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The Brown Bins Are Back! City Reboots Curbside Organics Recycling

Bill Morris in Green Ideas on September 23, 2021

New York City

Curbside organics recycling, Department of Sanitation, greenhouse gases, co-op and condo boards.

Brown bins for organic waste will soon be a feature in co-op and condo recycling rooms. 

Sept. 23, 2021

After a rocky rollout that began back in 2013 and was abruptly cut short last year by the coronavirus pandemic, the city’s Department of Sanitation is rebooting its curbside organics recycling program. Residents of co-ops and condos will now get a second chance to cut greenhouse gas emissions by sending their organic waste – egg shells, coffee grounds, apple cores, chicken bones, grass clippings and such – to composting centers rather than to landfills, which are major generators of ozone-depleting methane.

“We’re overwhelmed by the positive response so far,” says Allie Gumas, outreach coordinator for curbside composting at the Department of Sanitation. “Sign-ups went live in August, and we got thousands of responses in the first days.”

So far, she adds, more than 50,000 people have signed up. The first trucks will roll in the first week of October in Brooklyn’s Community Board 6 district, which includes Park Slope Gowanus and Red Hook. This was the neighborhood with the largest number of sign-ups.

“In mid-October,” Gumas says, “we’ll decide which Community Board districts to expand into in November. It’ll be the ones that have the most sign-ups.”

Under the program, buildings receive brown bins after signing up, which they can do by calling 311 or visiting The bins, which have latching lids to repel vermin, are picked up once a week by Department of Sanitation trucks – at no charge to the building owner.

Organics account 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. Diverting organics to composting centers would help the city take a major step toward its goal of eliminating all shipments to landfills.

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Gumas stresses that in multi-family buildings, including co-ops and condos, the sign-up process has certain protocols. “For buildings with 10 or more units,” she says, “an individual resident or tenant cannot enroll the building. If someone tries, we circle back. We need the approval of the co-op or condo board, the property manager, the super or someone with decision-making capabilities.”

The original rollout hit a speed bump in late 2018, when the Department of Sanitation halted expansion of the program, saying low participation rates had led to high costs. Recycling organics was about six times more expensive than sending garbage to landfills. This time around, the city is hoping to boost participation and lower costs.

But there were notable success stories the first time around. Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village, the massive apartment complexes on the East Side with 27,000 residents in 110 buildings, were early adopters. One enthusiastic participant was Deborah Brozina, a filmmaker who has lived at Stuyvesant Town since 1992. She put her scraps in a container in her freezer, and when it was full she took it down to the brown bin in the basement garbage and recycling room. Others stored their organics in tightly sealed countertop containers that allow the waste matter to dry out, reducing odors.

“Look,” Brozina told Habitat in 2017, “there’s no reason for a banana peel to be inside a plastic bag going to a landfill.” Her advice to doubters? “Try it, you’ll like it. You don’t have to invest in anything.”

In late 2018, long before COVID-19 hit, the city announced that due to various speed bumps, it was halting its ambitious expansion of the organics recycling program. Kathryn Garcia, then sanitation commissioner and more recently an unsuccessful candidate for mayor, conceded at the time that the program faced a formidable psychological hurdle with the public: “We are having to overcome the ‘ick’ factor.”

This time around, the Department of Sanitation is hoping to roll over all speed bumps, including the “ick” factor. Enthusiasm for the second coming of organics recycling is running high. Says Gumas, “Everyone in the department is thrilled to have it back.”

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