Source Separated Organics In Large New York City Apartment Buildings

Research at buildings with 10 or more units that are part of NYC’s curbside SSO pilot identifies five themes that have implications for the program’s near-term future.

Samantha MacBride
BioCycle January 2015, Vol. 56, No. 1, p. 67

Residents, managers and workers who are spearheading the process of apartment building-level SSO say they don’t really know what happens to the materials they are diverting.

Residents, managers and workers who are spearheading the process of apartment building-level SSO say they don’t really know what happens to the materials they are diverting.

Imagine a huge city, full of large apartment buildings. Here, residents find it natural to separate kitchen scraps as they cook and eat. Keeping organics in countertop caddies, and carrying them to communal bins, is comfortable, convenient and easy. In every building, workers tend to these bins, using biodegradable plastic bags to keep odors and vermin at bay. City trucks serve diverse neighborhoods, making frequent curbside pickups of source separated organics (SSO), along with recyclables. As a result, there is little trash left to collect. This is a city where most people separate organics as a matter of course, because they understand that doing so is morally and economically better than wasting. At a deeper level, they appreciate that what can rot can also make things grow.

Now imagine the same city, full of neighborhoods. In some, wasted food is separated and set out in front of buildings in bins, as are paper, metal, glass and plastic recyclables. In others, participation in recycling is low and has been low for decades. So it goes with organics. Collection vehicles traverse the streets, only partially filling up. Because of inefficient collections, fuel and equipment are wasted. There is pressure on the program to prove itself. With so many costs and hurdles, many policymakers want to forgo SSO entirely, and institute other practices that don’t ask anyone to separate, such as mixed waste processing. Why go to all the bother for such little yield?

The city in these two scenarios is New York, where over half of some eight million residents live in large apartment buildings (defined as having 10 apartments or more.) As of today, both scenarios are equally possible. Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the mastermind of PlaNYC (the City’s first comprehensive sustainability plan), spearheaded the idea of city-wide curbside organics collection in 2012. New York City Department of Sanitation (DSNY) put this idea into action, implementing several pilot programs, including one specifically for apartment buildings of 10 units or more. Between then and now, over 100 buildings have voluntarily enrolled in this program. Outreach and education has been the job of DSNY and the Office of Recycling Outreach and Education (OROE), a program of the nonprofit GrowNYC, which runs the city’s Greenmarket® system.

So far, tonnages of collected material from volunteering buildings are miniscule in relation to the total quantities of organics generated by apartment buildings throughout the city. The small-scale, selective success of New York City’s (NYC) program begs the question of scalability and expansion. This is a crucial matter because the continuation of the pilot will be evaluated based on results in late 2015, under the terms of Local Law 77 (New York City Council, 2013). Because of the high costs of truck-based collection from a small number of scattered apartment buildings (in contrast to the efficiencies of regular curbside collection of refuse), the program’s future hinges on understanding how it can expand to achieve economies of scale. Which future scenario will describe NYC in 10 years?

Five Themes

Since late 2013, I have been trying to answer, and inform, this question by conducting ethnographic research in apartment buildings in NYC that have volunteered to be part of the curbside SSO program. As opposed to collecting survey responses, setout weights or data on waste composition, ethnographic research consists of talking to people and observing their everyday routines over extended periods of time. I conduct formal interviews, focus groups, and visits to buildings to look at set-ups and talk with residents and workers. Through recordings and note taking, I carefully examine opinions and practices of everyone involved. Interviews are transcribed and coded for content to look at patterns and trends.

My question is simple: how will a SSO program work in NYC’s multitude of apartment buildings? Research is still ongoing, but so far five themes have emerged, each with implications for the program’s near-term future.


More and more, social science research is focusing on networks to understand policy problems and social change (Latour, 2005). For NYC’s pilot, networks of information and practice around composting and other types of waste reduction lay the foundation for participation. Webs of understanding grow as people in communities share information and perform tasks. Other residents learn about the SSO pilot during outreach visits by DSNY and OROE to promote recycling, e-waste take-back and textile donation. Person-to-person contact with spokespeople from government and nonprofit sectors leads to interest among “resident activists,” who persuade building management to enroll in the pilot. These activists come from all walks of life, ages and backgrounds, but have a few things in common. First, they hold political power in their building. They organize meetings and have the connections and charisma needed to sway others to their cause. Second, they have some prior experience with composting and/or gardening, and are familiar with both the “how to” and the “why to” of turning organics into compost.

Through constant action and interaction, a network effect builds awareness and interest. Curbside collection of organics becomes a “known thing” in the neighborhood. Some residents of buildings that are not in the pilot even sneak their food scraps over to participating complexes. Being part of a new program is seen as a prize on the block. Everyone wants a brown organics bin. In parallel, community interest in treating discards as resources spreads electronically. Programs are discussed on neighborhood listservs and Facebook pages. Residents and staff make videos full of tips about separating and storing kitchen wastes.


Separating organics for collection is one thing, but where do these materials go, and what happens to them? “Trajectories” are accounts of what happens once stuff is collected at the curb. The same residents, managers and workers who are spearheading the process of building-level SSO tell me that they don’t really know the trajectory of the SSO, but would very much like to. Many have heard that “renewable” energy is a potential output of organics separation, but they don’t understand how it’s produced, nor are they clear on its connection to compost. Others imagine farmers using the SSO to grow food, but are unsure about how or where this happens.

Media in NYC has sparked some of this interest. A flurry of stories in 2013 reported that residential food scraps were being transformed into biogas at the NYC Department of Environmental Protection’s (DEP) wastewater treatment plant (Rose, 2014). More recently, contamination problems and the closure of the Peninsula Compost facility in Wilmington, Delaware have been highlighted as contributing to the disposal of some SSO (Eddings, 2014). The reality in both cases is more complex than the media stories portray. The DEP digester accepted tiny quantities of residential SSO, and only for a short time. It is currently undergoing retrofits, and will resume taking loads of slurried organics in a few months. At that time, however, it will limit its acceptance to commercial food waste only. Biogas will be fed into the grid; digestate (primarily biosolids) will mostly go to landfill.

For the interim, residential SSO is being trucked to composting facilities, all but one at some distance from the city. The carefully separated food scraps and yard trimmings won’t be wasted, however. Despite reports to the contrary, only a fraction of highly contaminated SSO (from schools, not residential generators) has ended up having to be disposed.

Overall, there is a general disconnect between the pilot program’s messages of how and why to separate organics, and information on actual trajectories of what is separated. Current DSNY and OROE outreach messages are circumspect about what specifically happens to material collected, and details about contracts with processors and the fate of processed materials are not discussed in the “how to’s” or “why to’s” of SSO in NYC. Yet there is a real, and legitimate, thirst among the public to know more about what happens to the materials they diligently separate. Providing accurate accounts of how SSO becomes compost, and where that compost is used, is important to program participants, and resonates with promotion of programs as both earth and energy conserving.


The “yuck factor” is experienced through the five senses, and close to home. Residents and workers talk about “yuck” as a set of threats. Many believe that separation of organics concentrates them, or makes a “soup,” so that odor, slime, mold, maggots and other troubling indices of decay become more potent. Another common opinion is that placing separated organics at curbside invites disease-bearing bacteria, roaches, rats and raccoons. The experience of “yuck” is both visceral, and rooted in concern over public health.

SSO educators typically deal with such concerns in two ways. In the first, they recommend using bins, bags and liners to contain and conceal putrescence. In the second, they point out that separated food is no more vulnerable to fester and predation than “garbage” in black bags at the curb. The latter argument, while technically correct, is not convincing for most pilot participants. Residents and building workers highly value hard-sided bins, liner bags and kitchen containers, finding them indispensable for what they understand as a very different discard process than “taking out the trash.” In their experience, SSO (unlike “regular” garbage) must be managed attentively and carefully, using layers of impermeable (i.e. plastic) containment, to create barriers against threats to cleanliness and health.

Building Labor

Applied literature on SSO and recycling programs in multifamily dwellings sometimes mentions the importance of working with building managers, but overall the experiences, insights and stories of laborers who deal with discards day in, day out, are understudied. The notion that waste work is “invisible” has been demonstrated vividly in Robin Nagle’s Picking Up (Nagle, 2013). In NYC, thousands of building superintendents, janitors, porters and custodians make waste management possible every day. They keep common areas clean and materials moving, sort through recyclables that building residents haven’t properly separated, operate compactors, and service garbage rooms. They know collection schedules and avoid DSNY tickets.

In SSO buildings, workers also manage the consolidation and setout of organics at curbside. Most report having been skeptical of organics separation before it was introduced — by management fiat — in their building. But to their surprise concerns over vermin have not been borne out; quite the opposite has resulted. The hard-sided bins provided by DSNY keep out rats and other pests. Bins also retain odors, which requires cleaning between setouts. Careful attention is required, but chores related to SSO participation do not, workers feel, result in a lot of extra work time (see box). Moving bins from basement to curb in buildings with steep stairs and narrow warrens of basement storage areas (typical of many old NYC buildings), on the other hand, is a real structural obstacle for those who lug discards out for collection.

Income Class

New York City, in all its diversity, is home to very high and very low income neighborhoods, often quite near one another. For over 20 years, there has been a persistent positive correlation between median household income of a neighborhood and the curbside diversion rate. (Research by DSNY suggests that structural factors such as building setup, provision of bins and signage, and level of custodial care are a primary factor versus income (DSNY, 2007).) In other words, richer zones recycle better (absent direct incentives such as bottle bills or other forms of compensated recycling). This trend is found throughout the U.S. and internationally as well (Miafodzyeva and Brandt, 2013). There is no question that this is a phenomenon; the question is why.

Thus far, the NYC SSO pilot is reproducing the unhealthy connection between affluence and diversion as it rolls out. Volunteer buildings fall into one of two categories. Some are luxury rentals where the SSO program is one amenity offered among many. These venues are inspired by the LEED green building movement, incorporating energy and water efficiency into their operations, and marketing SSO as a premium service. Other volunteering buildings are middle to high income co-ops. The communal, board-managed nature of coops makes them perfect venues for communication and organizing. Resident activists thrive, educating neighbors and boosting the spirit of composting building-wide.

Both types of buildings appear to be good hosts for SSO programs, but they by no means reflect the majority of multi-unit housing in NYC. Among low to middle income private rental buildings, and low income co-ops, there are in fact no volunteering buildings. (This article does not address NYC Housing Authority buildings, which have separate waste management arrangements from private rentals and also do not participate in SSO. There is one instance of supervised low income housing for the elderly that is participating.) NYC is in the early days of the SSO pilot; some here believe that higher end buildings can be considered “low-hanging fruit” upon which to bootstrap the program citywide. Nonetheless, the income disparity in enrollment is troubling. What is to prevent SSO expansion from following the same direction as curbside recycling along lines of rich and poor?


The five themes identified require further refinement and then testing, through surveys and curbside weight/composition analysis. Much is still unknown about building-level participation rates, capture rates and material quality in NYC. But sooner rather than later, New York City has to think through how it intends to expand SSO beyond 100 or so volunteering buildings to the over 170,000 buildings in the city that are over 10 units. These buildings span the gamut of neighborhoods, and are home to high, middle and low income residents. Fostering and expanding networks of composters, gardeners and food scraps drop-off points throughout the city is a clear way to proceed (and already happening via the Greenmarket initiative and commuter drop-offs managed by NYC Compost Project’s community composters, as chronicled in 2013 and 2014 articles in BioCycle). If anything, more of these small-scale sites should be implemented, including extending the possibility of enabling neighborhood drop-offs at or near participating buildings.

The good news is that in NYC, there is wide, albeit diffuse, enthusiasm about and understanding of how SSO programs can promote holistic environmental goals (as well as the interrelationship between climate change and food justice) — but more government transparency about what happens to organics, and compost, is needed to address public interest responsibly. At the same time, residents’ hesitancy about the “yuck” of curbside SSO can’t be underestimated as the program is rolled out. Providing materials to keep organics contained and residents protected from “threats” will be essential but expensive, involving citywide distribution of bins and free or low cost compostable plastic liners, on large scales.

The green building movement is beginning to transform NYC’s infrastructure. The city’s Greener, Greater Buildings plan has meant major changes for thousands of residential structures. In parallel, NYC’s building worker’s union, Local 32BJ, has pioneered a Green Supers training program that is a model for the country. Currently its curriculum focuses on energy, HVAC and water efficiency. Graduates report feeling empowered and transformed, professionally and personally, by the knowledge they gain. This training curriculum, along with other forms of employee development, is a clear area in which outreach and education for SSO might be directed more specifically than in past efforts. Developing skills in managing source separation can be framed as part of the green building movement, bringing professionalization and prestige to the task of handling waste.

At the same time, Local 32BJ’s coverage itself follows disparities in neighborhood income, with buildings in wealthier areas of NYC more likely to be unionized than those in lower income zones. A structural approach to studying the relationship between neighborhood income and diversion looks at factors like space, signage, staffing level and union coverage, rather than relying on folk wisdom about residents’ knowledge, attitudes or intentions. But where does a structural understanding lead? Traditionally, the thinking in NYC has been that SSO (or recycling) compliance in low income zones is “challenging” because structural features are inescapable. This thinking needs to change.

The survival of SSO as a practice, and its flourishing as a pillar of sustainable discards management along with recycling, reuse and prevention in NYC, depends on challenging accepted notions of what can and can’t work, and then thinking through how to put those challenges into practical action that respects NYC’s many differences (in building type, neighborhood features, work roles, and operational requirements). SSO programs must extend to everyone, not just those in the nicer section of town. Outreach and education strategies that take account of the special qualities of local communities, building stock, workers and neighborhood institutions — through newer approaches like community based social marketing — stand the best chance of redressing a long-standing feature of diversion inequity in New York City (McKenzie-Mohr, 2013).

Samantha MacBride, Ph.D. is Assistant Professor in the School of Public Affairs at the City University of New York Baruch College. 

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