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Logistics and transportation in New York City—particularly in Manhattan—present challenges and expenses at levels that exceed nearly every other part of the United States.

Tolls, stop-and-start driving, one-way traffic patterns and tight spacing to park or stop to load or unload all contribute to a setting that makes driving a truck in parts of New York City a high-blood-pressure-inducing task.

This set of circumstances is well-known to the New York City Department of Sanitation (DSNY) as it has set about rolling out a program to collect food scraps from businesses and households in New York in its effort to divert organics away from landfills and toward composting facilities.

Goals and parameters

The municipal government of New York, like many other government entities and corporations, has stated its intention to pursue a goal of zero waste to landfills.

Keeping an eye on the collection, sorting and sale of recyclables is one part of striving for that goal but so is ensuring that green waste and food scraps are collected in ways that lead to composting or realizing other diversion methods.

“DSNY is absolutely committed to getting compostable material out of landfills, and part of that is making composting accessible to all,” said Edward Grayson, DSNY commissioner, during an appearance at an event in the Bronx last December.

That event was held to “celebrate the realization of a promise made in Mayor [Bill] de Blasio’s 2021 Earth Day announcements: the opening of more than 200 community-based food scrap drop-off sites, at which New Yorkers can bring food waste and other organic material to be turned into fertilizer or high-quality compost,” DSNY said in a news release issued after the event.

In that same announcement, DSNY noted the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent restrictions had resulted in some of those sites closing. DNSY stated that as of December “the number open today is significantly higher than before the crisis, giving a greater number of New Yorkers in every neighborhood a chance to reduce the material they send to landfills.”

While pandemic restrictions were loosening as of late February, a new challenge is looming in the form of a city budget that has suffered from reduced commuter transit spending in Manhattan. That hole in the municipal budget stems from large numbers of people working from home rather than spending time in Manhattan’s office districts.

In a notice currently running on its website, DSNY states, “We intended to continue to expand [collection] service on a rolling basis. However, like many NYC agencies, the department is working through budgetary considerations and trade-offs. We are committed to make curbside composting an efficient and wide-reaching program.”

That efficiency and reach have been characterized in part by a pilot program to place “smart” collection bins in two neighborhoods, which DSNY Press Secretary Vincent Gragnani says has yielded some impressive results.

An accepting mindset

One of the messages DSNY has tried to communicate, Gragnani says, is that the composting program has been designed to accept a wide range of materials. This includes what is accepted in the new bins.

“We welcome all food scraps—including meat, dairy and prepared foods—as well as house plants, food-soiled paper and other compostable items,” he says.

A full list of items on the dedicated program website portrays what is acceptable in both text and graphic form, with drawings that illustrate fish and chicken bones, half-eaten sandwiches, pizza slices and coffee filters with grounds included.

Just as importantly, on the website and on the bins themselves, DSNY includes messages about what should not be placed in the bins.

“This is not a trash bin! Make compost, not trash,” are the two most visible messages that greet a potential user walking up to one of the collection bins.

On the website, DSNY also includes lists of items it anticipated users might wish to include in these bins but that are not welcome. Prohibitives come in two categories: recyclables that should be diverted to material recovery facilities (MRFs) rather than being composted, including beverage containers and recyclable paper and cardboard; and trash items that present health or processing problems at compost facilities, including animal waste, dirty diapers and plastic.

Gragnani tells Waste Today initial assessments regarding program compliance are encouraging. “We have not conducted a formal evaluation of the material collected in the Astoria bins [in Queens], but anecdotally we are pleased to see that residents are using these bins as intended, disposing of compostable material only. The Alliance for Downtown New York had material from the lower Manhattan bins examined, and they found a contamination rate of less than 1 percent.”

The “smart bin” pilot programs in those two neighborhoods involve the placement of bins that can be accessed 24 hours per day, seven days per week. Users, however, can only open the bins with a key card or digital app as way to help ensure inbound material quality control.

Photo courtesy of DSNY

Mind the footprint

The bins placed in Astoria and lower Manhattan that Gragnani refers to are notable not just for their technology but also for their compact size. Maintaining a small footprint has been identified as one of the keys allowing for the placement of numerous bins and for collection by standard-sized trucks.

Gragnani says, “The lower Manhattan bins measure 40 inches high (49 inches if the drum top is included) by 29 inches wide by 20 inches deep.” When placed near the curb on most sidewalks, they still leave plenty of room for pedestrian traffic on the remaining portion of the sidewalk.

Another best practice of collection DSNY has adhered to involves placing the bins in a way that other options exist nearby if a participant finds part of what he or she has brought is not welcome in the compost stream.

“All [bins] have been placed alongside existing trash and recycling bins, with locations decided by our partners at the Alliance for Downtown New York,” Gragnani says of the effort in lower Manhattan.

Once collected, the organic material is taken to local and regional composting facilities. DSNY notes on its website, “Finished compost is used in New York City parks and gardens, with a portion of the collected organic waste converted into renewable energy.”

As of the first quarter of this year, Gragnani says expansion of the collection program “has been paused” as New York’s new mayoral administration considers its own budget priorities.

As of last December, Grayson and DSNY pointed to several program advantages. As far as reaching for zero waste, DSNY says, “Up to one-third of the New York City waste stream may be compostable.”

The department also cites a climate change and greenhouse gas (GHG) connection when it writes, “When material is sent to landfills instead, it releases harmful methane gas.”

Finally, with the word “sanitation” found in the agency’s name and intrinsic to its mission, regarding compostable organics, DSNY adds, “Improper disposal can also attract pests, a problem alleviated by the food scrap drop-off sites.”

DSNY serves at the behest of each New York mayoral administration, and it is unclear to what extent current New York Mayor Eric Adams will choose to or be able to fund the organics management and collection program to the same extent of former Mayor Bill de Blasio.

As of late last year, DSNY noted that in just five months from July to December 2021, the collection sites established had diverted 1.8 million pounds (900 tons) of compostable materials from landfills.

DSNY Commissioner Grayson said at that time to some of the department’s composting partners in the effort, “We’re proud to work with GrowNYC, the NYC Compost Project and other partners to operate over 200 sites, spread across the five boroughs.”

Marcel Van, president and CEO of the nonprofit environmental group GrowNYC, added, “We aim to make composting second nature to all New Yorkers through the operation of residential food scrap drop-off sites. This work is so impactful as composting food scraps is one of the easiest ways that New York City residents can help combat climate change, diverting organic materials from landfills and transforming them into nutrients for our soil to grow more healthy, local food.”

The author is senior editor with the Recycling Today Media Group and can be contacted at btaylor@gie.net.