Constance Rosenblum for The New York Times:
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.”
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Photo: Haley Rogers,left, and Lisa Brunie-McDermott of the Sanitation Department distribute special bins for food waste in Maspeth, Queens. (Uli Seit for The New York Times)