On a breezy and sun-filled autumn afternoon, Sarah Eggleston sauntered through her Morningside Heights housing complex carrying a small green bucket full of eggshells, avocado scraps, and banana peels.
She beelined for the northeast corner of the fenced-in property of Morningside Gardens, on La Salle Street between Broadway and Amsterdam Avenue, with one goal in mind: composting.
Eggleston is one of about 250 residents at this six-building co-op who have begun participating in a city-sponsored composting pilot program. The program is so successful that Mayor Michael Bloomberg is now working to expand it to the rest of the city.
Of the co-op’s 900 residents, about a quarter have been setting aside organic food scraps that are collected by the city and brought to Rikers Island, where they are processed at a recycling facility.
“Studies have been done that say that it would be impossible to do a composting program for high-rises,” said resident Skip Delano, who founded the Morningside Gardens Compost Club along with his wife, Liz Wiesen. “We wanted to try to prove them wrong.”
The clump of composting cans and the three enormous vats that the cans are dumped into represent an early version of success for a program that exists at only one other building in Manhattan.
Soon after the program began, “the very first problem we had was not having enough bins out there,” Delano said incredulously.
“People have been surprised by the volume they were throwing out,” Wiesen added.
Russell Jermyn, the general manager of Morningside Gardens, said the trash accumulated by all of the residents has decreased by 30 percent since active composting began in June, according to data collected by GrowNYC and the Department of Sanitation, which are sponsoring the initiative.
Thanks to its success, Bloomberg has pushed the composting program as a model for the city. The mayor even visited the complex this summer to promote recycling and composting.
Delano and Wiesen said that they first came up with the idea of composting at Morningside Gardens when they began taking their compost to the Columbia Greenmarket on Broadway—which GrowNYC also operates—in April 2012.
“When we would go to the market to drop off food scraps, we would see all our neighbors,” Wiesen said. When they asked the leaders of the GrowNYC program, they discovered that there were 25 people from Morningside Gardens dropping off food scraps at the biweekly market.
From there, Delano and Wiesen founded the club, distributed a survey to their neighbors to feel out interest, and then presented the idea of a composting area to their co-op board.
Once the city approved the project, “volunteers stepped in to do education,” Delano said.
Wiesen said that one of the best ways to get people involved was by giving out composting buckets. The Department of Sanitation sponsored the purchase of hundreds of buckets, which club volunteers handed out over a period of five days in the lobbies of the different buildings.
“The human element made it very exciting,” she added.
Residents dumping their compost on Monday said they were grateful for the program.
“It’s great to feel like you’re contributing,” Eggleston said as she tossed her food scraps into the vat. “It’s easy.”
A few minutes later, John Burdeaux, a 14-year resident of the complex, walked up with his matching bucket.
“I don’t know if I can see it all over the city,” he said. “This population is more conscientious.”
He has a point. The complex—which Thurgood Marshall, the first African-American Supreme Court Justice, once called home—was founded in 1957 as middle-class housing, and is now a NORC, or naturally occurring retirement community, made up of people who moved in during the late ’50s and early ’60s or their children.
But within the past couple of years, the co-op has voted to raise the prices closer to market value. Today, prices listed in the manager’s office for two- and three-bedroom apartments soared to $700,000 and more.
“There was a lot of fear that it was going to change the community,” Wiesen said. “It had more of a utopian mandate in the beginning.”
Across the street at Grant Houses, a public housing project, there was interest in but also skepticism of the concept of composting.
Lee Singleton, who was walking home with her daughter, said she could not imagine residents committing to collecting food scraps.
“We don’t have a balcony, so we don’t have plants to use the compost for,” she said. “If they could add more greenery, maybe it could happen.”
Katina Williams was more optimistic.
“It depends on the resident,” she said. “If you could help the tenants police the area, I think it would be great.”
Delano and Wiesen said they would like to help their neighbors across the street start a similar composting program.
“We would love to work with them,” Delano said.
But he said repairs to elevators in Grant Houses—which is, according to a recent report from Public Advocate and mayoral frontrunner Bill de Blasio, the most neglected public housing project in the city—would need to happen first.
“You’ve got to get an elevator that works,” he said, in order for residents to be able to bring food scraps downstairs.
Looking forward, Jermyn, the general manager, said he is working with an architect to design a more official sanitation area in the space where the bins currently sit at the corner of La Salle Street and Amsterdam Avenue.
He gives a lot of credit to the city, which he says made it possible by picking up the compost and transporting it to be processed.
“I can’t see it really coming together without them,” he said. “Everything is contingent upon the city.”