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The Brown Bins Are a Hit at This Harlem Condo

Marianne Schaefer in Green Ideas on June 21, 2018

Harlem, Manhattan

Harlem Organics

Organic waste goes into the brown bins at Strivers Gardens.

June 21, 2018

The 170-unit Strivers Gardens condominium in Harlem has a message for co-op and condo boards across the city: any building can participate in the expanding campaign to recycle organic waste and keep it out of landfills. All it takes is a little space for some brown bins – and a little will power.

“And you should do it,” says Martin Robertson, the facilities manager at Strivers Gardens. “It’s the right thing to do because you care about the planet and about the future and what you’re leaving behind.”

The seven-member condo board is also supportive. “Aside from the simple ethics of reducing waste,” says secretary Tom Davey, “the board regards organics recycling as an amenity for unit-owners, similar to the gym and the bike racks.” 

Even though all of Manhattan now has curbside pick-up, most organic waste is still being discarded and sent to landfills, where it creates methane, a greenhouse gas. The outer boroughs do not yet have full curbside pickup, but the city promises expansions in the coming months. There are also neighborhood drop-off points in many areas that do not yet have curbside pickup. (Check here for neighborhoods that have curbside pickup.)   

Organic material makes up about 34 percent of the city's waste stream and is suitable for composting, according to the Department of Sanitation (DSNY). “In 2017, DSNY collected an average of 81.4 tons of organics per day from curbside and containerized collections in New York City; 3.5 million residents are participating.” 

When Strivers Gardens started recycling organic waste in 2016, there was no curbside pickup in Harlem. Robertson convinced the city to deliver two brown bins designated for organic waste, and to send DSNY trucks to pick them up three times a week in front of the building. Unit-owners’ response was so enthusiastic that four more bins were needed to handle the load. 

To ensure participation by unit-owners, Robertson had to get inventive. “You have to make it as simple and easy as throwing it into the chute,” he says. To that end, he created the VIP composting program. For $35 residents can buy an attractive, small stainless steel container with a filter for their food scraps – egg shells, coffee grounds, chicken bones, banana peels. These VIPs never have to visit the trash room. They drop off their container at the front desk, then get it back empty and clean. Residents who prefer to dump their organic waste themselves also need an incentive. “We keep the rooms well lit and super clean,” says Robertson. “Nobody wants to go in a nasty, smelly room. Cleanliness also encourages people to leave it clean. One is much more likely to litter if it is already dirty. The room has to look and feel fresh to make it successful.” 

To eliminate odors, recyclers layer newspapers between the organics they dump into the bins, which is compostable and absorbs the potentially smelly moisture. In the summer, the staff adds fly traps. The brown bins have latches that make them vermin-proof and spill-proof. 

Keeping organic matter out of landfills costs Strivers Gardens a bit more in man-hours, but the board believes the payback is well worth it. “Organics recycling says something positive about the culture of our building,” says Davey. “The board believes it will appeal to future purchasers when units go on the market.”

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