Want to get apartment dwellers to recycle more? There’s a lot to learn from voluntary programs that now make it easy for a growing number of New Yorkers to collect organics, electronics, and clothing right in their buildings.
Getting Beyond 17% in NYC
Representing a key component of New York City’s Zero Waste by 2030 plan, these programs complement mandatory in-building collection for mixed recyclables (blue bins) and paper and cardboard (green bins). With New York City residents only recycling 17% of their waste — half the national average — they help to ensure that more of the 74% of the city’s waste stream that is recyclable finds its way to a facility. How are these in-building apartment recycling programs being received? What can apartment dwellers in any city learn from their implementation challenges and success?
Programs May Be Easy for Residents, Not So Easy for Management
Although these in-building programs make collecting clothing, e-waste and organics in NYC apartment buildings a snap for residents, they may not be so easy to implement. First getting the bins placed inside buildings and then enlisting resident participation requires cooperation and commitment from busy superintendents, landlords or co-op and condo boards as well as property managers who likely have higher priorities than recycling. Indeed, many building managers still struggle to align residents with the City’s mandatory blue and green collection system.
Things seem to be going okay in my own building, but not so in many others across the City. We collect clothing and textiles via a ‘re-fashionNYC’ bin placed in our basement alley. And residents can drop-off their recyclable electronics into a large locked metal ‘E-cycle’ cage stored in our parking garage. (The co-op board has refused to allow in-house collection of organics for fear of pests.) Thanks to an environmentally aware super and residents who want to do their bit, things are going well. But challenges exist at other buildings in my neighborhood, and in the buildings of trash-aware colleagues around New York City who took our informal online survey last month.
Here are some of my insights into what seems to be necessary to make these programs work, and what committed residents can do to gain traction among building managers and neighbors.
Three NYC Recycling Collection Programs: An Overview
New York City’s collection program for food scraps, yard waste, and food-soiled paper now spans all five boroughs, including single-family homes as well as high rises. More households are being added to the program steadily.
Organics are picked up by Department of Sanitation (DSNY) trucks once or twice per week depending on the neighborhood. Eligible households receive a starter kit that includes a instructions, an indoor kitchen container, and either a small outdoor brown bin or a larger one to share (as in small apartment buildings) that is specially designed to limit infestation and curb odors. Residential buildings across the five boroughs with 10+ units can apply for and enroll in organics collection service.
This program represents a partnership between DSNY and Housing Works, a popular not-for-profit that benefits AIDS patients and combats homelessness. Free donation bins complete with tax receipts are available for buildings with 10+ units. Housing Works arranges pick-ups when the bins are reported as full. Buildings can enroll online.
As of January 2015, it is illegal in New York State to put TVs, computers, and other electronic waste in curbside trash. DSNY partners with Electronic Recyclers International, an e-scrap processing firm that provides secure storage bins and arranges for pick-ups in apartment buildings with 10+ units. Learn more here.
Challenges of Increasing Apartment Recycling in NYC
Buildings looking to increase apartment recycling with these voluntary programs must find adequate space, ideally located near existing blue and green bins and those for regular trash. Popular spots seem to be basements and laundry rooms, but not all buildings are lucky enough to have these extra spaces. Moreover, success brings its own challenges since whatever extra space exists is often taken up by the storage of (bulky) mixed plastic, glass, metal, and paper recyclables which are now picked up just once weekly (compared to twice or thrice weekly trash pickups).
Getting Commitment from Boards, Property Managers, and Supers to Help Increase Recycling in Multi-family Apartment Buildings
Superintendents seem to be the gatekeeper for these voluntary in-building apartment recycling programs since they are responsible for trash management and building maintenance. Skepticism is an issue; building officials ask: Will residents actually participate in these programs, or will I be doing extra work with little or no results? What if the clothing, electronics, and especially organics are not collected in a timely fashion, as promised, within five to seven business days? Not surprisingly, collection of organics raises particular concerns about odors, and food scraps becoming a magnet for flies and rodents.
Educating Apartment Dwellers
Enthusiasm for and alignment with existing blue and green bin apartment recycling collection programs can be a gauge of potential receptivity for these new voluntary programs. Co-locating bins in well-trafficked spaces helps create awareness, but time and resources still need to be allotted to providing specifics about what to drop in the bins and what to direct to the trash, all to minimize ‘aspirational recycling‘. Time can also be consumed in picking up after residents who drop non-reccylables into the bins.
Strategies for Increasing Recycling in NYC Apartment Buildings
With so many potential barriers, it is critical to demonstrate how these in-building apartment recycling programs actually enhance building operations, and how easy they are for residents to comply with.
1. Underscore the benefits supers and higher level managers want to hear.
These voluntary recycling programs can ultimately save staff time, effort, and money. Using special bins to collect food scraps, for instance, can help to reduce chute cleaning costs. According to Catherine Bragdon of NYC’s Department of Health, initial testing has found that apartment buildings using the hard plastic, securely-sealed organics bins experienced no more rodents than buildings that stored food-laden trash in traditional thick-ply black trash bags that can tear and leak.
2. Underscore credibility of DSNY partners.
The goal of Housing Works and Electronic Recyclers International is to make sure pickups happen as promised. Remind management that these programs help to educate residents about recycling and establish new waste habits. What can be especially helpful is to find other building supers who are willing to share their experiences and strategies for success.
3. Help co-op and condo boards appreciate how successful implementation of apartment recycling programs can improve building aesthetics, help manage trash costs, and attract new residents.
When presenting to a co-op or condo board, attempt to enlist a like-minded champion member. Emphasize potential savings in staff time that can be put to better use on building upkeep. Remind board members that these programs could eventually become mandatory, meaning that effort spent now can save on fines later.
Offer the names of supportive residents. (One super I spoke to was surprised to find that a number of residents in his building are already taking trash and food scraps to transfer stations in communities where they have second homes, so they are already aware of and may even expect that their city residence help them collect scraps as well.) Finally, report on positive results in other buildings (or seek the help of DSNY reps to do so).
4. Reinforce the strategic business opportunity for property managers’ own organizations.
These in-house apartment recycling programs can help property managers develop new expertise that can lead to better management of buildings across their portfolio, and give their firm a competitive advantage in attracting new clients.
How to Motivate Apartment Dwellers to Increase Recycling
Chances are, resident interest in program participating will vary from apathetic to enthusiastic. Start by focusing on like-minded neighbors who may especially appreciate the environmental and convenience benefits. Then, entice others with financial benefits associated with containing costs.
Be sure to point residents to bin locations with DSNY-supplied and customizable posters, flyers, and signs. Consider setting up a table in the lobby to engage residents one-on-one. Rick Schulman of NYC’s Schwab House has some excellent tips here.
Finally, inform residents whose buildings have not opted in to these programs that they can take their food scraps, clothing, and e-waste to greenmarkets run by the GrowNYC not for profit across the five boroughs, and at various pop-up events around the city.
New York City, with its 8.4 million residents speaking 35 languages and creating 12,000 tons of residential waste per day (half the city’s total), has unique and pressing apartment recycling challenges. It will only be with the commitment of all parties that these new programs will be successful. Empowered residents have an important role to play.
Let’s start a conversation…
What are YOUR apartment building’s unique recycling challenges? What are some ideas for getting support from superintendents and building management? for enlisting fellow residents, co-workers, or even family members in new forms of recycling? Let us know in the comments below.
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