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The Struggle to Find an Empty DSNY Compost Smart Bin Is Real

DSNY empties the Smart Bins around 7 p.m. every day but Sunday. It still may not be enough.

A screenshot of the NYC Compost app of filled bins, next to a photo of a compost Smart Bin.

TFW you are holding a stinky sack of goo and you have no Smart Bin to put it in (Hell Gate)

Cyndee Trinh tries to drop her compost off while she's walking her dogs, Scarlett and Thena. "Tries" is the operative word here: The Sanitation Department Smart Bins closest to her apartment near the Barclays Center are often too full to accept it.

"It's really hard on the weekends. And during the workday, it's like, pretty much impossible," Trinh told Hell Gate. "The four or five bins within a ten-minute radius of me will be bright red."

While her building has curbside composting service, the porters haven't quite figured it out, and there's just one tiny bin for hundreds of units. So to get the giant mass of vegetable scraps out of her apartment and into a Smart Bin, Trinh has to stay vigilant.

"It gets to the point where like, sometimes I'll check [the app] at two o'clock in the morning to be like, oh good, it's empty," Trinh said. "And then I'll quickly take it out."

Trinh isn't alone. Earlier this week, a tipster in Manhattan sent over a screenshot of the NYC Compost app, taken when they tried to take out their organic waste on Sunday night. "My bin and nearly every other bin in Manhattan was either full or out of service," the tipster wrote.

Others have pointed out this quandary: 

In early 2023, Mayor Eric Adams promised to provide curbside composting for all New Yorkers by the end of 2024, and organic waste diversion has been a rare bright spot for his administration. After dramatic expansions of year-round curbside composting in Queens and Brooklyn, this year's Mayor's Management Report showed that the City diverted more than 105,000 tons of organic waste in fiscal year 2023, a 36 percent increase over 2022, even as our recycling rate remains stalled at a dismal 17 percent. Over the past year, DSNY has put 419 Smart Bins on corners across the five boroughs, with the highest concentration in Manhattan.

The mayor's latest round of budget cuts have somewhat slowed this composting momentum. While Brooklyn and Queens currently have borough-wide, voluntary curbside compost pickup, Staten Island and the Bronx were supposed to get it this spring, but the cuts mean those two boroughs won't receive it until this fall, when Manhattan's curbside program is supposed to go online. Adams also cut funding to community composting organizations that turn organic matter into compost, but private donors stepped up to provide cash that will keep them going until springtime. 

Diverting the thousands of tons of organic waste New Yorkers produce every day away from landfills is crucial in the fight to curb greenhouse gas emissions. Yes, most of the stuff you put into the Smart Bins ultimately becomes natural gas that is then burned for energy, but this is better than trucking it with the rest of our trash out of town, where it inevitably poisons communities. (DSNY does turn a portion of organic waste into actual compost, the soil-like material, at a facility on Staten Island. The Sanitation Department recently announced an expansion of the facility's capacity by nearly 2,000 percent.)

Currently, the Sanitation Department empties the existing Smart Bins every day except Sunday, usually around 7 p.m., but DSNY press secretary Vincent Gragnani told Hell Gate that the agency is considering increasing pickup because of the program's popularity. 

"We are thrilled that so many New Yorkers are using these bins either as a complement to weekly curbside service (in Brooklyn and Queens) or in anticipation of weekly curbside service (in the Bronx, Manhattan and Staten Island)," Gragnani wrote in an email. 

By March of 2025, the curbside composting program will be mandatory, and DSNY will start issuing fines to buildings that don't separate their organic matter from their trash.

Until your curb is blessed with a bin: Don't forget to check the NYC Compost app before you schlep your organic waste downstairs, and utilize the community compost drop-offs while they still exist. And if your favorite Smart Bin is broken and won't open up (like ours is), you can report it on the app or by calling 311.

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