Recycling rates around longtime existing requirements—which ask residents to separate paper, plastics, metal and glass from the rest of their trash—have failed to improve over the last decade. Getting New Yorkers to comply with yet another set of rules could be an uphill battle, experts say.

A resident drops off food scraps at a compost collection site in 2021.

John McCarten/NYC Council

A resident drops off food scraps at a compost collection site in 2021.

The Big Apple’s city-wide curbside composting program has officially made its way to Brooklyn. Residents have until Oct. 13 to order a brown bin that will hold food-based waste for collection in the borough, the second after Queens to receive the service, with the rest of the city to follow by October of next year.

The City Council voted in June to make the separation of residential food-based garbage mandatory for the first time in New York City’s history, with enforcement set to begin next fall. Instead of being dumped in a landfill, organic waste will now be reused for composting—the process of creating fertilizer—and other environmentally friendly means, like generating alternative forms of electricity that emit less greenhouse gasses.

But recycling rates around longtime existing requirements—which ask residents to separate paper, plastics, metal and glass from the rest of their trash—have failed to improve over the last decade. Getting New Yorkers to comply with yet another set of rules could be an uphill battle, experts say.

“We think there isn’t going to be sufficient compliance to generate enough [organic waste collection] to make this cost effective,” said Ana Champeny, vice president for research at the Citizens Budget Commission (CBC).

The watchdog group has analyzed the city’s waste management reports and found that since 2011, the percentage of recyclable material separated by residents increased just 1.6 percentage points, up from 15.4 percent to 17 percent in 2022, failing short of the city’s 23 percent-goal. By contrast, Seattle’s diversion rate was 62.7 percent in 2020, CBC testified to local lawmakers last year.

Under New York’s new composting program, food scraps and yard waste must be placed in a receptacle—either a brown bin provided by the city or in any labeled bin, 55 gallons or less—with a secure lid. The containers should be put on the curb for collection after 6 p.m. on each resident’s designated recycling day.

New York City’s Department of Sanitation (DSNY) will collect all leaf and yard waste, food scraps, and food-soiled paper. According to the city’s guidelines, “that includes meat, bones, dairy, prepared foods, and greasy uncoated paper plates and pizza boxes.”

But making the pick-ups worth the trip can be logistically challenging, as earlier, voluntary composting initiatives have shown. In 2021, when organic collections resumed after a pandemic pause, it did so only in neighborhoods where a high concentration of residents signed up for the service “to minimize the greenhouse gas emissions from collections vehicles,” a DSNY spokesperson said at the time.

“They’re going to have to send out additional trucks to collect organics and they’re going to be pretty empty because there won’t be enough to fill up a truck on a shift,” Champeny worries.

In an email, a DSNY spokesperson said the agency is “aggressively moving to bring in new vehicles” for collecting food waste. The city’s capital budget, the rep added, includes $100 million to purchase 244 additional trucks, which include dual-bin vehicles that collect trash and compost at the same time.

To keep trucks from driving off empty, there will be a financial incentive at play: landlords who don’t comply will have to pay a fine. For residential properties with up to eight units, they will be charged $25 for a first offense, $50 for a second and $100 for a third. For larger buildings with more than nine units, not complying will cost $100 for a first offense, $200 for a second and $400 for a third. 

There will be no enforcement of the sorting of food waste until April 2025, when the program has rolled out to every borough, according to DSNY.

But Champeny says those fines—which match the fees for existing recycling violations—won’t be enough of an incentive to get some people on board.

“The city has typically been unwilling to be very forceful in fining people for not complying,” she said. “It’s also a lot harder in a building. If you have a multifamily high rise, for instance, how do you figure out who’s not doing it? And who pays the fine? So I think there’s a lot of implementation challenges as well.”

DSNY doled out 47,267 recycling summonses in the most recent fiscal year that ended in June, a 48 percent increase from the year before—an uptick the agency attributed to new rules around set-out times—though it’s not clear how many of those violations included financial penalties.

That enforcement is significantly lower than before the pandemic: Sanitation issued 76,492 summonses in 2019, but the recycling rate that year was still just over 18 percent, according to the latest Mayor’s Management report.

Instead of the current system, CBC suggests implementing a volume-based fee, charged to property owners in proportion to the amount of materials their building throws away. If the building produces less trash and recycles more, they get charged less.

However, Justin Green, executive director at the environmental non-profit Big Reuse, warns that a volume-based fee may be difficult to implement in a crowded city like New York, where people can easily “put their garbage in other people’s piles” to avoid paying.

For Green, the best way forward is to invest in outreach and educational materials that tell New Yorkers what composting is and how to do it. His organization helped DSNY spread the word about the new curbside composting program this summer, and claims that Big Reuse alone “knocked on 35,000 doors.”

The City Council law that made composting mandatory requires that the Department of Sanitation do outreach about the program and teach residents how to separate organic waste.

A DSNY spokesperson told City Limits that the agency has “engaged in massive outreach efforts” in Brooklyn in recent weeks, visiting every building in the borough with up to nine units.

Green is optimistic that this hard work will pay off, but he admits that it will take time and require that the city “keep investing in outreach.”

“I think there’s still a lot of education that needs to be done,” Green added. “There are a lot of New Yorkers that are really excited about participating. But New York’s a huge city. So for a lot of folks this is not going to be their first priority.”

Councilmember Sandy Nurse, who has been leading efforts to expand the collection of food waste for over a decade and who sponsored the bill to make composting mandatory, said there are “a number of logistical pieces that need to be put in place in order to continue to make this more efficient.” But she remains optimistic.

“If [recycling] isn’t working, then we need to figure out why people aren’t doing it. And we need to put more resources towards doing it,” she said.

Organic waste makes up a third of the garbage New Yorkers dispose of each day, debris that breaks down in landfills, producing emissions that contribute to global warming. 

“I choose to be very hopeful these days when it comes to anything that will improve potential outcomes as we move through the climate crisis,” Nurse said.