Filling in the gaps

The New York City Department of Sanitation addresses a need for additional composting infrastructure through the launch of around-the-clock food waste collection bins.

© James |
With food scraps comprising one-third of the solid waste stream in New York City, it is no surprise the New York City Department of Sanitation (DSNY) is expanding composting programs throughout the bustling metropolitan area.

Since the 1990s, the DSNY has experimented with several organics collection pilots to develop sustainable solutions for residents and businesses to recycle their food scraps. However, it wasn’t until 2013 that the city debuted a widespread voluntary curbside organics collection program.

Today, that program has grown to serve more than 3.5 million residents in all five boroughs of New York. By collecting materials like food scraps, food-soiled paper and yard waste, the department converts the city’s organics stream into compost and clean energy.

Following the launch of the curbside composting program, the DSNY has continued to explore ways to make organics recycling services more readily available to the city’s residents. In December 2021, the department launched a pilot in Astoria, Queens, to test a new collection technology known as “Smart Bins,” which allow for around-the-clock drop-off of food waste and other compostable materials.

Through the pilot, 20 bins have been placed throughout Astoria. The bins can only be opened by keycards that are given to residents who sign up to use them, ensuring only those who are registered in the program can place organics inside.

The Alliance for Downtown New York (ADNY) launched a similar pilot late last year, as well. As a public-private partnership between ADNY and DSNY, the project distributed 10 bins around Lower Manhattan.

Encouraging signs

Photo courtesy of the New York
Department of Sanitation

Launched in part as a way to fill in servicing gaps in areas where composting programs weren’t readily available, the Smart Bins project was ideally suited for Astoria.

“The reason Astoria was chosen … was that when [the city] was doing curbside composting signups, at the time, Astoria had the highest number of sign-ups but did not have a program available to the area,” says Kevin O’Sullivan of the DSNY Bureau of Recycling and Sustainability.

In addition to residents’ interest in the Smart Bins pilot, O’Sullivan says the Astoria community has a rich history of community composting.

“With a limited budget for advertising campaigns at the time, we knew we wanted to go to an area where we knew we would get a robust amount of material,” he says.

The collection bins installed in Astoria are manufactured by Needham, Massachusetts-based BigBelly Inc. The company, which designs and sells customized waste, recycling and composting bins, has deployed more than 70,000 of its units around the world.

Photo courtesy of BigBelly Inc.

New York City has used BigBelly collection bins in the past, deploying more than 30 of the company’s waste bins to Times Square in early 2013. The Times Square units have three components at each location for cans and bottles, paper and garbage.

The initial installation of the systems succeeded in promoting recycling among residents and tourists, leading to a significant expansion of the bins in fall 2013 and later in 2015. According to the Times Square Alliance Sanitation team, which helped oversee the project, the area has reached 40 percent recycling diversion, thanks to the Big Belly bins.

Today, 197 BigBelly stations help to manage roughly 26,056 gallons of waste and recycling each day in Times Square.

Convenience is key

After seeing the benefits of using the BigBelly systems in one of the most high-traffic areas of New York City, the technology was an obvious choice for the Astoria Smart Bins pilot, O’Sullivan says.

While a major advantage of the units is their 24/7 availability, O’Sullivan—who has helped oversee the Astoria Smart Bins pilot since its launch—says the most compelling feature of the bins is their managed access.

“If you walk by a BigBelly somewhere else in the city, anyone could just deposit anything in that bin at any time,” he says. “Our Smart Bins are managed access, so in their current state, someone is requesting an RFID (radio-frequency identification) card and using that card to open the bin.”

The 50-gallon bins currently are serviced six days per week, and, according to DSNY, have been “filling up every day.”

To encourage initial participation in the program, O’Sullivan says the agency primarily relied on tabling events and flyers posted throughout the neighborhood. Since the pilot program’s inception just 10 months ago, approximately 3,000 residents have signed up to use the bins.

Given the success of the Smart Bins pilot in Astoria, DSNY plans to expand the program to all five boroughs and launch an app for easier access to bins.

“Currently, residents can request an RFID card and have it mailed to them. However, we are transitioning to an app where residents can download it for free and begin using the bins,” O’Sullivan says, adding that the agency hopes to have the app up and running by late October.

As the Smart Bins program grows, O’Sullivan says he hopes the new collection program will complement existing DSNY programs.

“Folks that have different schedules or busy lives don’t always have the time to get to the drop-off [locations] when they’re scheduled,” he says. “That’s the beauty of New York City; it’s a 24-hour city, so these bins are 24-hour access.”

He adds that the bins also accept materials other community compost sites do not, including meat, dairy and bones, as well as Biodegradable Products Institute-certified compostable products.

Food waste accumulated in the Smart Bins in both Astoria and Lower Manhattan is collected by DSNY and transported to an anaerobic digester at the Newton Creek Wastewater Treatment plant for processing. As the program expands and material tonnages increase, O’Sullivan says processing operations will be split among additional facilities in the area, including a regional composting facility on Staten Island managed by DSNY.

The resulting compost will be provided to residents or sold to the private sector, he adds.

Fulfilling a need

Photo courtesy of BigBelly Inc.

Created with the intention of providing much-needed composting options for the busy residents of New York City, O’Sullivan says the Smart Bin program has amassed favorable feedback from the communities involved.

“We’ve got a ton of positive feedback. We’ve had a significant number of emails from people in other neighborhoods asking for the bins [to be installed],” he says. “I think a lot of folks sometimes intend to compost … and then the weekend rolls around and they get busy, and they forget to go to the community drop-off site.

“A lot of the feedback we’ve got is that they love that they can just—whenever they have a moment—drop off their food scraps. The convenience factor has been the key,” he adds.

Designed for high-density areas, O’Sullivan says the Smart Bins program easily can be replicated in other major U.S. cities.

“Even if an area has curbside composting, not every building is set up for establishing it in an easy way— especially high-rise buildings,” he says. “If you’re thinking about a skyscraper, it’s often difficult to maintain an organics [recycling] program inside that building. So, for high-density neighborhoods and cities, it absolutely seems to be a great program.”

The author is the associate editor of Waste Today and can be reached at

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