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Composting in New York: Lessons from the West Coast

Mayor Michael Bloomberg wants New York residents to set aside food scraps in a separate bin. Similar programs are already in place in San Francisco and Seattle.

Mayor Mike Bloomberg in New York City wants to go greener. As if bicycle-sharing wasn’t enough, the mayor says it’s time to start composting. Take all the half-eaten knishes and General Tso’s chicken and turn them into soil (their original state, if you can believe it).

As Mayor Bloomberg gets ready to unveil a new voluntary program to compost waste, smaller cities with mandatory programs advise the Big Apple to take a gradual approach.

Seattle is composting because citizens demanded it. Five years back, only homeowners had to hire a service to compost. Hans VanDusen, a contract manager with Seattle Public Utilities, recalls that renters in apartment buildings began pushing to compost too.

“Many owners were looking at it as an option, but maybe not moving as expeditiously as their tenants would want,” VanDusen says. “That’s why we stepped in."

In 2010, Seattle passed a law requiring building owners to contract an organic waste service. San Francisco also has mandatory composting laws.

Waste Management Incorporated is a private company that handles organic waste for several cities in the Bay Area. Project manager Rebecca Jewell says composting is easy, when you balance the ratio of protein to carbon.

She explains carbon gives the microbes energy to move, while proteins provide nitrogen to help rebuild structures. “Then you have the right chemistry and you cut down on the wet factor, which is going to attract roaches.”

So New Yorkers: you can take that paper towel -- which provides carbon -- kill the roach and add it all to the compost. That solves two problems.

But there’s a third issue specific to New York. The city is full of sky-high apartment buildings. Jewell says that makes it hard to know which neighbors are guilty of mixing glass with chicken bones.

“You have your hypothesis, but what are you going to do? You’re going to stalk them?,” Jewell asks. “You’re going to put up a camera in the recycling and trash area?”

She says education and patience are key. Seattle and San Francisco do not fine residents who fail to compost. Instead they hand out notices, educational pamphlets in many languages, and liner bags. Composting doesn’t take sticks so much as carrots.

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