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Waste Reduction in Madison Square Park

Apr 30, 2024 | Food & Waste, Sustainability

Waste Reduction in Madison Square Park

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April may have been Earth month, but sustainability efforts at Madison Square Park are part of our everyday operation.

You may have noticed new waste stations in the park this past year. Our Big Belly systems have solar-operated compactors and are rodent proof, helping make trash collection more efficient and improving overall cleanliness in the park. The waste stations are equipped with a foot pedal so there’s no need to get your hands dirty. They have separate units for trash and recyclables, with easy-to-read sorting instructions and matching graphics. But what exactly happens to your lunch waste after you have sorted it into the proper bin?

Once a station is full, our operations team collects the bag and brings it to a staging area where it’s picked up by a contracted waste manager. Since January 2024, MSPC is proud to work with a waste management company that diverts 100% of its collected waste from landfills. 

The recyclables are brought as a single stream to a facility in Queens where the waste is processed through several sorting machines, then checked by hand to ensure maximum quality control. Paper, cardboard, metals, and plastics are all bailed at the facility and sold to be remanufactured into new goods.

The remaining waste is sent to the Covanta Waste to Energy Facility in Westbury, NY. This facility helps keep trash out of landfills – reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the area by 887,000 metric tons of CO2 each year while providing energy for 55,000 homes. This facility also operates with exacting air quality standards: materials that are burned are passed through high-level filtration systems that clean over 99.9 percent of emissions.

Madison Square Park Conservancy also has an internal composting program for garden waste produced on site. Most of our organic waste is left in the garden beds where it’s either used by wildlife as nesting material or slowly decomposes into a new layer of soil. While this may  look messy to some, it’s great for the park’s ecology. 

Madison Square Park is too small to spare room for a dedicated compost pile, so any plants we remove from the gardens or that contain wood are sent to Queens, where they are chipped or turned into an organic slurry. These materials are transported to McEnroe Organic Farm in Millerton, NY, and processed into a finished compost that is available for sale throughout New York. 

Unfortunately, GrowNYC’s community composting program was discontinued, so there is no longer a weekly drop-off in the park for residential food scraps. However, there’s a convenient food scrap drop-off bin just outside of Madison Square Park, on the sidewalk on 5th Avenue between 25th and 26th Streets. This Smart Composting bin, operated by the City’s Department of Sanitation, requires an app to access, but it is easy to use. Until curbside composting comes to Manhattan, these bins are critical for reducing the amount of waste and greenhouse gasses produced by New Yorkers. 

Finally, did you know that cigarettes deposited in marked ash trays in Madison Square Park are recycled? Cigarettes contain plastics and other materials that do not break down readily – when thrown on the ground, they are yet another form of litter. Through our recycling program, the leftover tobacco and paper are dried and mixed with other materials to make compost. The filters, made of cellulose acetate, are dried and turned into a powder. This powder is used in the manufacture of plastic lumber. Since 2018, we have collected and recycled nearly 120 pounds of cigarettes in the park!

While it’s great news that waste in Madison Square Park is no longer going to landfills, the most sustainable practice is not to produce it in the first place. Waste still needs to be carted off site, which uses fuel and is expensive. Since the launch of our new waste systems last fall, MSPC has removed more than 6 football fields of trash from the park, and more than 4 football fields of recycling. The choices we make every day add up, and mindfulness matters. Remember: reduce, reuse, and only then recycle. 

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Abigail Deville: Light of Freedom
Abigail Deville: Light of Freedom, Narrated by Brooke Kamin Rappoport