They aren’t what you might think of as typical sanitation workers, but Haley Rogers and Lisa Brunie-McDermott, two Sanitation Department employees, are women with a mission: to persuade New Yorkers to separate orange peels, eggshells and other organic waste from the rest of their trash.
Ms. Rogers and Ms. Brunie-McDermott, both on the cusp of 30, are two of the outreach workers in the department’s recycling unit. As key players in a two-year pilot program, for which $10 million was allocated in the fiscal year that ended in June, their goal is to transform the way New Yorkers deal with everything from used tea bags and half-eaten burgers to apple cores and coffee grounds.
The hope is that one day most of New York’s discarded food will make its way to composting sites, where it will benefit the environment, rather than be trucked to distant landfills, an undertaking that costs the city more than $300 million annually. A highly visible side effect would be to reduce the city’s rat population. With less food in curbside garbage cans, the thinking goes, fewer rats should come prowling around in search of a meal.
“When we talk to people,” Ms. Rogers said, “lots of time we lead with the rats, because they’re such a visceral issue. It’s like we’re giving them a buffet every night.”
The “organics collection” program is up and running in all five boroughs, embracing 100,000 households that are home to about 250,000 people. It is also operating in some 350 schools, one result being that children come home and urge their parents to sign up.
Although cities like Seattle have already established such programs, many eyes are on New York to see if such an effort can flourish in a denser and more vertical metropolis. If the pilot program, which ends next summer, is successful, the department will recommend to the City Council that it be expanded.
As for critics who might dismiss the program as too small-bore to address New York’s formidable environmental challenges, Kathryn Garcia, the city’s new sanitation commissioner, noted that, as a pilot effort, its scope is modest. “It is small for New York,” she said, “but the area covered is comparable to a city like Orlando, Fla., or Madison, Wis.”
And there’s no question that Ms. Rogers and Ms. Brunie-McDermott bring considerable zeal to the task at hand.
“This is what I got my degree for,” said Ms. Rogers, who has a master’s in environmental science and policy from Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs and credits her passion for environmental science to a first-grade field trip to a recycling facility in her native Texas. “It feels as if we’re making a difference, and it could have repercussions for the entire country.”
Ms. Brunie-McDermott, who has a master’s degree in environmental systems management from Pratt Institute, added: “To get someone who’s not a believer to believe, that’s awesome. I never felt I was having so much impact in a job as I do in this one.”
On duty, the two women wear agency-issued blue oxford shirts emblazoned with a gold caduceus, the department’s insignia, because, as Ms. Rogers explained, “The clothes help make us seem more official.” And they do more than make house-to-house visits. They handle hotline calls. They show up at 2 a.m. to watch garbage being sorted at transfer stations. “We’re very hands-on,” Ms. Brunie-McDermott said. “We do everything but collect trash.”
On a recent drizzly Wednesday, their audience was residents and staff members of a red brick co-op in Windsor Terrace, Brooklyn. Until now, the building’s 114 families have been disposing of their garbage the old-fashioned way — separating out recyclable paper, plastic and metal, and dumping everything else in gray plastic garbage cans that Andrzej Drozozal, the superintendent, lugs to the curb twice a week.
But thanks to Annie Wedekind, a resident who learned about the organics collection program from a friend whose Brooklyn building had signed up, this was about to change.
“My friend said the support you offered was so awesome,” Ms. Wedekind said as she and Amy Martinez-Miller, the board president, sat with the two visitors around Ms. Wedekind’s antique oak dining table sipping coffee and discussing the benefits and challenges of organics collection. “Our super is a little skeptical,” Ms. Wedekind acknowledged, “but we’ll win him over.”
Ms. Brunie-McDermott agreed. “We can reduce his work, so he has fewer leaky bags to drag around,” she said.
Discussion ranged from the four 21-gallon brown plastic organics bins with orange accents that would soon be installed in the basement to the array of informational posters, decals and other paraphernalia the Sanitation Department provides. Residents are instructed to put food waste in small containers in their kitchens and then to take the contents of those containers to the organics bins in the basement. The stuff in the bins can then be carted to composting centers.
“We have posters in Spanish and Chinese, large ones and small ones,” Ms. Rogers said. “Would those be helpful?”
“Actually,” Ms. Wedekind replied, “we could use signs in Russian or Polish.” Unfortunately, no such signs are available.
“We can also provide decals,” Ms. Brunie-McDermott said. “And fridge stickers, because people like swag.”
Ms. Wedekind agreed that swag was nice. “People love free stuff,” she said.
The women then trooped to the basement to describe the plan to Mr. Drozozal, who raised an issue that troubled him.
“I worry about too many signs,” he said, looking dubiously at the rainbow assortment of instructional posters plastering the basement walls. “We already have a lot down here.”
Ms. Rogers nodded. “I see what you mean,” she said. “But it can’t get any worse than it is.”
It’s no secret that garbage disposal is one of New York’s thorniest problems. Ms. Garcia, the sanitation commissioner, acknowledged that New York has been criticized for its recycling record.
“Some neighborhoods, like the Upper West Side, are superb, and others do far less well,” Ms. Garcia said. “But the fact is, refuse has been reduced 14 percent in the past decade despite an increase in the city’s population.”
Professional environmentalists note that when it comes to recycling organic waste, New York faces considerable challenges because of its size and the configuration of its housing.
“The real hurdle is high-rises,” said Jaime Stein, coordinator of the Sustainable Environmental Systems program at Pratt Institute. “Lots of people, especially those living in apartments, just want to dump all their garbage in a trash can. With a program like this, we’re trending in the right direction. It’s just a matter of changing the behavior of eight million people, one composter at a time.”
Admittedly, not everyone to whom the two outreach workers preach the gospel of organics collection is a believer.
“There are always a handful of resisters,” Ms. Rogers said. “Ten percent support the plan unequivocally, 10 percent resist, and the challenge is converting the 80 percent in the middle.”
Her colleague added: “Because of storage issues and the challenges of high-rises, you can’t just roll out a program like this. You have to win hearts and minds.”
When it comes to persuading New Yorkers to set aside their kitchen scraps rather than deposit them in an all-purpose trash can, their greatest challenge is what they call the “yuck factor.”
“People say, ‘Oh, that’s gross,’ ” Ms. Brunie-McDermott said. “Their gut reaction is, ‘Yecch!’ But we’re already eating and disposing of our food. It’s just a matter of putting it in a different bin.”
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