Bill Morris in Green Ideas on June 29, 2023
Jacquelyn Ottman persuaded her fellow co-op board members to participate in the city’s voluntary organics recycling program six years ago. “The real challenge to organics recycling starts with co-op and condo boards,” Ottman says. “They need to be convinced that this is not going to attract rats and bad smells. In fact, quite the opposite.”
Next came the hurdle of convincing shareholders in her 120-unit high-rise on the Upper East Side to participate in a program even though it was voluntary. A first step was pointing out that New York City sends a million tons of residential waste to landfills every year, and more than a third of it is biodegradable organic matter — egg shells, coffee grounds, chicken bones, food-smeared paper, grass clippings and such. Only a fraction of the city’s organic waste is now being recycled. In a landfill, that matter generates methane, a greenhouse gas. Recycling converts it into compost or biogas, which can power cars and buses or be turned into electricity or heat. But residents of high-rise buildings need more than an environmental lecture to overcome deeply ingrained misgivings about handling organic waste.
“We held a launch event in our lobby,” Ottman recalls. “We distributed literature, recycling pails and breathable green bags to people who wanted to participate. The key is to make it easy for people. We put four latching brown bins in the basement. The room is kept clean. The real trick is what happens inside apartments. People in our building figured out pretty quick that they’re not going to get cockroaches in their kitchen. That’s a big hurdle in New York City. The program was a big hit.”
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Today, after clearing those hurdles, Ottman and her fellow organics recycling advocates are facing their biggest challenge yet. On June 8, the city council, after years of vacillating, finally agreed to make curbside organics recycling mandatory citywide, just like the recycling of glass and plastic, paper and cardboard. The rollout of the program will begin in the fall and be fully operational by October 2024. Department of Sanitation trucks will make curbside pickups between once and three times a week.
Which brings us to another hurdle. Ottman served for more than five years on the Manhattan Solid Waste Advisory Board, a group of citizen volunteers devoted to helping the city reach its goal of zero waste by 2030. Ottman was the principal author of two informational Residential Recycling Guides. One of them, which is an invaluable resource for co-op and condo boards, is titled “Engaging Residents of NYC Multifamily Buildings in Organics Collection.”
The guide walks readers through six steps that will help boards, property managers and building staffs develop a smoothly functioning organics recycling program — while, critically, getting residents to buy in. The steps include recruiting volunteers, training staffs, identifying and correcting errors, and communicating regularly with residents about the amount of waste being recycled and the amount of money being saved.
“Some buildings have a green committee, and you absolutely have to have a committed board,” Ottman says, speaking from experience. “As the citywide rollout approaches, I’m very optimistic because residents of other cities have figured out how to do this.” (Organics recycling is mandatory in San Francisco, Seattle and Los Angeles.) “When the government enacts laws that require behavioral change — wearing seat belts, not smoking indoors — New Yorkers adapt. Eventually it becomes normal.”
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