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All the dirt on New York City's organics recycling program

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While New York City's Department of Sanitation has decided to pause the expansion of its organics recycling program for now, the program remains in place for 3.5 million city residents in all five boroughs.

It was going to include all New Yorkers by the end of 2018 but ran into issues with collection, according to Gothamist, which found that some residents in participating areas are still unsure what to put in those brown bins. The city says it is going to work with New Yorkers to help get them sorted out.

"We expect to have a modified expansion schedule in the coming months," says Belinda Mager, director of digital media and communications for the NYC Department of Sanitation. "Residents in the current participating areas will continue receiving curbside organics collection service while we continue intensive outreach in these neighborhoods to grow participation. We will also continue supporting food scrap drop-off programs across the city," Mager says.

If your neighborhood is in one of the more than two dozen community boards participating in the program, you can continue to sort food scraps and yard waste in order to keep them out of landfills. 

[Editor's note: An earlier version of this article ran in April, 2017. It has been updated with new information for July, 2018.]

Why should you recycle food?

"When organic material is sent to landfill, it gives off greenhouse gases as it decomposes; that’s bad for the environment," Mager explains. "Additionally, food scraps left in plastic bags on city curbs are an easily accessible and attractive dinner to rats, mice, and other city critters. Putting your food scraps in our hard-sided, locking brown bins eliminates the critters’ dinner, and allows that material to be recycled."

Organic material can be turned into compost or renewable energy. Mager says the city's free “compost give back” events, which offer compost made from previously collected organic material, are very successful.

What foods can you recycle?

The city's collection program takes fruit and veggie scraps, eggshells, and even dirty paper napkins. Things like fat or cooking grease are a no-go. Human and animal waste are off-limits as well. When in doubt, the Department of Sanitation has lists of materials that should and shouldn't be included in your brown bin.

Some other items that can go in the city's brown bins may surprise you: Cooked or baked foods, cereal, grains, and pasta; spoiled or expired food; meat, fish, bones, and seafood shells can all be collected.

"If residents are open to giving it a try, they will find the program very easy. Instead of putting your food scraps in a black trash bag, you put them in a kitchen collection container. As you gather the rest of your trash and recycling for collection, residents can transfer the contents of their kitchen container to their brown bin," Mager says.

For easy cleanup and collection, residents can line their brown bins with a paper or plastic bag. The plastic bag will be pulled from the organic material at the processing facility, she says.

"Residents who participate are often surprised that there’s not much trash left, once the paper, metal, glass, plastic, and organics are removed," Mager says.

What should you use for storing food scraps?

The city handed out small light-colored bins for storing scraps in the kitchen, but there are options if you need to get your own. Any sealable plastic container—an empty tub of yogurt, even a plastic bag—will do. 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.

Leah Retherford, project manager at The NYC Compost Project Hosted by Big Reuse, which runs food scrap drop collections around the city, says the best way to store organics—until you're ready to put them in your brown bin—is in the fridge or the freezer.

"Keeping them cold will keep them smell free," she says.

Retherford has another suggestion if you are new to recycling organics: Start with low hanging fruit, both literally and figuratively. She suggests focusing on collecting organics like banana peels and leaves in your yard.

"You’ll get in the habit and see that it's not really messy," Retherford says. "Your trash gets smaller and you take it out less frequently. For lots of people, once they start, they see how easy it is."

How do I get rid of it? 

If you live in one of the participating neighborhoods, the city will collect the scraps. If you don't live in one of those collection areas, there are free drop-off locations all around the city: Big Reuse has 15 sites around the city; 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, so check the information for your specific location before you head over.

Want to compost it yourself?

If you've got a backyard there's no need to put your organic matter out for collection. You can buy your own composting bin and with a little effort, reap the benefit of soil made from your own compost, which comes in handy for container gardens or flower beds. The Department of Sanitation has a very thorough guide on how to use backyard composting bins.

And if you don't have a backyard, you can compost in your apartment, but for that you need, yes, worms. Sustainable America has a handy infographic on how to get started in your apartment.