My building, Penny Lane, has a lot of amazing amenities: a finished roof the size of a basketball court, genial doormen, helpful porters, passable views, thick concrete walls that block out all noise from the neighbors, a quiet street, and a bizarre but cozy lobby that looks like an English village with a faux fireplace. (I never said it was hip. One 57 we are not.)
My favorite amenity, though? The recycling area. Walk through the quirky lobby, past the package room, and out the back doors, and you'll find yourself in a pleasant covered outdoor space. Arranged against the wall are the typical receptacles for plastic, paper, and metal recycling. But that's just the beginning.
There are also receptacles for boxes, paint cans, packing and shipping materials, clothing, shoes, batteries, bulbs, electronics, dry cleaning hangers, and compost. In the corner, there's a table and shelves set up to receive any books, art, or household items that you no longer want. It's a sort of mini, free, ongoing flea market. There's even a small covered bucket for hypodermic needles, to protect the staff from getting poked when they take out the trash. Each separate area is whimsically labeled with handcrafted and vintage signs. On the wall by the entrance, a small timer turns on the lights in the bike parking area in the back. The only thing missing is a plastic bag bin, but that should show up soon. After that, just about the only thing left you can't recycle would be used tissues.
It might actually be the best residential recycling spot in the city.
Garreth O'Connor, lanky Irishman and the superintendent of Penny Lane, is behind this perfectly organized system. "It's my own personal belief," he told me in his thick accent when I asked him why he went to such lengths to make recycling easy for residents. "I like to make sure that everything doesn't go in the garbage, that everything is recycled or reused. I came from a small rural town in Ireland where we didn't dispose of so much stuff in the garbage. Everything had a purpose." When he arrived to the building in 2008, he cleaned up the existing tiny recycling area and added a bin for boxes. Then, when the building had to redo the entire back yard for structural reasons in 2012, he saw his chance to mold it into a recycling mecca.
(Related: Here's exactly what you can recycle in NYC.)
Because the city provides many of the containers and does a lot of pickup, he says this OCD-meets-environment space doesn't cost the building really anything. But it does require a passionate super to keep it going. "It costs me personally to bring stuff to sanitation, whatever the city doesn't pick up," Garreth admits. That includes batteries, bulbs and paint, which he brings to a city agency. The city picks up the electronic waste. The packing materials and boxes are borrowed by grateful residents. The building staff wheels the compost down to the Union Square Greenmarket, a 15 minute walk away. Wearable Collections picks up the clothing. (The city will do that now through a new program, but Garreth feels loyal to Wearable Collections--it's their giant clothing bin out there.) "It would be great if the city did these things, but right now we don't mind doing the extra bit of effort," he says.
If You Build It?
The recycling area is so popular, it's become a selling point. "When people come to buy apartments, the sales agents show them the recycling area," Garreth says, "It's an asset." With 180 units, the clothing bin alone fills up in a week and a half; he estimates it diverts over ten tons of textiles a year from the landfill. "I remember when we put in the clothing recycling, the staff said, 'Ugh, that's stupid. Why are you putting that there for?'" Now that the staff sees how much trash they don't have to take out to the curb, they get it.
Still, not everyone shares Garreth's passion for sorting waste. A few weeks ago Out of Order signs appeared on the trash chute for several days. Turns out, someone had crammed a three-foot tall metal lamp down it, breaking the sprinkler system. "I don't think they're interested in recycling," Garreth muses. He also gets frustrated when people mix glass in with the trash they throw down the chute, because it shatters. One member of the staff cut himself and had to get a tetanus shot.
In my opinion, that sort of willful ignorance falls in the same category as being snobbish to the doormen: totally unnecessary and mean-spirited. But it is entirely possible that you could move in, throw everything down the chute, and never even step one foot out in the back to realize that there's a place to bring your spent batteries and bulbs. And sometimes, even interested people need to be carefully guided toward building recycling habits.
"A lady moved here from San Francisco, really nice lady, and she said, 'Why don't you do compost?'" Garreth tells me by way of illustration. When he set her straight, "she has all these reasons why it wouldn't work. Because of fruit flies, la di da. And I explained to her that you can keep your container in the freezer. And she was like, 'Oh wow, that's a really good idea. I'm going to try that.'" (I do the same thing, throwing compost into a grocery bag in my freezer until it's full and ready to take down. Hot tip: Those countertop compost bins are pretty, but not very good.) Garreth has even put out sheets of paper explaining what you can compost. "A lot of people don't look at that stuff unless they're introduced to it. They go out and do the basic recycling, and feel good and walk away."
So he's been pushing for the building to hand out introductory packets and provide welcome tours to new residents, that will tell them and show them not only the grand recycling area out back, but other basics like how to post to the building's listserv (which is rarely used), how to get a bike parking spot, and the huge finished roof upstairs complete with plants and chaise lounges for sunbathing.
I told Garreth I would be happy to provide those tours myself, though I won't be renewing my lease in August. I'm apartment hunting in Brooklyn.
One night when I came home late with my boyfriend, I said hi to Jean at the front desk and told him that I had a package and dry cleaning to pick up. "You're going to miss this," my boyfriend said, gesturing to Jean as he disappeared into the back room to get my stuff. "Yeah," I said wistfully. "I really will."
But I bet I'll miss that recycling area more.