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Curbside Shake-Up

Can Kathryn Garcia convince New York to compost? by Laura Parker
August 17, 2014

Kathryn Garcia works in a 79-year-old granite Art Deco building overlooking Foley Square in Lower Manhattan. Its façade carries the names of great scientists and physicians: Hippocrates, Pasteur, Nightingale. Custom bronze medallions—Adonises in allegorical poses, farming, fishing, and harvesting—lining the wall above the side and rear entrances further hint at the building’s purpose. Known by New Yorkers as the “Health Building,” this is the home of New York City’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, the Health and Hospitals Corporation, and the Department of Sanitation.

On the 11th floor, colorful stickers of flowers and butterflies adorn the door marked “Commissioner of Sanitation.” New York has had 43 sanitation commissioners since the department was founded in 1881. The role was initially created to oversee the city’s street cleaners, and it was popularized in the late 19th century by Col. George Waring, a sanitary engineer who designed the drainage system in Central Park. As sanitation commissioner, Waring reformed the entire department, introducing new trash collection and street cleaning programs to deal with New York’s infamous “shin-deep” filth. A year after Waring became commissioner, the city threw him a parade to say thank you and later named an avenue in the North Bronx after him.

According to the City of New York, the current Department of Sanitation is the largest in the world, employing some 7,000 trash collectors—known as sanitation workers—and collecting more than 10,500 tons of trash per day. In March, the outgoing sanitation commissioner, John Doherty, announced his retirement after 54 years with the department. Later that month, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio asked Garcia (then the chief operating officer of the city’s Department of Environmental Protection) to come in for an interview. It went overtime—de Blasio’s assistant kept interrupting, insisting the mayor was late for his next appointment. Three days later, Garcia was named Doherty’s successor.

The challenge is convincing people that it really is ok to shove everything from apple cores to oily pizza boxes in the same garbage can.

“My immediate reaction was to be flattered,” Garcia tells me. We’re sitting around a large wooden table in her office. It’s stuffy. The building is old, and the window-mounted air conditioner makes too much noise. The 44-year-old has to turn it off every time she wants to make a phone call. “The more I think about it, the more it seems a perfect fit for me: … providing a service that improves people’s quality of life.”

This is what Garcia tells the city’s sanitation workers on her weekly visits to one of the 59 co-terminus stations throughout the city, garages where the workers gather at 6 a.m. each day for roll call. “I tell them: you’re front-line environmentalists. You’re important to achieving our environmental goal in the city. Sometimes they’re like ‘Yeah, I knew that all along;' other times they’re like, ‘Really? You sure that’s what we are?’”

In a city of roughly 8.4 million people, trash collection is an essential service. The black trash bags lining sidewalks from Brooklyn to the Bronx are as ubiquitous as the Manhattan skyline, an unavoidable necessity in a city where few have the luxury of a garage or basement in which to dump old furniture or unwanted knickknacks. New Yorkers have always relied on the city to deal with the stuff they no longer want or need.

Garcia knows this all too well—she’s a New Yorker herself, a “client of the agency.” She grew up in Park Slope, Brooklyn, and went to Stuyvesant High School, one of the city’s nine specialized public high schools for academically advanced students, an experience she calls “intense and competitive.” (Typically, less than three percent of the roughly 30,000 eighth- and ninth-graders who apply are accepted.)

Both Garcia’s parents worked in public service—her mother at the Human Resources Administration in New York’s Department of Social Services, and her father as a labor negotiator for the city. Likewise, Garcia’s first gig after graduating from the University of Wisconsin was an internship with the Department of Sanitation, where, she told New York’s Daily News in March, she “fell in love with garbage and recycling.” Garcia had always been attracted to the public sector, but she prefers what she calls “hardcore” services, like infrastructure, where success is easily measurable. “People tend to notice if we don’t pick up the garbage every day,” she says.

After the internship she worked for Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC), a nonprofit that supports community development, before joining Appleseed, a consulting firm where she worked with clients like the New York Port Authority, Columbia University, and Harvard. In 2006, Garcia bounced back to the public sector to work for the Department of Environmental Protection, where she oversaw the day-to-day operation of New York’s water supply—around 6,000 miles of water mains, tunnels, aqueducts, sewers, and wastewater treatment plants. She began as the commissioner’s chief of staff, worked her way up the ladder, and became the COO in 2012, supervising some 4,000 employees, a number that she says “seems small now.” 

Source: cbcny.org

Garcia spent her eight years in the Department of Environmental Protection troubleshooting wastewater treatment plant fires, water-main breaks, the Virginia earthquake, and Hurricane Irene, and her success earned her a gritty reputation. “[Sanitation] is some of the toughest, most demanding work in our city—and Kathryn has what it takes to do this department and our city proud,” de Blasio told me in an email statement. “From ploughing streets to daily collections, she will lead our sanitation department as it continues to deliver the services New Yorkers expect and deserve.”

Garcia’s first priority as sanitation commissioner is to take New York’s organics program mainstream. Two years ago, the department launched a pilot for the collection of organic waste in neighborhoods in Staten Island, the Bronx, Queens, and Brooklyn. The city distributed two plastic bins each to around 100,000 households: a small bin for the kitchen counter, and a larger curbside bin. Both bins are for organics; the kitchen one is expressly for food scraps (and designed to sit on the counter rather than under the sink), while the larger bin holds all organic waste, from food scraps to used paper and yard waste. All other non-organic trash—notably plastic foam and plastic bags—goes into the regular, everyday recycling bin.

While a lot simpler than the current paper/plastic/trash routine, the challenge is convincing people that it really is ok to shove everything from apple cores to oily pizza boxes in the same garbage can. Garcia’s department has been measuring adoption by tagging each bin in the pilot program with a barcode, to be scanned by the collection trucks. So far, it’s working, Garcia says. “Peer pressure helps. When your neighbors all have nice bags full of plastic and metal, and their paper is very properly stacked, and you put out a giant garbage bag, that looks bad.”

New York currently produces around three million tons of waste annually. Most of that (around 2.5 million tons) is actual trash; the rest is recyclable, such as metal, glass, plastic, and paper. Although New York’s population is increasing, the city is actually generating less garbage now than it was eight years ago—total tonnage is down by around 14 percent since 2006. No one in Garcia’s department can confidently say why, but there are theories: Manufacturers are moving from glass to plastic and reducing the weight of their packaging, fewer people are buying paper products like newspapers and magazines, and online marketplaces like eBay and Craigslist have made it easier for people to sell or donate bulky household items that would have otherwise ended up dumped on the curb.

The organics program is designed to keep the trend going and to capitalize on organic waste’s capacity as a resource. Around 33 percent of the city’s annual waste is organic, which can be broken down and turned into fertilizer. Increasing this number could mean completely supplying the fertilizer used in the city’s parks and green spaces. The act of composting also produces methane, the capture of which, through a method famously developed in the seventies by the French inventor Jean Pain, offers a local, renewable source of natural gas. These are the ideas inspiring high-minded concepts like architecture firm Present Architecture’s proposed “compost islands,” a series of manmade island parks along the city’s waterfront that double as organic waste processing plants.

Garcia says the 250,000 New Yorkers currently taking part in the pilot program have embraced organics; the challenge now will be convincing everyone else in the city to do the same. Other cities have demonstrated it’s not impossible: Portland, Oregon, for example, already provides all of its residents with a special bin for food scraps and yard waste, which is collected weekly and turned into fertilizer. In 2009, San Francisco made it compulsory for citizens to separate organic material from the rest of their trash; a year later, the city’s composting increased by 45 percent. “What these cities have done with organics proves, I think, that this kind of program can successfully be adopted by a large percentage of the American public,” Garcia says.

But New York’s size makes comparisons problematic. Trying to get over eight million people to change the way they think is a challenge Garcia says no other city has cracked. “I think, in many ways, New York is already a world leader in waste management. But we have to go further. We have to show that organics can succeed in one of the densest cities in the world.”

Photos by Peter Yoo

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