New York's Cooperative and Condominium Community
The Habitat Article Archive includes the full text of all of our magazine articles dating back to 2002. You can view 3 articles per month for free. (Repeat views of the same article don’t count against your monthly limit.)
To read more, purchase a print subscription or a daily or yearly All-Access Pass and get unlimited access to the Archive. Prices start at 1.95.
Already a subscriber? Sign In to access!
To read this article and gain unlimited access to the Habitat Article Archive, which includes the full text of all our magazine articles dating back to 2002, purchase an All-Access Pass.
Already a subscriber? Sign In to access!
Making composting work in your building.
New York City has taken another step toward a greener future. After years of fits and starts, the Department of Sanitation is resuming its Curbside Composting program, beginning in Queens. Residents can put food scraps and other biodegradable refuse into brown bins; the contents are collected weekly and then recycled into compost for the city’s parks and gardens. The program is aimed at reducing the amount of organic waste going into landfills, where it produces methane, an ozone-depleting gas that is 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the atmosphere.
In New York City, which emits one million pounds of greenhouse gas annually from its municipal landfills, roughly one-third of the residential waste collected is actually compostable. The Sanitation Department’s eventual goal is to expand curbside composting to all five boroughs by 2024. In the meantime, a growing number of eco-conscious buildings are taking the initiative to combat global warming by making compost onsite for their gardens and plants. If you’re thinking of joining them, here’s everything you need to know.
How Composting Works
The process is relatively simple — and low maintenance. Nitrogen-rich plant materials, or “greens,” such as fruit and vegetable scraps, coffee grounds, tea bags and fresh garden clippings, are placed into a container. The mix is “turned” and aerated weekly, and dry, carbon-rich “browns” like eggshells, fall leaves and shredded paper are added as needed to maintain the ideal moisture level for rapid decomposition.
The only equipment required is a compost bin. Choose a container based on how much material you’ll be composting, where it will be situated, and your budget. You can take a DIY approach and make your own bin from recycled wood pallets or by drilling draining and ventilation holes in a 20- or 30-gallon garbage can, or splurge on a steel, hand-cranked tumbler that makes turning easier. No matter your choice, you want an enclosed container with a tight-fitting lid to minimize odors and keep out rodents.
Add scraps until the bin is full. It takes anywhere from a few weeks to a year before the compost is ready to be used, depending on your bin size and the weather. Finished compost is dark, crumbly and smells of rich earth, not rotting vegetables, and can be spread on garden, shrub and tree beds or worked into the soil for potted plants and window boxes. You can order a copy of the NYC Compost Project’s “Outdoor Composting Guide” at https://bit.ly/DSNYCompost
Getting Started In Your Building
The first step is making sure there are enough residents who will participate, which can be done through an informal poll. Getting a quorum was easy at the Dunolly Gardens co-op, a 360-unit, six-building complex in Jackson Heights, Queens, where the sizable garden committee was ahead of the curve when it approached the board about composting onsite in 2010.
“The members basically said, ‘Here’s our plan, and we’ll use money raised from our annual fundraisers to buy the equipment,’” Ashley Cruce, a Dunolly shareholder and gardening enthusiast who earned a Master Composter Certificate after taking a course at Queens Botanical Garden, one of seven nonprofits affiliated with the NYC Compost Project, which offers education and technical support. (www.nyc.gov/assets/dsny/site/our-work/reduce-reuse-recycle/community-composting)
The more detailed your proposal, the better. That was the lesson learned at The Berkeley, a 108-unit, three-building co-op in Jackson Heights, which has become the city’s ground zero for residential composting. “We came up with a plan where we would pay about $600 for a high-end tumbler, which would be placed in a breezeway on the property,” says Doug Mestanza, a former board member. “But we got a quick ‘no’ from the board, which was concerned about infestation, odors and negligence.”
The group drafted a second pitch, detailing how maintenance of the tumbler would be divided into two-week stints among compost committee members. There would be a $50 fee for new recruits as well as a $25 annual membership fee to pay for continuing costs. Going into detail did the trick, and the board gave the green light. “Our first proposal was ambiguous and just implied that everything would be taken care of,” Mestanza says. “You’ve got to dot every ‘i’ and cross every ‘t’ if you want buy-in from the board.”
Working With Building Staff
In addition to getting approval from your board, be sure to talk to management and building staff to get their input and allay concerns — especially supers, who have to haul out the composting bins on top of the trash and recycling they already handle.
At the Dunolly, which purchased three 80-gallon composting bins, “we worked out an agreement to put them outside near the super’s office and hide them from view with landscaping, which we call the compost jungle,” Cruce says. “We also assured them that the bins, which are situated below some residents’ windows, would be padlocked and that only active composters — we now have about 30 — would have the combination. And we asked people to be considerate with regards to noise when dropping off their food scraps.”
Thanks to careful organizing, composting at Dunolly runs like clockwork. “We have a Google email group for members and a Google spreadsheet that keeps track of the stage of the process for each bin and lists the schedule for who’s monitoring them,” Cruce says. And it’s not just the co-op’s flora that is flourishing. “We’ve also adopted 50 trees on the block and use the compost for them as well,” Cruce adds. “This is about benefiting the community’s green spaces.”
After scrapping its Curbside Composting program in 2022, the city is rebooting — and thinking big. The Sanitation Department now plans to expand the program to all five boroughs, starting in Queens in March 2023, and then Brooklyn on Oct. 2, the Bronx and Staten Island in March 2024, and finally Manhattan in October 2024. During the program’s short-lived run in Queens last year, the city delivered lockable brown plastic bins to all buildings with 10 or more units. But residents can put out any type of bin as long as it has a secure lid, a composting bin decal (order a free one at nyc.gov/CompostingBinDecal), and a capacity no greater than 55 gallons. The bins’ contents will be picked up weekly on the same day as recyclables. Signup is not required and participation is voluntary. Starting this summer, the Sanitation Department is also adding 250 new orange composting bins on street corners throughout the five boroughs that can be opened via a smartphone app or key card and are available 24/7.
The planned expansion is welcome news to composting boosters like Lew Epstein, a board member at the Hawthorne Court co-op in Jackson Heights, where a bid to launch onsite composting at the 140-unit, 14-building complex failed to muster shareholder support. “That was disappointing,” he says. “So to encourage people to participate in curbside composting, we’ve made a PowerPoint presentation with practical tips, like storing food scraps in the fridge or freezer or in an airtight plastic container so you only have to deposit them in the bins once a week. It’s also a friendly, between-the-lines way of saying, ‘Hey, we can do this.’”
For more information, go to nyc.gov/curbsidecomposting or visit the Queens Climate Project website at https://www.queensclimateproject.org/resources.
Learn all the basics of NYC co-op and condo management, with straight talk from heavy hitters in the field of co-op or condo apartments
Professionals in some of the key fields of co-op and condo board governance and building management answer common questions in their areas of expertise
Got elected? Are you on your co-op/condo board?
Then don’t miss a beat! Stories you can use to make your building better, keep it out of trouble, save money, enhance market value, and make your board life a whole lot easier!