In this episode we take an in depth look into the expanding organics collection and composting program in New York City. We speak with Bridget Anderson, director of the Recycling Unit of the DSNY’s Bureau of Waste Prevention, in order to understand the unique situation that a megacity faces when rolling out such a program, the logistics and strategies for setting up the scheme, challenges in dealing with different building types, managing the collected organic material, and the vision they have for the future.
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The Story So Far
Q: Can you tell me how the program got started?
BA: Organics collection was a pilot that actually started in the schools, in the 2012-2013 school year. We started on a select number of schools and focused on school cafeterias and school kitchens; and it was really an effort that was spearheaded by a number of parent-teacher organisations. They did a great job and Sanitation saw what they did and decided that we would try in on a slightly larger scale.
Then there was momentum to try this in residences also – in homes. And we’re in all five boroughs: we have pilot areas in the Bronx, in Queens, Brooklyn and Staten Island – and then in Manhattan, which is a very dense area with lots of high-rise apartment buildings, we actually have selected apartment buildings that have volunteered to participate in the program. One of the challenges is to figure out how to do this in high rise buildings.
Q: How does the pilot program operate today? It is a voluntary program at the moment, correct?
BA: Yes, the pilot is voluntary. We chose the pilot areas in a combination of where, collection-wise, we thought it would work well operationally, and where there was interest among residents and among elected officials. We also looked for those low-density areas. So, it was voluntary and not everybody in the pilot areas chooses to participate, but everyone is given the opportunity.
We deliver a brown bin, which is what you set out curbside, and then in addition we deliver a kitchen container for each household, so that you have something you can use in the kitchen to collect the material. And then we provide a lot of education and outreach, and brochures…
What we do is we send a mailer to everyone in the pilot area, saying “this program is coming, this is what it is and you can expect to receive your brown bin”. Then about a week before the brown bin arrives, we do a door hanger. We go door-to-door and hang a door hanger and say “Your brown bag is arriving this week. As a reminder this is the program, it’s voluntary, we hope you participate, and this is how it works”. And then when the brown bin arrives, in that brown bin is the kitchen container and the brochure that gives details about what can and can’t be put in the bin – best practices for how to manage the material.
Q: I also saw just the other day that the Mayor of New York and his family made an ad using the brown bin…
BA: Yeah, it’s interesting, they approached us. One of the pilot areas is where the mayor’s home is – this is the mayor’s home before he moved to Gracie Mansion, which is the official Mayor home. He actually approached Sanitation and said “I would love to do a video. My daughter Chiara is very interested in this program”. And so, we developed a script for them, which they took and then tweaked, and they created the video. And the video turned out beautifully – I thought it was a great video. And now they’ve moved to Gracie Mansion, and we had the organics collection program in Gracie Mansion with Mayor Bloomberg, and now we’re continuing it with Mayor de Blasio, so we’re very excited about that.
LOGISTICS of COLLECTING organic waste in New York City
Q: I want to ask you about the expansion on the program to high-rise buildings, because as you said earlier they can be quite a challenge. How did the DSNY decide to deal with all the different types of buildings?
BA: There are other cities in the United States that already do this organics collection program – cities like Seattle, San Francisco, and Toronto in Canada – and we looked at what they were doing, where they found success. Most of those cities are lower density and don’t have as many high-rise buildings. Toronto is maybe the closest to New York City in comparison to a place that already does organics collection. And we thought, let’s try this program in the lower density areas of the city – because that’s where there’s been a precedence set to have a successful program in other cities. So, we looked for parts of the city where we would focus on single family homes and small apartment buildings that are up to nine units – little town houses, brownstones, and then small apartment buildings. The pilot areas are primarily that size of building.
Then we said, if we’re going to make this a viable program, we have to tackle high-rise apartment buildings, because a significant portion of New York City’s recycling, you have to come up with an internal recycling program that then allows the building to manage the waste and get it out on the curb for Sanitation to collect. We have to do the same thing for organic material. So, we actually work with the building management and the co-op board, if it’s a co-op building, and come up with a system for how they’ll manage the organic waste inside the building to then get it out on the curb for us to collect
Q: And how many high-rises are you working with at the moment?
BA: We have over a hundred high-rises at this point.
Q: That’s quite a few. And what has been the DSNY’s strategy in dealing with the various building types? Do you have separate systems, depending on the high rise, or is there a single system that works across the board?
BA: I would say we service a different range of types of buildings – we have old, old buildings, we have brand new Leed certified buildings…a lot of it depends on the infrastructure of the building, where there’s space to put the bins. It’s very similar to recycling – where is there space to place the bins, either on each floor or in some sort of centralised area, where people can then bring their material to drop it off. And then the building staff brings it out to the curb.
So we have a few different strategies that are the most common. One is, if our large buildings tend to have chute where people will take their trash, and it foes down to the basement. In a lot of buildings there’s a little chute room where the chute exists. And if there’s space on each floor, and the building management are willing to provide the service, we recommend that both the recycling and the organics containers are put in those shoot rooms on every floor. It’s the most convenient for the residents.
That doesn’t exist in all buildings, so what’s also quite common is a centrallsed location on the first floor, possibly the basement or in the area nearby where there’s parking, where the recycling and organics bins are placed. And that’s more of a centralised area. It’s less work for the Super to service, because it’s only location – but it’s potentially a little bit less convenient for the residents because they have to go downstairs. We find with both recycling and organics collection, convenience begets participation. So if it’s easy and convenient, people will participate. The people who want to do it are going to do it no matter where you place your collection location; the people who are saying “well I’ll do it if it’s convenient.” If it’s easy for me to just throw it down the chute on my floor that to bring the organic material or recycling downstairs, then you may lose a few people in participation.
So, we have a lot of signage – signage is absolutely key to let people know on every floor where the collection location is in the building. And keeping the collection well lit, safe, secure is also key to having people comfortable with using those locations in the building.
Q: Another crucial part in organics collection programs is the collection times. How did you decide on collection times and are they different from place to place?
BA: We have a few different strategies. About fifty-thousand of the households are being offered twice a week collection, and that’s the same frequency as refuse collection. The idea is you just set out your material on collection day, but you separate the organic material from the waste and recycling. In the other half of the homes, we’re testing once a week collection. Basically, the way things work is that here you have twice a week collection of trash, once a week collection of recycling in most parts of the city, and so we’re either offering twice a week collection on the same frequency as trash collection, and the other half od the pilot, we’re offering once a week collection on recycling day. So, it’s essentially just another recycling stream to set out on your recycling day.
Q: Do you know which one is more successful, or which you’re going to pick in the long-run?
BA: We have one area of Brooklyn, where we started them in the Fall with once a week collection and switched them to twice a week collection in May, so we’re going to be studying that one. We don’t have any results yet, but we’re hopeful that that little neighbourhood – it’s called Windsor Terrace – will actually help inform us what the effect is of twice a week versus once a week.
Q: Was it difficult, in a city the size of New York, to plan collection routes and to cooperate with the haulers?
BA: So in New York City, the city actually has a municipal hauling workforce and we collect material from residences, agencies and institutions. And so, it was simply a matter of making the case to add some to add trucks in the budget to service the same routes. And we chose the pilot areas so they were co-terminus: they were the same areas as the regular routes, so there was no issue there. People were very positive about piloting the program.
Q: The ultimate goal is to make this a mandatory, city-wise curbside composting program. How are you planning to get there?
BA: The city council passed a law for us to conduct this pilot program, and the our mandate is a two-year program. And in the October of 2015, we will have to present a report to city council and say, this is how the pilot went, these are our recommendations moving forward. And so far we feel pretty positive about the participation, about people’s understanding of the program. We’re working right now to evaluate the pilot to understand what the best practices, what are the best collection frequency, what are the other aspects of the program that we’d want to take and scale up.
Scaling up city-wide is going to take quite a while. It’s not going to happen overnight; it will have to be a phase-in process. And part of it too is that what happens is if you separate the organic material and recycling fully, you don’t have as much refuse left. So, one of the big pieces is understanding how we reconfigure our routine and our truck routes so that we manage the material differently. So, maybe we don’t need as many refuse routes because there’s not as much refuse being set out as we add the organics routes.
So there’s a lot of operation pieces that we have to put into play. There’s also the aspect of geography – do we roll out district by district, which is maybe what happens. So, we’re basically in the planning process right now as we roll out the pilot, to figure out how we would do this city-wise, and I would say that it’s going to take ten years to probably get to the entire city.
Q: We tackle this whole aspect of organics collection programs in Lesson 4 of our online course on Compostory.org, so those of you listening, can go straight to the course on our site and take a deeper look at.
COMMUNITY COMPOSTING – A Critical Piece to the Puzzle
And now, I’d like to touch on the topic of community composting, because in our last episode, we were taking a look at the community composting movement in New York and we know that the DSNY has been quite involved in supporting this as well. Can you tell me a little about how you work with community composters in the city?
BA: Yes, we have a longstanding relationship – over twenty years – working with community composters. The New York City Compost Project is a group that we run and fund, and we have non-profit partners throughout the city where we provide education services – helping people to understand how to compost in your backyard, if you want to take your yard waste or your food scraps and do it yourself. We work with community gardens, and we provide finished compost from the material that they city collects and manages, and we provide tools and equipment, and technical advice for how to set up composting in community gardens.
We also work to provide drop-off programs. We have food scrap drop off programs throughout the city – we’ve about seventy in operation right now. And those drop-off programs are critical, because they get people in the mindset of “oh! this is what this is…I take my food scraps and I can bring them somewhere else and recycle it – have it be composted.” So, we see the community composters as absolutely critical to helping people understand the concepts of organic separation, what happens to it, what are the benefits to it – it’s an absolutely critical piece to the puzzle.
Q: So you agree with David Buckle, who we interviewed last week, that community composting is an essential part of creating a successful organics recycling system?
BA: Both programs are very important, yes.
Q: When speaking to David, it was clear that he had concerns about a lack of vision from policy makers in the city, that might not understand the importance of local collection and composting and wouldn’t necessarily prioritize community composting over other collection systems. What’s your take on this statement – have you seen this yourself?
BA: I actually have not seen that. We’re trying to position the city, in terms of organics waste collection, to fulfill a number of goals, and community composting plays an extremely important role in terms of introducing the community to organics and composting and the concept that you can recycle this other part of the waste stream, and to showing what actually happens to your organic waste, how it turns into compost; and creating a valuable product for the local communities.
The capacity for local, small-scale community composting is too small to handle the vast hundred and thousands of tons of material that we’re looking to divert through organics recycling. So, we as a city also have a parallel mission to find how we bring composting to scale and actually move major tonnage of material to recycling, to composting and to renewable energy. So, for us we see both as extremely important, because the local community composting creates beneficial use for the city. They have been critical to introduce the concept that this is a useful strategy but it’s not going to help us divert all of the waste. There’s so much waste in New York City, that we don’t think we’d be able to handle it through community composting. You have to have large, permitted facilities to really handle that quantity of material.
But there’s plenty of material to go around, and absolutely – this is why we fund local community composting operations – we see it as a critical piece to the pie, a piece to the puzzle.
We’re really focusing on [understanding] how we create this as a cooperative program. But it’s really tough, I mean, you have people who’ve been in the trenches for two decades working on local community composting, and I understand that maybe there’s a fear that if the city takes over this program that there won’t be a place for local community composting, and we do not at all see that as the case. They are both critical to achieving the city’s overall goal, which is diverting major tonnage of material, and creating beneficial use for local communities.
Compost Use & Compost Markets
Q: If the program is rolled out city-wide, you will have a lot of compost on your hands. What are you planning to do with the compost and what are you currently doing with it?
BA: We take the material from the pilot to local and regional compost facilities. With the material that’s taken to the regional facilities, we don’t actually take back the compost at this point. There may be a situation moving forward where we develop a relationship where we would have a certain percentage of the compost come back. With the material that’s processed locally, we turn it into compost and use it in street trees, we use it in parks, we use it in gardens. We have give-back programs for non-profits, schools and community groups, to use the compost for their greening projects. We also create a mulch product in addition to compost. And most of the material that we’re currently compost locally is yard waste, and that creates a beautiful mulch product as well as the compost. We also sell the compost to landscapers, so we do have a small revenue stream there.
Q: Are you involved in creating markets for compost, or encouraging market growth for compost?
BA: For the material we compost locally, we’ve worked on this landscaper market, and it’s really a bulk purchase type of situation. We have not gotten into the business of creating a retail market for the material – it just hasn’t been necessary to date, because we’re handling and selling all the material with the landscapers and with our give-back programs. With the regional composting facilities that are taking the material during the pilot period, we have not been involved in how they’re marketing the material, although we are evaluating with them the quality of the material we’re giving them, and the quality of the material that comes out, so we understand better what it is we can create from the material that would come out of a New York City stream.
Q: What is the quality like, and what contamination rate are you experiencing?
BA: The quality is quite good. In the residential program, our contamination rate is very, very low. It’s well below five percent. So we feel very good about that. It is a voluntary program, so the people who participate want to participate and try to do it right. That may change obviously when you make it mandatory.
Q: Is creating a market for compost something you’re looking at doing in the future?
BA: It would definitely be part of our larger plan. We want to ensure that the material is going to beneficial use – and is not just composting; we’re also looking into anaerobic digestion so we can create energy from the material. But creating a viable program, if there’s a way to generate revenue from it, that’s obviously a huge benefit, so it’s definitely something we’ll be looking into.
Q: Yes indeed, and we just released a new lesson – Lesson 5 – of our course were we take a detailed look at market creation for compost as well. And in terms of your aims or objectives with the organic material – as you said, diverting materials from landfill and supporting communities are on your list. But what about the organic material itself and what it’s used for? Are you focused solely on creating revenue streams, with waste-to-energy for example, or are you more concerned with creating quality compost to help replenish the soil?
BA: One of our biggest objectives is to find ways to reduce the material going to landfill, and the parallel objective is to create beneficial use. And obviously as a city we are concerned about being cost-effective in what we do, so any opportunities we have to market material and gain revenue streams is important. We are focused primarily at this point on the composting, because that’s a proven technology; we know there are existing facilities, we know that a useful product can be created and marketed.
Anaerobic digestion is a little bit newer of a technology for us in the North-East. There are wastewater treatment plants that have been using anaerobic digestion for a long time, and the question is: how viable is it to utilise AD for a municipal organics program? What we’ve learned is that the challenges are when you co-mingle food waste and yard waste, and food soiled paper, that can cause problems with anaerobic digestion, and so we’re trying to figure out if those energy conversion technologies (such as anaerobic digestion), could be viable with our waste stream. We won’t be able to collect yard waste separately from food waste, we really need the efficiency of collection to collect it all together , and so the question is: is there an option to utilise anaerobic digestion with that type of material streams.
On the commercial side, with businesses, we expect it’ll be food waste. So we think that there’s quite a good opportunity there for turning food into renewable energy through anaerobic digestion. But on the residential side, we think it may be more difficult.
Q: So you’re going to stick with composting, which is probably the most ideal option on many fronts.
BA: Yes. The challenges there of course is that you need a lot of space for composting – there are siting issues. For New York City, siting any new facility is expensive and difficult. There’s permitting processes, and because we’re right the confluence of three different states, each state has their own permitting requirements and procedures.
Closing the Loop
Q: And for our listeners who are rolling out similar programs, we strongly recommend fully integrating the multiple benefits of compost use in the program vision. Keeping organics out of a landfill and managing the waste streams is important – and it’s usually the main argument to be had in large cities – but then programs need to take into account all the benefits of compost use as well when developing operations. We’re finding out that many programs need to put more focus on end-product quality. So there’s a whole ecosystem involved here and it goes beyond just the ‘waste management’ side of things, so it’s very important to include that in the program vision.
And so Bridget, in terms of closing the loop as much as possible do you travel far to the composting sites you use, or?
BA: We have one composting facility on Staten Island, and that’s a great system. So, all the material that we collect on Staten Island, stays on Staten Island, so that’s a very closed-loop and successful system. For the other material that we have, everything is within a hundred miles of the city, but we do have to truck it outside the city. And so, we basically say it’s regional capacity. And we’re hopeful that once we position ourselves to go to scale, that we will be able to work with companies who will local themselves closer to New York City.
Organic Waste COLLECTION in A MEGACITY: Successes and Advice
Q: The project has been a great success so far and it’ll be exciting to see how it progresses, but already you’ve gained a lot of experience and tackled a host of issues. I’d love to know more about the pitfalls and successes you’ve experienced on your journey so far. How has it been?
BA: Yeah, so one of the best things that has happened is that we found these local resident champions of the program, and they are the best sales people. Having peer-to-peer interactions where people are explaining to their neighbours how great the program is, how little trash they have left, and how easy it is, has been incredibly helpful. And we found that it takes a lot of work, but the in-person interactions that we have as a program with the residents is really the most effective way to get people who may be a little bit shy, nervous or intimidated on board.
We get a lot of questions and concerns about rodents and pests, and they say it’ll be more work. Well, we say it’s the same amount of waste that you’re throwing out now, you’re just putting it in a separate bin. And the bin that we have has a lid and a latch, and so we’re able to explain to people that it actually reduces the potential for pest issues because you’re containing that waste. Right now New York City has primarily a bag program, so material is placed out at the curb in bags, and when you have a plastic bag, it’s much easier for a rat to chomp into the back and access the food. If the food is in a container, it’s much more difficult for them to access that meal. So we’re working with the Department of Health to study how the rodent populations are affected by the program.
We’ve also had some people say there’s been fruit flies and maggots, and those sorts of things. And it’s amazing because we use social media a lot in the program, and we often have residents providing best practices and tips to the people who have concerns about fruit flies and maggots before we even get to them. So, we have a list of best practices and tips, but we really do rely also on that peer-to-peer education.
Q: And finally, for our audience who might be wondering how to start a similar program in other large cities around the world, what advice would you give for rolling out a system like this in a large city?
BA: I would say that you need to have a plan for where you’re going to take the material. Don’t set up the front-end without the back-end in place – that’s critical. I would say the best way to roll-out the program is to do it so it follows the existing collection schedules and the existing behaviour patterns of people – so we said “add this to the recycling bay, they’re already setting out recycling” or “have them set it out on the same days as trash”. That way the behaviour is sort of the same, it’s just that you’re separating out the material.
The stakeholder engagement has been critical, so speaking with the elected officials and getting them on board – they can be your best advocates in their districts. We found that not only the elected officials, but the local civic organisations have been critical. You have these informal mayors of neighbourhoods that really understand the neighbourhood and understand what messaging will work in that neighbourhood; is this a neighbourhood that will respond better to the fact that we’re trying to save taxpayer money? Is this a neighbourhood that will respond better to the environmental message? That’s been critical for us to target our education and our messaging.