Smart compost bins prove elusive in Midtown



Photo from NYC Compost app, taken by Allison Otis.

The city’s effort to boost New Yorkers’ composting habits has come up short in Midtown.

A program introducing some 400 sealed Smart Bins that accept food scraps 24/7 has skipped the neighborhood entirely, without a single bin delivered on East 36th Street between Park and 8th avenues, or North to South from West 36th Street to Central Park South. Roughly 25,000 residents live in the neighborhood, according to the 2020 Census.

The bright orange bins operate using the NYC Compost app and are part of the city’s plan to divert food waste and use it for compost and renewable energy. Roughly one-third of the 24 million pounds of trash collected by the Department of Sanitation each day is compostable. The city introduced 16 Smart Bins to Astoria, Queens, in a 2021 pilot program that has since expanded to all five boroughs.

But Midtown has been left as a composting desert, creating a logistical hurdle for dedicated residents who want to make the most environmentally friendly choices about their recycling.

Kelly Costello lives on East 23rd Street and Lexington Avenue. Two months ago, a Smart Bin landed on her corner, and she went from stashing things in the freezer and putting off her compost drop-offs for weeks to having easy access. She used to trek 30 minutes to Union Square Greenmarket for the chore. Now she says she can “go any time, 24/7,” and it takes just five minutes.

“I’m so happy about it. But I’m also skeptical,” she said. She’s skeptical because the drop-off center does not permit meat, bones, or dairy, but Smart Bin does.

Costello, who managed her family’s compost in Connecticut during the pandemic, said it feels good to turn household waste “into beautiful soil gold.”

But the process isn’t perfect. Food waste from the Smart Bins turns into engineered bioslurry that gets “anaerobically digested” or becomes methane, according to compost workers. The methane can either be used to power the wastewater facility where it’s processed or gets burned, releasing carbon dioxide into the air. Critics call it greenwashing because compost typically means fertilizer, which is what the food waste from the drop-off sites turns into.

Leah Butz, a volunteer at the environmental nonprofit GrowNYC, separates her meat and dairy to put in Smart Bins because she says, it’s “still better than throwing in the trash.” She drops her other food scraps at the Union Square Greenmarket. From there it goes to a Department of Sanitation facility in Staten Island to be converted to soil.

Long Island City resident Masha Shapiro is grateful the city subsidizes compost at all. While living in Dallas, Texas, from 2020 to 2022, she paid $20 a month for a five-gallon bin that she dropped off weekly.

“They would on occasion offer free fertilizer, but I definitely paid in more than I got back in fertilizer,” said Shapiro. “I’m excited that it’s free,” she said of New York’s program.

When Shapiro saw Smart Bins in her friend’s neighborhood in Astoria, she called her city council member to ask how soon they would reached Long Island City. “I never called any politician about anything, ever,” she said, asking: “Why is the closest bin a mile away?”

Franklin Richards, a staffer in City Councilmember Keith Powers’ office, said it’s not up to the council to decide.

“We can advocate that, but that’s all the Department of Sanitation.”

Right now, the city has no timetable for adding additional bins.

“They don’t have the budget for it right now,” Richards said. “Maybe early next year, we might know.”

The current cost of a Smart Bin, including shipping and installation, is $3,400, according to Vincent Gragnani, a spokesman for the Sanitation Department. Gragnani said in an email that Smart Bins are generally placed in high-traffic residential areas and urged people who are interested in one to call 311.

Starting October 2024, curbside composting will be available to all Manhattan residents, either by expanding general compost drop-off sites or by adding select Smart Bins. Currently in Manhattan, the curbside program is only available in swaths of the Upper West Side and Murray Hill.

“I would love for there to be a bin on each corner the way that there is with public trash cans,” said Shapiro.