Recycling the Big Apple (Core): Food Scrap Collection Comes to New York City

The New York City mayor’s office last week announced the rollout of food scrap recycling to City residents after a successful pilot program in Staten Island. apple on a NYC park benchWhile this newest move toward Zero Waste by a big city is encouraging, we suspect that plenty of Zero Waste Outreach will be needed to make this new behavior palatable to blasé New Yorkers. The Big Apple will come up against many of the barriers to food scrap recycling that we struggle with on the West Coast, including countering perceptions of odor and vermin — aka the “yuck factor” — that make introducing food scrap recycling so challenging.

While several headlines focus on New York’s new “leadership” with this move, it should be noted that the City’s broad goal is to divert 30% of waste from landfills by 2017 (and 75% by 2030), as compared to San Francisco’s goal of zero waste by 2020 and the State of California’s goal of a 75% diversion rate by 2020, with an ultimate target of zero waste. New York’s current residential recycling rate is a startlingly low 15 percent.

The City conducted a pilot program in Staten Island, and officials were heartened after reaching a 43% participation rate in the targeted area. However, Staten Island is atypical of New York in that it comprises largely single-family homes. We know from our outreach work that multi-family dwellings (MFDs) are one of the most challenging segments when it comes to organics recycling … and there are a lot of apartment buildings in New York. MFDs lag single family dwellings in recycling rates by a huge margin. In Seattle, for example, single family homes achieved a 70.3% recycling rate in 2010, versus 29.6% for MFDs. Barriers to food scrap recycling in multi-unit buildings include space concerns, the perceived inconvenience, high turnover among residents and building managers, and lack of accountability, as the anonymity afforded by a large apartment building can let people assume that no one will know who’s not using the correct bin.

Believe it or not, curbside food scrap composting has been tried previously in New York, with a pilot program in Brooklyn in the early 1990s. But perhaps the effort was ahead of its time. The pilot wasn’t extended due to concerns that diversion would be low, while the expense and environmental impact of adding another truck route to the waste collection system was high.

In the interim, composting has been championed by a local agency, NYC Compost Project, which supports and promotes community-based composting sites throughout the City. The 20 years that have passed since the Brooklyn pilot likely means a better return on investment

We salute New Yorkers for taking steps toward reducing waste; each diverted pail-full will make a difference. If food scrap recycling can make it there, it can make it anywhere!

Confessions of an Environmental Outreach Strategist

At Gigantic we have a favorite guerilla marketing example we like to show to our clients, and we refer to it often in our own campaign brainstorms as well: the running toilet video…

In the video, a toilet mascot running across the field at a football game gets tackled by a security guard, followed by the message “Denver Water asks you to stop running toilets.” It’s brilliant, it’s simple, it’s funny, it’s memorable. I’ve been touting it without hesitation and without any qualms about, um, the fact that I’ve had a running toilet at home for months.

Our leaky toilet shuts itself on and off as though it were haunted by some ghost with a bladder problem. It seemed like a relatively minor nuisance — until last Tuesday, when our water bill showed just how significant the leak really is. Comparing 2012 and 2013 over the same period, our water usage went up a whopping 50 percent!

rsz_toiletAs I said, I can’t claim that my husband and I weren’t aware the toilet was running. There’ve been many nights when the sound actually woke us up. We even tried to fix it once, but our repair job was only partially effective. (The ghost’s bladder issues seem to have subsided a bit, but the poor dear’s symptoms occasionally return with a vengeance.) And there are barriers to getting a new toilet: We forget, we have other things scheduled, we’re afraid to find out what other repairs might be needed in the bathroom if we looked too closely at our aging commode. And then there’s choosing the new toilet: we’d have to compare the water usage ratings, check Consumer Reports’ recommendations, make sure it’s just the right one — even though, truth be told, anything would be better than what we’ve got.

So I have lots of good reasons for not modeling the behavior I’ve been fervently, if indirectly, promoting. But there are some awfully good reasons why I need to be the first to change:

  1. Being credible. When I suggest that others “stop running toilets,” I’m implicitly saying this isn’t an issue that I have. No, I’m not lying, exactly. But I’m not being completely up-front, either. Modeling the behavior you wish to diffuse is key. Without this, you have no credibility. So what? No credibility means no buy-in from your target audience. Why should they do what you’re asking, if you’re not doing it yourself?
  2. Feeling the pain. You’ll understand how others perceive barriers and benefits if you go through all the steps of adopting the new behavior or innovation yourself. Then your next outreach campaign on the subject will be much more on-target and effective.
  3. Reaping the rewards. You yourself will save water, electricity, gas … whatever resource the new behavior or innovation addresses. Imagine that!

This is all a way of saying that behavior change outreach must begin at home. But I shouldn’t be telling you any of this yet, should I? I have a running toilet to tackle first.

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