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City's Organics Recycling Hits a Speed Bump

Marianne Schaefer in Bricks & Bucks on December 5, 2018

New York City

Organics Letdown

The city's brown bins are rat-proof, but there's still an "ick" factor to organics recycling.

Dec. 5, 2018

Ilse Hoffman is a passionate recycler. Years before the city rolled out its brown bins as part of its ambitious curbside organic-waste pickup program, Hoffman carried her food scraps to the drop-off point at the Union Square Greenmarket. All the while, as treasurer of the 388-unit Georgetown Plaza co-op at 60 East 8th Street, Hoffman was agitating to convince her fellow board members to sign up for the curbside organics program. A few months ago she carried the day, and the city’s Department of Sanitation (DSNY) delivered brown bins to the co-op. Today, Hoffman’s original elation is shading toward disappointment. 

“We don’t have as much success as I would like,” she says. “Right after Thanksgiving when I looked into the brown bins, I was hoping for a lot of stuff in there. But that was not the case, not even at a time when so many people were cooking.” 

What rankles Hoffman most is that many young people in the building are throwing their organics into the regular trash. “I mean, it’s their world, their future, their planet,” she says. “I would have hoped young people wanted to save the planet!” 

Unfortunately, Hoffman’s experience is not uncommon. The DOS announced earlier this year that due to low participation it was halting expansion of the curbside program, which it had hoped to offer citywide by the end of the year. Testifying before the city council, Ana Champeny of the nonpartisan Citizens Budget Commission noted that low participation levels have led to “unreasonably high” collection costs. It now costs $1,700 to collect a ton of organic waste; $686 for recyclables; and $291 for regular garbage. 

The city is on an ambitious campaign to stop all shipments to landfills by the year 2030. Organics and recyclables each account for about one-third of the city’s total waste output. There are currently 3.5 million New Yorkers receiving curbside pickup. But only about 10 percent of their organic waste is currently being fed into the composting system; 90 percent continues to go to landfills, where it produces methane, a greenhouse gas. 

Still, the city has made impressive strides. Last fiscal year, under the voluntary program, New Yorkers recycled and composted 43,000 tons of organics, including food scraps and yard waste. By comparison, Seattle and San Francisco, where organics recycling is mandatory, each collected about four times as much.

“If a building’s participation in the organics recycling program is low, our community outreach team will sometimes revisit and encourage residents to participate by holding a tabling event and educating residents on the benefits of organics recycling,” says DSNY press officer Dina Montes. “In lower-density neighborhoods where organic curbside collection is available, DSNY and its partners conduct door-to-door outreach to encourage participation.” 

Deborah Brozina, a resident of Stuyvesant Town, was a rigorous organics recycler long before curbside pickup started two years ago at the sprawling complex on Manhattan’s East Side. “Yes,” she says, “there are many residents who are totally on board, but we also have residents where the slightest change in a routine is like the world is ending. People tell me it’s just too much hassle. Here in Stuyvesant Town there is an enormous resistance. It definitely doesn’t go the way all of us who initiated the program were hoping for.”

What can boards do? “We had a presentation for the residents, but only very few attended,” says Hoffman. The board is in the midst of preparing its quarterly newsletter, which will have a section urging residents to participate in the program.

Our culture of convenience is a tough thing to change. But Brozina, among others, insists that the payback of organic-waste recycling far outweighs the minor inconvenience of carrying her organics to the brown bins in her building’s basement. “Is it really too much hassle to separate organics?” she asks. “As much as New Yorkers talk about saving the environment, when it requires an individual effort outside of writing a check, they seem to resist.” 

Fears of smells and vermin associated with organic waste may be an additional roadblock to widespread acceptance of the curbside program – especially among people who don’t realize that the brown bins have sturdy latches. As DOS Commissioner Kathryn Garcia concedes, “We are having to overcome the ‘ick’ factor.”

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