Organic waste makes up one-third of what New York City residents throw away—but up until just a few years ago, most of it was sent directly to landfills.
While New York City’s Department of Sanitation (DSNY) deployed a seasonal organics collection program for leaf and tree waste and experimented with several food waste collection pilots in the 1990s, it wasn’t until 2013 that the city committed to a more widespread collection program. Backed by then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s passage of Local Law 77 in October of that year, DSNY began rolling out a voluntary weekly curbside collection program for food scraps, food-soiled paper and yard waste. This program, which currently serves 3.5 million residents in all five boroughs of New York, helps convert the city’s organics into both compost and clean energy while also helping divert materials from landfill.
According to Bridget Anderson, deputy commissioner of recycling and sustainability at DSNY, the city started small at the outset to help the program get off the ground.
“We had 3,500 homes on Staten Island, a low-density part of the city, where we piloted the curbside pickup of compostables,” Anderson says. “We started at a low-density part of the city because it was more similar in terms of demographic housing density to other cities that already launched composting programs. Back in the early 2010s, many cities were starting these kinds of programs across the country. So, we said, ‘Wait a minute, this is something New York City should be looking into.’ Obviously, it is more complicated here—we’re the biggest city in the country and the most dense, and the majority of our residents live in multiunit housing, so we really had to work to figure it out. We started primarily with single-family homes with the pilot program, and we were very happy with the results, so we were given the direction to continue to expand that program from there.”
Taking it to the streets
Anderson says DSNY has taken a methodical approach to expanding the program. After launching in Staten Island, DSNY branched out to single-family homes in other neighborhoods and began offering organics collection in apartment buildings. Enacting these programs in multiunit apartments, she says, has proved to be one of the biggest hurdles DSNY has had to overcome in growing the program.
“I think the biggest issue we had to contend with is that we’re not a city of single-family homes—we’re large, we’re dense, and there are space constraints, storage constraints, even homeownership constraints that make the prospect of participating in this collection program different than other cities,” Anderson says.
Despite the logistical challenges, one-third of the community districts in the city currently have active organics collection programs, with yard waste accounting for roughly 70 percent of the tonnage and food waste the other 30 percent.
In 2018, DSNY halted expansion of the program to focus on building participation in the areas the city was already serving. According to Anderson, community outreach has been pivotal in these efforts.
“We’re trying to ramp up the number of people who choose to participate, and the participation rates vary dramatically depending on the neighborhood you’re in in the city,” Anderson says. “So many of these neighborhoods have small multifamily buildings, but then you have the larger buildings, and we’re still onboarding those individuals to get more material onto our trucks. The question is, how do we get more material on the trucks to make our routes more efficient and more productive?
“One of the downsides of having a voluntary program is that you have to work on getting more people to volunteer to participate, and we’re making progress there,” Anderson adds. “Part of it is onboarding new buildings, but it’s also just going back and doing more and more education and outreach in these neighborhoods.”
Although scaling the program is one of the challenges with voluntary collections, the need to opt-in to participate has lent itself to a low contamination rate. Anderson says DSNY recently did a waste characterization study to look at the composition of the organics stream, and only 5 percent of materials were deemed contaminants. Of this 5 percent, Anderson notes that bin liners and bags made up a significant portion of unwanted material, but the city is learning to manage these plastics.
“People like to bag their waste in New York City. There’s not easy access to things like hoses and spigots to rinse out your bin. And so we allow people to line their bins and use bags so that it’s easier for them to manage their waste, and it also actually ends up being easier for our sanitation workers because instead of them having to bring the waste bin out, tip it in the truck and bring the bin back to the curb, they can just grab the bag, slip it in the truck and move on,” she says. “And because we have 8.6 million residents in the city, we have a lot of ground to cover. The bags are actually a more efficient way for us to capture material.”
The city currently uses bag breakers in their recycling centers in addition to manual sorters to filter this plastic out of the organics stream, but Anderson is hopeful that compostable bags may soon make this additional screening unnecessary.
“Eventually we’d like those bin liners to be compostable, but right now that’s not the case,” she says. “The performance of the compostable bags in terms of strength can be improved. Also, the cost is quite high, and the availability of those bags isn’t as widespread as we’d like. So, we’re planning to work more with the compostable bag manufacturers to figure out how we make them more available, make them tougher and make them affordable so that we can switch over eventually to a greener solution.”
"Ultimately, we find that the best way to recruit people is our day-by-day boots-on- the-ground efforts where we are in the field or hosting community meetings.” –Bridget Anderson, deputy commissioner of recycling and sustainability at DSNY
Despite the low rates of contamination overall, Anderson says DSNY stays vigilant in nipping problems in the bud when they do arise.
She says at times, particular neighborhoods experience momentary spikes in contamination rates. For instance, she notes a recent example where dirty diapers began to find their way into the organics stream in one neighborhood. DSNY quickly identified the neighborhood the waste was coming from and then went back and did outreach in the area to educate the residents on the specific issue.
Anderson says DSNY utilizes several channels to communicate with its citizens. Printed mailers are one of the agency’s best tools for informing residents about what should go in their bins, she notes. The Department of Sanitation also leverages email and targeted social media posts to keep New York City residents engaged in the program. However, she says despite the convenience that technology offers, face-to-face communication is still most effective.
“As innovative as we like to try to be, often our most effective communication tool is going door to door,” Anderson says. “Ultimately, we find that the best way to recruit people is our day-by-day boots-on-the-ground efforts where we are in the field or hosting community meetings. We actually have community dinners and other events where we have people in a neighborhood come together. We talk about the areas of the city that already have the program and what’s working and what’s not working, and we just discuss the program. We try and recruit people in the neighborhood to volunteer to help us and be advocates for the program. You know, people who live in these neighborhoods and participate in the program are the best advocates to talk to their neighbors. They know their neighbors, and they know what messaging might work.”
To ensure it is engaging with the city’s diverse population in these conversations, Anderson says DSNY translates all of its material into 10 languages and hires temporary staff who can speak the languages of the specific neighborhoods that the agency is trying to reach at any given time.
According to Anderson, the result has been more participation and less confusion from residents.
"This is the thing that connects people back to the benefits of composting in the first place. We bring compost to community gardens, we do street tree care in neighborhoods, and we have compost give-backs where people can come and get their own bags of compost.” –Bridget Anderson, deputy commissioner of recycling and sustainability at DSNY
Although DSNY has been successful in spreading the word about the program, Anderson acknowledges that finding the right people who are open to the agency’s message is the most important part of getting buy-in from the community.
“You have 30 percent of people who are going to just jump on board right away and do the program. Maybe they don’t do it every week. Maybe it’s monthly, but they’ll participate,” she says. “You have 30 percent of people who are never going to participate until they see a ticket. And then you have the folks in the middle who we’re trying to figure out how to flip over to at least participating in some capacity. It’s a constant process of trying to find the audience that’s actually going to make a behavior change and focusing on them first.”
As the program has expanded, Anderson says so too have the tonnages the city needs to account for. Last year, according to DSNY data, more than 50,000 tons of compostables were collected. This material is sent to one of several sites, depending on where it is collected: either a large industrial-scale composting facility on the former Freshkills Landfill on Staten Island; the Newtown Creek Wastewater Resource Recovery Facility in Brooklyn, where food scraps are converted into a bio-slurry to be used in anaerobic digesters to create energy for area homes; or various transfer stations, where the material is compiled and sent to different composting facilities around the region.
According to Anderson, being able to see the results of participating in the program is one of the most effective ways to keep residents engaged.
“One of the most effective forms of outreach that we do is we distribute compost,” she says. “This is the thing that connects people back to the benefits of composting in the first place. We bring compost to community gardens, we do street tree care in neighborhoods, and we have compost give-backs where people can come and get their own bags of compost. And oftentimes, you’ll encounter somebody and they ask if they can have some compost. Then you ask if they participate in the program, and they don’t even know about it. So, we tell them that this compost that we’re able to provide for free is because people put stuff in their brown bin. We’re able to connect people back to the end product and show the beneficial use that this program offers.”
While the program has grown significantly since it was first launched in Staten Island back in 2013, Anderson says the city won’t stop until it is available to all New York City residents.
“Last Earth Day, Mayor Bill de Blasio committed to wanting to bring the curbside composting program citywide,” Anderson says. “And so we’re working with the mayor and city council to find a path forward. We feel strongly that there is a positive impact for the neighborhoods, for the city and for the climate to do the program. We look forward to pushing the mayor’s goals to make this a reality.”
This article originally ran in the October issue of Waste Today. The author is the editor of Waste Today magazine and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.