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village as proof. “They’re going gangbusters,” Hurd says. “If you look at the numbers, they’re  already recovering 15 percent of their organic waste. There are folks out there who still think this is a heavy lift, but it’s really not.”

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