Public Works: From Trashy News to Curbside Composter
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Public Works: From Trashy News to Curbside Composter

A former tabloid designer has converted newspaper boxes into mini-composters to remind New Yorkers where to put their organic waste.

Public Works looks at public space, urban design, and city-building innovations from around the world, and considers what Toronto might learn from them.

One of Debbie Ullman’s New York Compost newspaper boxes. Courtesy of

City folks are not always great at getting rid of trash. Oh, a lot of us try to separate our recyclables and use our green bins responsibly and send to the landfill only what we must. But a lot of us, when we find ourselves holding an apple core, say, or a used paper napkin, just throw it in the first receptacle we can find.

Call it laziness or convenience or ignorance—whatever the reason, composting is not a major consideration of many city dwellers. And New Yorker Debbie Ullman is trying to change that.

The ex-tabloid page designer has taken an iconic piece of the urban environment, the newspaper box, and turned it into an advertisement, and drop-off point, for organic compost.

“Composting in New York should be second nature,” writes Ullman on her project’s website.

Called New York Compost (get it?), the project includes three boxes so far, displaying mock-newspaper front pages that trumpet the success of composting.

“Herban Decay,” the cover reads.

The boxes are set up outside locations around the city where organic waste is processed—a community garden in the East Village, a garden centre in East Harlem, and a non-profit organic waste centre on Governor’s Island.

Part of the goal is to remind New Yorkers they can drop their organic waste in the right place, even while New York works out its still-germinating compost collection program.

Mayor Bill de Blasio has pledged to extend compost pickup to all New Yorkers by 2018, but reaching that goal is still a long way off. The City currently has a pilot project for residential compost collection that started out servicing 100,000 and is being extended to 33,000 more. Keep in mind, though, there are over 3 million households in New York (there are just over 1 million households in Toronto).

Ullman explains that she wants to make people more aware of how easy and valuable composting is, and upcycle the growing number of newspaper boxes being put out of commission by changing media trends.

Toronto has its fair share of compost. The City says almost half of Toronto’s household waste is compostable. Right now, the City’s website says the Green Bin compost collection program reaches 46,000 single-family homes and is being “rolled out” to apartment buildings, condos and co-ops. In other words, we too have room to grow.

Any glance into a curbside garbage bin will show you how much organic waste gets sent to the landfill.

No, that doesn’t mean converting our thousands of decommissioned newspaper boxes (RIP) into composters will close our organic waste gap (though it might stop those slick, streetwise urban raccoons, at least until they learn to insert quarters into the pay slot).

But we could use this type of constant reminder that composting is an option, and it’s as easy as the chuck of an orange peel or the drop of an eggshell.