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How to Compost Yard Waste Curbside in New York

Garbage rules are changing June 30 for people in Queens, with Brooklyn following quickly behind. Here’s what to know about separating your grass clippings from your regular trash.

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Brown compost bins line a sidewalk on Clinton Avenue in Brooklyn.

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Starting today, Queens residents will be required to dispose of their yard waste separate from regular household garbage, with the rest of the city soon to follow. And food scraps can be thrown in with the new trash category, too.

Though voluntary composting options have existed in the city since the early 1990s, now is the first time New York will require separate organic waste collection.

“The old programs you had to sign up, you had to opt in, you had to express interest,” said Joshua Goodman, deputy commissioner of public affairs and customer experience for the Department of Sanitation (DSNY). But in Queens now, he said: “Every week on your recycling day, we’re coming around to get it.”  

The mandatory program will expand into Brooklyn on October 2. The rest of the boroughs will follow in 2024.

And in the City Council, lawmakers have legislated citywide mandatory organic waste collection beginning in 2025. 

Want to start immediately? Depending on where you live, you can already get into the practice of leaving compost at the curb. A voluntary curbside collection program already exists in some community districts in Brooklyn, Manhattan and the Bronx. 

Here’s what you need to know about the new trash and compost rules.

What gets composted curbside now?

According to DSNY, yard waste for compost can include leaves, flowers, twigs and grass clippings. Under the new rule in Queens, you can throw in food scraps and food-soiled paper, too — from fruit and veggies to meat, bones and pizza boxes — but that part isn’t mandatory. 

There are exceptions such as “large wood debris” — branches and tree limbs that DSNY says should be bundled and discarded on regular collection days. If you’re not sure if a piece of wood is too big to compost, sanitation workers will decide on collection day.  

The new program does not apply to yard waste produced by commercial landscapers, who must transport it themselves, much as a home renovation contractor would dispose of construction waste themselves rather than leaving it at your curb. 

How and when do I put out my yard waste and compost?

Generally, compost days are the same as regular recycling days, but if you’re unsure, check out DSNY’s collection schedule tool to find out when trucks come to collect.

Leaf and yard waste can be placed in a transparent plastic bag or in a bin of 55 gallons or less, labeled “compost” and with a fastened lid, which sanitation workers will empty and leave in place, just like they do with garbage cans. A compost decal can be ordered from DSNY.

What happens if I don’t follow the new compost rules?

Although it doesn’t cost to compost, it could hit property owners’ pockets if they don’t follow the rules. According to DSNY, for buildings with one to eight units, the penalty for the first offense is $25, the second is $50 and any fines accrued beyond that are $100. In a building with nine or more units, the price tags are $100, $200, then $400 respectively. (These are the same amounts as for recycled material violations.)

Renters, those fines will go to your building’s owner, not directly to you. But your landlord may not be too pleased about being fined, so mind the rules. 

But don’t fret just yet over the penalties: DSNY says there is a 90-day grace period for those who have not grown accustomed to the new rule. 

Why do we have to do this? What difference does it make anyway?

DSNY estimates about one-third of a day’s waste stream is made up of organic material — or 8 million pounds of stuff that can be diverted from landfills.

Besides being easier on the earth, composting has a practical benefit for apartment-dwellers, experts say: It keeps your small space from collecting funky smells.

“What you’re really doing is taking the yucky factor out of your trash — because you’re taking the food waste and yard waste and putting it some place separately that will get collected and handled,” said Christine Datz-Romero, executive director of the Lower East Side Ecology Center. 

For New Yorkers living in compact spaces like Datz-Romero, she says limited storage for keeping compost shouldn’t be a burden. 

“Say you’re preparing a meal — whatever is left over you can put into a container, and pop that into your fridge and then bring it outside to your compost bin once that gets emptied,” she said. “That’s another way of making sure you won’t have any smells or fruit flies buzzing around in your apartment.” 

Nora Tjossem, co-director of the composting group BK ROT, recommends using freezer space for food scraps and countertop bins with built-in filters to store waste, particularly those distributed by Big Reuse, a sustainability organization in Brooklyn. 

Zero-Waste Act aims to boost compost efforts

The DSNY’s new rule is separate from the Zero-Waste Act passed in City Council earlier this month — a package of five bills that codify the mandatory organic waste collection program, which Mayor Eric Adams says he supports. It’s also part of an effort to steer all compostable and recyclable waste away from landfills by 2030.

City Councilmember Sandy Nurse, a Brooklyn Democrat who represents Bushwick and the surrounding areas, sponsored two sections of the bill. 

“Last year, when the city was looking for cuts, they went to the organics program first. We wanted to protect those programs from any future cuts and just position them as essential services,” said Nurse, who also serves as chair of the Committee on Sanitation and Solid Waste Management.  

Nurse says the legislation comes in part from her own work with BK ROT, an organization she founded over a decade ago to address a lack of compost infrastructure. At the time, she said the city had started a compost pilot program in the mostly white Windsor Terrace neighborhood in Brooklyn, while BK ROT was planting its roots in Bushwick and neighboring places, home to predominantly people of color. 

“Here we are almost a decade later and we have not ever had the brown bin in Community District 4,” said Nurse, whose Council district partially overlaps with CD4 in Bushwick. “There’s really important wins here — we’re actually codifying this goal that’s been around for a long time.”

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