On curbsides across New York City, brown bins are appearing next to the existing trashcans, and blue and green recycling bins. These new bins are for organics recycling, or composting, and are part of the city’s plan to reduce the amount of waste New Yorkers send to landfills each year. As of right now, yard waste and food scraps account for a third of the city’s waste stream.
The brown bins may be relatively new, but composting has had a noteworthy history in New York. The practice has long been spreading across the city, from individuals composting in their homes, to ones dropping food scraps at community gardens; from small businesses hiring micro-haulers for composting, to large businesses working with private carters. Even schools, churches and restaurants are getting in on the action.
Yet, getting a city of over 8.5 million residents to adopt composting requires more than brown bin access. Some suggest that there is a need for efficient design solutions; others point to systemic barriers to composting.
Even with buy-in from residents, the future of urban organics composting is still uncertain. New York City has the largest municipal composting system in the United States and with that comes its own set of challenges — from what happens to the finished compost, to what the future of composting should look like.
Here, we take an in-depth look at the Big Apple’s compost story.
When Jodie Colón first started composting her food scraps outside of her apartment building in the Bronx, she hid the compost bin under piles of leaves in the corner of the parking lot. It was 1998, and she feared that the building’s co-op board would make her stop if they found out about the bin, afraid of the rats and bugs the decomposing food would perceivably attract. For over 15 years, she and a small group of in-the-know neighbors snuck their food scraps into the bin when no one else was looking. “We called it stealth composting,” she said.
Now, there is no need for them to sneak around. A brown bin from the Department of Sanitation (DSNY) specifically meant for food scraps sits next to their garbage and recycling bins, where the entire building can openly dispose of their food scraps for composting.
Organics recycling, or composting, is DSNY’s newest effort to divert more of New York City’s garbage from landfills. Under the ZeroWaste Initiative, the city plans to cut the amount of refuse going to landfills by 90 percent from 2005 to 2030. Over 3.3 million New Yorkers now have access to the brown bins in neighborhoods in all five boroughs, and the city plans for every person in New York to have access to either a brown bin or a compost drop-off point by the end of 2018. Although the brown bins are new, the concept of composting in the city is not.
“On our counter was a container, and during the warm season we’d go out to the backyard and dig a hole in the ground and dump food scraps in,” said Annie Hauck, remembering composting as a child in Park Slope in the early 1960s. Her mother had been a farmer in Poland, and composting was one of the many farming practices she brought with her when she moved to Brooklyn. Backyard composting practices from New Yorkers like Hauck’s mother naturally expanded to community gardens as a way to deal with leaves and dead plants and to enrich soil fertility.
We’d go out to the backyard and dig a hole in the ground and dump food scraps in.
While New Yorkers were privately composting in their backyards and community gardens, the city was trying to figure out how to deal with its trash issue. As early as 1923, articles with headlines like “Problems of Refuse Disposal” were appearing in the New York Times, mentioning the possibility of using garbage as fertilizer. In 1963 an article warned of landfill scarcity and proposed composting as a solution.
After beginning a program to compost leaves in 1990, DSNY piloted a curbside organics collection program in Park Slope in 1992. The program was similar to the current one and was successful in getting many people to separate their food scraps, but the city ultimately decided not to expand the program because the amount of people composting was not worth the cost of the extra collection routes. “It really didn’t go anywhere because there was still a lot of education that needed to happen,” said Andrew Hoyles, DSNY’s senior manager of organics outreach.
As a result, in 1993, DSNY established the NYC Compost Project in partnership with the city’s four botanical gardens: the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx, the Brooklyn Botanical Garden, the Queens Botanical Garden, and the Snug Harbor Botanical Garden on Staten Island.
“Even from the very beginning of the Compost Project, the city was looking to reduce the amount of waste that it was sending to landfills,” said Colón, now the program manager of the NYC Compost Project hosted by the New York Botanical Garden. “At the time Fresh Kills was open, but they were still trying to come up with long-term plans.”
The project’s original goal was educational outreach around backyard composting, hoping to encourage New Yorkers to compost their yard waste rather than contributing it to the landfill. However, only one third of New Yorkers have any form of backyard access.
The program was briefly defunded in 1995 and then again in 2002, but community groups continued composting through both losses of funding and have seen success from the early 1990s onwards.
Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx opened the city’s first public composting demonstration site in 1994. That same year, the Lower Eastside Ecology Center launched what is now the city’s longest-running food scrap drop-off site at the Union Square Greenmarket, where New Yorkers can bring their food waste to be processed into compost. Ten years later, in the early 2000s, the idea of composting drop-off sites started to expand to other farmers markets around the city.
Charlie Bayrer was one of the key people involved in creating these drop-off sites. Now the co-founder and operations manager at the NYC Compost Project hosted by Earth Matter on Governor’s Island, he got his start composting in backyards and community gardens. Bayrer and a few other community gardeners joined together to start a drop-off site at the Fort Greene Farmer’s Market in 2005, with plans to then process and use that compost in their own gardens.
“We started out immediately with 250-300 pounds of material on the first Saturday. And eventually it grew to 1500 pounds, and it became overwhelming for the gardens to keep processing it,” he said.
We started out immediately with 250-300 pounds of material on the first Saturday. And eventually it grew to 1500 pounds, and it became overwhelming for the gardens to keep processing it.
In the years since community gardeners joined together with GrowNYC and the Parks Department to come up with a plan to collect food scraps at GrowNYC’s Greenmarkets across the city, and Added Value Farm in Red Hook, Brooklyn, offered their space to process the compost.
Then DSNY got involved in 2010, and the NYC Compost Project’s focus began to shift from educational outreach to food scrap drop-off sites and processing compost. Earth Matter is now one of the NYC Compost Project’s seven host sites, along with the city’s four botanical gardens, the Lower Eastside Ecology Center in Manhattan, and Big Reuse in Queens. All seven sites provide education around composting and process compost from drop-off sites around the city.
Then, in 2013, City Council passed Local Law 77, which officially launched the brown bin curbside organics recycling program. The curbside program is designed to work in conjunction with the community efforts, not replace them. “A lot of the things the city is trying are from grassroots,” said Colón. “That’s a really exciting model for a city agency, but not common.”
However, the curbside pick-up program is not without concerns. While compost collected by community gardens and GrowNYC’s Greenmarkets are processed locally, most of the material collected in the brown bins is not.
“Curbside is typically going to leave the city, go to a commercial processor, bigger carbon footprint, more intensive handling and processing, and we don’t get it back unless we buy it,” said Bayrer. “Whereas we keep it local, it goes into some local initiative whether it’s mending street tree beds or urban farms.”
Organics still represent about a third of the waste stream in New York City.
For now, the brown bins are not diverting much of New York’s waste. “Organics still represent about a third of the waste stream in New York City,” said Hoyles. “Next year once [the program] is citywide it would be really great to start seeing that number decrease, and an increase in participation.”
Many long-time composters have already seen others’ attitudes towards composting starting to change. “It’s wonderful. Instead of going towards the garbage can with their lettuce cores, they’re going towards a bucket or a bag to save to put either at their curbside or a drop-off point,” said Hauck. “People are just really embracing it.”
Now people want to do it. They go out of their way to want to compost.
“People walk down the street and see these brown bins, and they want to know what they are and then they’re like well why can’t I do it?” said Christina Taylor, executive director of Friends of Van Cortlandt Park, adding that being able to compost at community gardens like the one at Van Cortlandt Park is an option for people to get involved in composting even if their neighborhood does not yet have access to the brown bins. “Now people want to do it. They go out of their way to want to compost, and I think in people’s minds, the importance of it is there is more than it used to be.”
To Colón, watching communities grow around composting is just as satisfying as creating an environmental impact. “That’s what is most exciting about compost being so visible now,” said Colón. “People are thinking about my neighborhood, how do I make my neighborhood better, how can I do this in my neighborhood?”