PARK SLOPE — The neighborhood that has a reputation for its "tree hugger" mentality and its famously "crunchy" Park Slope Food Co-op seemed like an ideal testing ground for the city's residential compost pilot program.
That's why Jennifer Sliwowski was surprised to discover that many families near her Park Slope home were not sorting their food scraps into the small kitchen bins the Department of Sanitation issued as part of the pilot to divert organic material from landfills.
The department is hoping to turn food waste —from apple cores, pumpkin seeds and tea bags to chicken bones and fish skins — into renewable energy or compost to fertilize gardens, parks and street trees.
Organic waste accounts for roughly 31 percent of all residential trash in the city, Sanitation officials said.
"People hadn't even taken out their [kitchen] bins yet," Sliwowski, 33, discovered when walking along Eighth Avenue one day this summer with a banana peel she wanted to toss in one of the brown plastic organic waste bins now sitting among a building's other trash cans.
She saw small white and beige kitchen containers sitting untouched inside the brown street bins they were delivered in.
The pilot started in May 2013, covering roughly 27,000 households — only in buildings that have less than nine units — in parts of Brooklyn’s Windsor Terrace and Park Slope, Staten Island’s Westerleigh and Mariner’s Harbor, and the Bronx’s Throgs Neck and Silverbeach.
These low- and medium-dense neighborhoods tended to be good recyclers already, making them prime candidates to adopt the new program, a Sanitation Department report from June said.
This spring, the department expanded the scope to 100,000 households, reaching Bay Ridge, Sunset Park, Glendale, Middle Village and other areas. Sanitation officials are now in the process of selecting additional neighborhoods to roll out in the spring/summer of 2015.
Participation in the program has been “modest,” according to Sanitation's report on the program's first phase. From May 2013 to March 2014, 44 percent of households “tried the program” at some point and, on average, nearly 17 percent of the brown bins were set out for collection.
"I had to tell my landlord and the super, this is what's going on," Sliwowski said of sorting food scraps. "They had no clue."
The program's early adopters seemed to be people who already had experience composting, like Sliwowski, a former preschool teacher who taught toddlers about the practice and had been sorting her food scraps — using a sleek stainless steel compost pail — even before the city's program was implemented, taking her scraps on the subway to Union Square's greenmarket, near her work.
Her building got maggots in the shared brown bin outside during the dog days of summer, but Sliwowski advised her super to wash it and the problem went away.
Maggots and fruit flies have deterred some would-be composters from sorting their food scraps, some residents said. Others worried the bins of food kept outside might attract other pests — even though the lid has a lock that Sanitation Department officials said makes it harder for pests to access than food that's tossed into bags with the regular trash on the street.
Despite information sent with the bins and other mailers, several residents said they didn't receive much in terms of communication about the program. Many seemed confused by what could be composted, getting tripped up by the fact that meat, oils and bones could be tossed into the bins, even though most compost programs at greenmarkets or elsewhere don’t accept such materials.
"We never got any messaging on when exactly the program was launching or what or how we should compost, and we never got those personal bins," said Park Slope resident Alissa Umansky, 36, a designer. "My excitement and initiative may have waned by the time the program eventually launched."
Face-to-face interactions work best to get people on board, Department of Sanitation spokeswoman Kathy Dawkins explained in an email. But it’s hard to do that with more than 100,000 households now in the program.
"We rely heavily on other outreach strategies" — working with elected officials, community boards and civic groups — "to get the word out, and we aim to supplement that with as many face to face conversations as possible," she said.
Liz Plymell, an occasional saver of food scraps — mostly of eggshells and coffee grounds since she tends to only eat breakfast at the Ninth Street apartment she shares with two roommates — said their bin doesn't fill up quickly enough to warrant taking it out even weekly. They don't want to waste the compostable bags they use to line their kitchen bins.
“Then we have this food rotting for days,” she said, "and I don’t like it sitting around in the kitchen because it invites pests."
Park Slope resident and avid cook Leslie Beller said that using the compost bin has eliminated an entire trash bin from her household's brownstone.
She did, however, hope that "some artist in Bushwick" was brainstorming how to design a better-looking kitchen bin.
Here are tips from the Department of Sanitation to prevent fruit flies or maggots and prevent odors when using the compost bins:
- Since flies are attracted to protein, store meat and bone scraps in the freezer until the bin is ready to be taken out.
- Keep the bin latched.
- Try hanging bruised leaves of mint or bay leaves or apply dabs of camphor or eucalyptus to repel flies.
- Line the outer rim of your bin with salt or spray it with vinegar. You can also sprinkle rock salt or garden lime inside the bin.
- Clean your street bin thoroughly after pick-up day, using a mild detergent, baking soda and water or diluted vinegar. Make sure it's dry before the next use. Keep your kitchen container clean, too.
- Odors are often caused by excess moisture. Reduce moisture by layering dry (paper or leaves) and wet (food waste) materials in your bin.
- Line your bin with newspaper, a paper bag, a piece of cardboard or other dry paper materials to absorb moisture.
- If possible, store the bin in a shaded, well-ventilated area.
- Set your bin out for collection every week, even if it's not full.