New York City residents sort their garbage as part of new composting program

William Holt
William Holt
The Lookout

NEW YORK — Staten Island resident Donna Lokhammer can add another chore to her list: sorting through her garbage for organic waste like potato peels, coffee grounds and chicken bones, and gathering these scraps in a bin to be put on the curb every Saturday morning.

“I’m not so crazy about the size of the bins,” said Lokhammer, of the picnic-size kitchen containers she received from the New York City Sanitation Department to compost her garbage. “They’re like lunchboxes. If you leave them in your kitchen, they start to smell.”

For New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the pilot program in Staten Island’s Westerleigh neighborhood is just a testing ground for a citywide composting initiative. Bloomberg, who finishes his term early next year, has already asked New Yorkers to eat better and exercise more. He’s asked them to cut back on cigarettes, salt and soda. Now, he’s asking them to sort their trash.

Following the example of smaller cities like Seattle and San Francisco that require the recycling of food waste from homes, New York plans to expand its composting program to 150,000 households, 100 high-rises, and 600 schools over the next year. The New York Times first reported the program this week.

While the composting initiative will begin on a voluntary basis, city officials told The Times that residents who do not separate their food scraps from other garbage could eventually be fined, just as they could be now for not recycling paper, plastic or metal.

The pilot program began in Westerleigh in May, when Lokhammer and her neighbors were given brown bins, kitchen containers, and compost bags.

“The Department of Sanitation says that about 45 percent of residences are participating in this program,” said Mike Morrell, president of the Westerleigh Improvement Society. “A lot of people have indicated that they want to keep at it.”

Morrell, who met with city sanitation officials before the implementation of the program, said there was some initial skepticism in his neighborhood.

“Here on the island people are very suspicious of anything coming from Manhattan,” he joked. “There were a few glitches in the beginning. Some people said the bins weren’t big enough. There were also complaints about the availability of liners because what was in the startup kits went quickly. But after a while things became more even-handed.”

Westerleigh residents who have participated in the program generally agree that the pilot has been a success, albeit with a few flaws.

Lokhammer, who was home on Wednesday with her granddaughter, said that she has stuck with the program despite the minor inconveniences, adding that she wants to do her part to help the environment.

“I think it’s a great idea,” Lokhammer said. “But they should have separate bins: one for food and another for leaves and twigs and all that. They fill up too fast.”

The size of the bins isn’t a problem for every Westerleigh resident. Because she lives alone, Nancy Greene has to put her bin out only for Saturday pickup every three weeks. Her only complaint about the program was that she had to adjust to yet another chore.

“It was a little annoying to get used to at first, but I keep up with it,” said Greene. “It’s not for me—it’s for my grandchildren and great grandchildren. If we don’t do something, we’ll all be swimming in garbage.”

Gesturing to both houses next door, Greene said that many of her neighbors have also followed along dutifully.

But some observers are still skeptical about the future of the program in a city where many residents live in small apartments with cramped kitchens that don’t naturally accommodate composting bins.

The possibility of mandatory composting has many critics saying that they’re no longer dealing with “Nanny Bloomberg,” but “Bully Bloomberg.”

In the New York Post, columnist John Podhoretz wrote of the mayor and his latest initiative, “Bloomberg doesn’t like the way voters act, and he wants to change it—and the fact that they’re his bosses, not his employees, has never quite gotten through to him.

“For him, telling people what to do isn’t enough,” Podhoretz added. “The real fun is in making them change through compulsion—laws and regulations explicitly designed to redirect behavior.”

The mayor’s composting program is expected to go citywide by 2015 or 2016. With 8.4 million residents, New York would not only be the largest city in the United States to require the recycling of food scraps but would also present a unique challenge because of its population density—more than 26,000 people per square mile compared with Seattle’s 6,700.

In his State of the City address in February, Bloomberg called food waste “New York City’s final recycling frontier.” He has also tied the initiative to his larger sustainability effort, PlaNYC, which he launched in 2007. PlaNYC includes the goal of diverting 75 percent of the city’s solid waste from landfills by 2030.