Compost 101: All the dirt New Yorkers need for "organics collection"

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Though it's years away from becoming the city-wide mandate Bloomberg envisioned, composting is unquestionably on the rise in New York. We're slowly catching up to cities like Seattle and San Francisco that have been doing it for years, and according to the New York Times, having a surprisingly good time doing it.

[This story originally ran in June 2014 and was updated with new information in April 2017.]

The city has been rolling out a pilot program over the past few years (early neighborhoods included Park Slope and Windsor Terrace), and now they're expanding to more Brooklyn neighborhoods; new bins will be dropped off in April in north Brooklyn areas, including Williamsburg, East Williamsburg, Greenpoint, and Brownsville, and in May, the program will further expand to southern Brooklyn neighborhoods including Brooklyn Heights, Fort Greene, and Sheepshead Bay. In these neighborhoods, buildings with one to nine units will be automatically enrolled in curbside collection, and larger buildings are free to sign up. (You can check to see if your building and neighborhood are served with this tool on the Sanitation Department's website, and they've also got a map of participating neighborhoods. Currently, there are collections programs in neighborhoods in Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, and Staten Island, and in neighborhoods without a collection program, the option to sign up your building.)

Whether your neighborhood is next on the city's list or you just want to do your part, we've combed the Internet for the city's best composting resources, and chatted with Erik Martig, formerly the program coordinator of BIG!Compost, a community-scale composting network that works to increase capacity and participation in composting in NYC, and has drop-off locations around New York. Waste not want not, as they say.

What can you compost?

Only organic matter—"i.e. it once was a living thing," clarifies Martig—is fair game, but that doesn't include everything. While the city's pick-up program takes all organic matter, most drop-off locations are more particular: fruit and veggie scraps, eggshells, and dirty paper napkins are compostable, but meat, dairy products, bones, and fat or cooking grease are a no-go. 

Human and animal waste are off-limits as well—one newly minted composter told the Times he operated under an "everything but diapers" rule. When in doubt, the Department of Sanitation has lists of materials that should and shouldn't be included in your compost bin.

What should you use for storing compost, and where? 

Failing a city-issued bin (which they'll provide if your home is in a pilot neighborhood), you've got a lot of storage options. Really, any sealable plastic container—be it a Big Gulp cup , an empty tub of yogurt, even a plastic bag—will do. But then, no reason not to use the process as an excuse to buy a smart-looking new accessory for your kitchen. We're particularly into this odor-free bamboo option from Apartment Therapy's roundup of small bins. The city also has a list of relatively low-cost bin options here.

The key is finding something that fits tidily in your kitchen, and ideally, the freezer—the best place to minimize any potential mess and odor. "I prefer a square-shaped container that maximizes the freezer space," says Martig, noting that a full freezer is more energy efficient than an empty freezer anyway. "Most people hear 'store your compost in the freezer' and they automatically think 'yuck.' But if you're eating fresh food and the trimmings are coming off your cutting board and going straight into the freezer you have nothing yucky. Rather, you have frozen carrot tops, bread ends, etc." The freezer method is also a tidy way to nip any fruit fly appearances in the bud.

How do I get rid of it? 

For now, the city is only picking up compost the way it does recycling and garbage in pilot neighborhoods, but for the rest of us, there are free drop-off locations all around the city: BIG!Compost has 14 around Brooklyn and Queens; GrowNYC takes drop-offs at greenmarket locations in all five boroughs; and the Department of Sanitation has a list here of drop-off locations in every borough as well. Hours and availability vary—a lot of drop-offs coincide with weekend markets—so check the information for your specific location before you head over.

The key tool for this step is to have biodegradable bags on hand (unless you're lucky enough to have a backyard with compost bins), whether you're transporting your own or just lining your city-issued collection bin. This way, you can keep your waste tied up and contained without causing an added hassle for compost facilities, which aren't set up to handle materials in normal plastic bags, says Martig. In particular, he says, look for something with the ASTM 6400 label and stamped by the Bioplastics Institute.

To worm or not to worm?

For the type of composting rolling out in New York, wherein waste is picked up on a regular basis, there are no worms required (the city will take your scraps to a second location for all that fun decomposition). But if you've got a backyard or are generally eager to create a self-sustaining bin full of friendly little worms that just couldn't be more excited about your old apple cores and coffee grounds, Sustainable America has a handy infographic on how to get started in your apartment; the NYC Compost Project also has extensive online resources, as well as regular classes to instruct you on larger outdoor setups.

How do I get started? 

For now, the city's focusing its early efforts on the outer boroughs—none of the pilot neighborhoods are in Manhattan—but buildings in the borough are still eligible to enroll for collection services, which you can do online here.

And if there's no option for your building but you're ready to jump in, Martig suggests you consider composting in a nearby community garden or starting a community compost collective. "The most environmentally sustainable way to compost your scraps is to keep them as local as possible," he says. "Your soil and plants will appreciate it, too!"


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