They arrived without warning on the street corners of Astoria and Lower Manhattan earlier this month: bright orange bins, next to the trash and recycling cans, soliciting food and yard scraps from passing pedestrians.
Unlike their neighboring receptacles, the new bins were sealed shut, snapping open only in response to a key fob or phone app. On a recent morning, most New Yorkers greeted them with a mix of indifference and confusion.
I havent seen anyone use it, said Cesar Bell, a florist whose shop overlooks one of the containers in the Financial District and whose floral detritus would make an ideal deposit for the robot bins.
I dont know what you dispose there, Bell said.
The droid-like containers, dubbed Smart Bins, are part of a first-of-its-kind composting program launched by the Department of Sanitation and the Downtown Alliance, a Lower Manhattan business group.
But for composting enthusiasts, the bins are little more than a bleak reminder of the de Blasio administrations failings in the arena of organic recycling. Despite being a potent emitter of greenhouse gas, Mayor Bill de Blasio was cutting funding for the collection of food and yard scraps even before the pandemic all but guaranteeing the city will fall well short of its goal to cut the waste sent to landfills by 90 percent by 2030.
Youll never get the widespread participation in this program by focusing on bins that city residents have to drag scraps of food to on a regular basis, said Eric Goldstein, the New York City environment director for the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Sensors inside the bins alert the Sanitation Department when theyre full, and Bluetooth technology allows users to open them with an app or, in the Astoria version of the pilot, a key fob obtained by the city a safeguard against naive passersby tossing their trash onto the heaps of decomposing rinds and peels.
Their purpose is to provide a round-the-clock location for New Yorkers to drop off their organic food waste, rather than waiting on the weekly green market. If successful, the program could expand to other neighborhoods by next year, forming a sort of Citi Bike of compost, according to sanitation department spokesperson Joshua Goodman.
According to Goldstein, however, if the goal is to increase participation in composting, the bins arent going to cut it.
These bins arent designed for broad public participation, theyre designed for composting aficionados, he said in an interview.
Like many sustainability experts including the mayors former sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia Goldstein has criticized de Blasio for falling short of his campaign pledge to implement curbside composting pick-up citywide by 2018. According to figures provided by the Department of Sanitation, fewer than 100,000 households are currently receiving regular compost pick-ups. In 2015 the mayor pledged to reach virtually zero waste sent to landfills by 2030.
New Yorkers have a lot on their minds, Goldstein said. We pick up their garbage at the curbside, we ought to be picking up they're separated food waste in the same place.
Experts and city officials agree that de Blasios zero waste pledge is not possible without a mandatory citywide organic recycling program a service currently available in San Francisco, Seattle, and Portland.
Mayor-elect Eric Adams has said he supports a citywide composting program, noting both the environmental benefits and the growing cost of sending trash produced by New York to landfills in other states.
But the program has languished under the current administration. The city suspended plans to expand the curbside pilot program in 2018, then eliminated it entirely in budget cuts at the start of the pandemic. When it was revived this past April, New Yorkers who were previously auto-enrolled in the service were told that their buildings had to opt-in for pick-ups.
At the time, Garcia chastised the mayor she was seeking to replace over the move.
It is going to turn composting into a luxury that is available for New Yorkers that have the resources to organize community support and submit bureaucratic paperwork, she said. Curbside organics should be universal plain and simple.
As it stands, the city is trashing an estimated 4,000 tons per day of compostable material that could be turned into useful soil or biogas. Those food and yard scraps are instead taken to landfills, where they break down without oxygen, emitting methane a greenhouse gas considered 20 times more potent than carbon in the short term.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, rotting organic waste sent to landfills is the third largest source of human-related methane emissions in the country.
Critics accuse the city of failing to mount a public campaign that would inform New Yorkers about composting, leaving many in the dark about the importance of the practice an information gap readily evident this month, as New Yorkers looked askance at the new Smart Bins in Lower Manhattan.
Nobody has said or mentioned anything about it, said Elvis Vicente, the manager at Juice Generation on Pearl Street and Maiden Lane, which shares a corner with one of the new bins.
While his shop typically outsources its hefty compost load to a private company, he said hed gladly use the Smart Bin when the truck couldnt get there. If I knew we were allowed to use it, Id use it.
A few blocks away, Yelina Flider offered her own appraisal of the strange contraption that had arrived outside her Gold Street high-rise.
I thought this was for if youre walking down the street and you finish your lunch but theres some food in it, dont throw it in the other garbage, throw it in this garbage, she said. Okay thats fine, but personally I dont eat lunch on the go.
When told that she could also sort her food and soiled paper from her trash at home, similar to how New Yorkers currently separate their recycling, Flider remained unmoved.
I think if other people want to do that fine, it doesnt bother me, she said. Im not going to leave my house to put the food scraps in there.
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