New York's Cooperative and Condominium Community

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No Need for Co-op and Condo Boards to Fear the Brown Bin

Bill Morris in Bricks & Bucks on June 21, 2023

Harlem, Manhattan

Organics recycling, citywide mandate, brown bins, co-op and condo boards, landfills, greenhouse gases.

Brown bins full of organic waste will soon becomes fixtures in New York City.

June 21, 2023

Before the ink had dried on New York City’s ambitious Zero Waste Act — which will roll out mandatory curbside pickup of organic waste across the city by the end of next year — the real estate community began to complain about the looming cost and inconvenience of yet another city-imposed mandate.

“Rats, fines, red tape?” reads a headline in The Real Deal. “Landlords brace for food waste mandate.”

But evidence from earlier, voluntary incarnations of curbside organics recycling suggests that co-op and condo boards have little to fear from the brown bin, those latching, rat-proof receptacles that are filled with organic waste and rolled out to the curb for pickup. Their contents are then sent to centers where the waste is converted into compost, which is returned to the city and used as nutrients for parks, gardens and tree pits. 

The five-bill Zero Waste Act not only mandates a citywide residential curbside organics collection program but also sets zero-waste targets for 2030, requires annual reporting on zero-waste efforts, creates community food scrap drop-off sites and establishes community recycling centers in the five boroughs. About one-third of the city’s waste is organic matter — food scraps, grass clippings and such — and the city now sends most of its 11,000 tons of residential waste to landfills every day. That waste produces methane, a greenhouse gas.

The 169-unit Strivers Gardens Condominium in Harlem instituted a voluntary organics recycling program back in 2016, with the full support of the seven-member condo board. By all accounts, the program was a success — until it had to be discontinued because of pandemic restrictions. There was talk of reviving it even before the city council voted overwhelmingly to pass the Zero Waste Act earlier this month.

“The program was a big success,” says Carole Richards, the facilities manager at Strivers Gardens, who was hired shortly after the program was put on hiatus. “Unit-owners have talked about bringing it back, and the board has it on their list to discuss.”

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A far bigger early adopter was Stuyvesant Town, a massive, 110-building rental complex on the East Side of Manhattan, which started using the brown bins in late 2016. Within a year, about 15% of the residents at Stuyvesant Town and neighboring Peter Cooper Village were participating in the organics recycling program, and the complex was diverting an average of 10,000 pounds of waste a week from landfills.

By then, Deborah Brozina, a StuyTown resident since the early 1990s, had been recycling her organic waste for a quarter of a century — first at the Union Square Greenmarket and then, beginning in 2015, at the farmer’s market on the StuyTown oval.  Now she keeps her organic waste in the freezer until it’s time to carry it down to the brown bins in the basement.

“Look, there’s no reason for a banana peel to be inside a plastic bag going to a landfill,” Brozina told Habitat in 2017. “Waste is anathema to me.” Her advice to doubters? “Try it, you’ll like it. There’s a low cost to trying it. You don’t have to invest in anything. Experiment. There’s a low threshold to entry.” 

Yet anxieties persist, as evidenced by that Real Deal headline. “Everyone understands we can’t keep putting stuff in landfills,” says Peter von Simson, chief executive at New Bedford Management, “but there will be some labor costs. For small buildings that don’t have elevators or full-time staffs, someone’s going to have to get the bins out to the curb and back, then clean up. There will be some costs and some smells, but I’m open to it. And I’m hoping for the best.” 

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