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EcoWise: Community Composting: It Can Be Done

EcoPel Board Member Debbie Winstead (second from right) and other Pelhamites visited the Scarsdale Sanitation Department’s composting site in June. (Photo:

Last month, EcoWise focused on the composting programs at Siwanoy and Colonial Schools. These initiatives come as food-scrap composting is taking hold at a number of Westchester municipalities, including Scarsdale, Larchmont/Mamaroneck, Bedford, and soon, Greenburgh.

The benefits are numerous: It brings the food cycle full circle by turning food remains back into nutrient-rich dirt. It reduces garbage – which in Westchester, is incinerated. Down the line, it may even save money.

The Village of Scarsdale, which began its composting program in January, was the first in Westchester and is serving as a template for other communities. Interested residents buy a one-time kit for $20 consisting of a small countertop size bin, a larger bin for transferring scraps to Scarsdale’s drop-off site, a roll of compostable bags, and instructions about what is compostable and what isn’t.

The start-up costs were $1,500, and the monthly cost for having the scraps transported to a composting facility is $400. With a participation rate in Scarsdale of 15% of households — ahead of original projections –– about half of the monthly transport costs pays for itself because garbage is reduced. “It’s a really simple program, but it’s also a cheap program,” said Michelle Sterling, co-chairwoman of the Scarsdale Forum Sustainability Committee.

Scarsdale has periodic compost give-back days, when residents can pick up dirt resulting from their composting. The actual drop-off site is small – taking up three parking spaces at the Scarsdale Recyling Center. On a recent visit on a hot autumn day, no smell emanated from the site, which consists of tidy rows of thick, sealed bins. “They worked out many of the kinks so it’s a preloaded program,” said Village of Pelham Trustee Andrea Reinke, who visited this summer with interested local residents.

Mamaroneck Superintendent Nancy Seligson said commencement of the town’s program – which includes the Village of Larchmont – was “a very good and very rapid experience.” Food-scrap recycling started on September 18 with 250 residents signed up.

About 20 Westchester municipalities have visited the Scarsdale site, including the Village of Pelham, New Rochelle, Rye, White Plains, and Yonkers. “I love this program,” said Pelham’s Reinke. “The Village is really interested and we’re trying to figure out the logistics.”


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EcoWise: Elementary Schools Teach ABC’s of Composting

As the school year begins, Colonial School will become the second Pelham elementary school to start a composting program in its lunchroom. Siwanoy School began composting last year and is looking forward to building on its early success.

In so doing, both schools are teaching students a valuable lesson: that food waste doesn’t have to become trash. As it decomposes, it becomes enriched soil that helps new plants – and food – to grow.

Siwanoy implemented its program with guidance both from EcoPel and Greenacres School in Scarsdale, which began composting in 2013.

At Siwanoy, town meetings initially taught students the composting basics. But in the day-to-day, student volunteers instruct their peers during lunchtime to pour liquids into a special bin, separate out their food waste, and recycle the other materials.

This year, the school is looking to start composting of snacks in the classroom. “I think this is part of the world they’re growing up in,” said Siwanoy Principal Susan Gilbert “[The students] know that this is important to do. They have a sense of stewardship.”

Colonial plans a similar structure, with students in grades 1 to 5 applying to help others sort their lunch waste.  “When kids mentor kids, it’s always so great,” said Sydney MacInnis, founder of EcoPel, who worked closely with Siwanoy and the school district on the composting initiative.

Colonial Principal Tonya Wilson sees composting as a natural extension of existing school recycling activities, such as having kids use reusable water bottles and take food home if they don’t finish it. “We don’t produce a lot of garbage here,” she said.

The school composting initiatives come as the Village of Pelham has been exploring starting a community composting program for residents. You can read more about how that might work in the next EcoWise column.

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EcoWise: Traveling Green

Ah, vacation! It’s a time to set aside day-to-day routines – and that often includes all of those good, green habits we’ve established when we’re home.

But with minimal effort, you can help the environment and still have fun. In this column, EcoPel offers up some ideas to help you and your family travel green.

Before You Leave Home

  • Unplug the power strips for all computers and monitors. Even when turned off, these electronic devices still draw power when they’re plugged in.
  • Lower the thermostat on your hot water heater and raise the temperature setting on your air conditioning system – or turn it off completely.
  • Remember to pack reusable bags for shopping, along with refillable water bottles and coffee cups.

On the Road

  • Reduce your carbon footprint by booking non-stop flights. Takeoffs and landings use the most fuel.
  • Wherever possible, use mass transportation on the ground.
  • If renting a car, choose the smallest, most fuel-efficient one possible.
  • Improve gas mileage by keeping tires properly inflated, driving at the speed limit, and avoiding rapid acceleration or constant braking.

At the Hotel

  • Look for green hotels that have energy-efficient buildings, recycling programs, and restaurants that source their food locally.
  • If the hotel offers recycling, make sure to sort your trash accordingly. If you’re on a car trip, consider bringing recyclables home.
  • Turn off the air-conditioning, heat, lights, and electronics before you leave the room.
  • Hang up wet towels on hooks or racks so you can reuse them, rather than leaving them on the floor so the housekeeping staff brings you fresh ones each day.


Wherever you’re headed this summer, always protect and respect the environment. And enjoy your time off.

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EcoWise: From Coffee Cups to Cardboard: Ten Tips to Better Recycling

Most Pelham households are diligent about putting out their recyclables for weekly curbside collection. But recycling correctly is harder than it looks – as anyone who has spent time studying the garbage knows.

Can I throw in that ice cream container? (Yes.) Those empty prescription vials? (Yes.) Those plastic forks, knives, and spoons? (No.)

Here are guidelines to clear up some of the confusion:

  1. Yes, it’s true! You can comingle milk and juice cartons and ice cream containers with bottles and cans on collection day.
  2. Look for codes 1 – 7 on plastic packaging to confirm it’s recyclable. This will usually include such items as takeout food containers and plant trays.
  3. Plastic lids and bottle caps should be attached to their containers.
  4. Aluminum foil can be mixed with other metals, such as soda cans and even aerosol cans.
  5. You do not have to take the labels off of bottles and cans.
  6. Before putting out cardboard boxes, remove all styrofoam, bubble wrap, and packing peanuts. But instead of throwing out that stuff out with the regular trash, bring it to Mailboxes, Etc. and The UPS Store, which will reuse it.
  7. Keep in mind that many plastics – such as single-use shopping and dry cleaning bags, clear wrap, and throwaway utensils cannot go to the curb on recycling day. But retailers such as Fairway and CVS will recycle plastic bags for you.
  8. Make sure all recyclables put out for pickup are free of food residue to reduce odors and deter animals.
  9. Use large recycling bins with wheels and lids. They keep their contents protected from the elements and are easy to move to the curb. Never put recyclables in plastic garbage bags; they’ll clog up the recycling machines.
  10. Finally, when in doubt, leave it out.
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EcoWise: How One Town (Rye) Banned the Bags

A major goal of EcoPel is to reduce, and possibly eliminate, the use of plastic shopping bags in Pelham. Sensitive to the practical issues involved, EcoWise reached out to Sara Goddard, chair of the Rye Sustainability Committee (RSC), to better understand the implementation and impact of Rye’s plastic bag ban, which was voted into law by its City Council in 2011. What follows is our interview with Sara.

What are the provisions of Rye’s bag ordinance?

The ordinance applies only to retail plastic shopping bags at the point of sale, not such items as small bags used for fruits and vegetables or plastic bags used in the home. Merchants had a six-month window to deplete their inventory, upon which time they had to switch to alternatives, such as recyclable paper bags or reusable cloth bags. There was no cost to residents, and RSC’s research in other bag-ban communities before the law was enacted showed that no businesses suffered financially as a consequence of the new legislation.

 How did the idea first come up?

 We’d just formed the RSC and were discussing new projects. This was the first. I did a Google search and up pops this article about Westport (CT) having passed a reusable bag law. I emailed Jonathan Cunitz, one of the legislators who spearheaded the effort. He agreed to meet and give us an overview of what was required.

Cunitz told us it was important to listen to and ultimately address the concerns of three groups — businesses, residents and the City Council. Another important element was that the RSC did all of the organization and preparation. By the time we went to the Council for public hearings, we’d done our homework.

What concerns did people have?

The biggest concern was from local businesses, which have slim margins and worry about costs. A few came to us and said, “If we are forced to get rid of plastic bags, we’ll have to do paper bags and that’s more expensive.” They also worried that if it was an inconvenience for customers, they would go elsewhere.

Residents were not as concerned. But some, including the elderly, wondered how they would pick up dog poop and line garbage cans.

How did you address the concerns?

We called business owners and government officials in communities across the country that implemented bans. Not one said it was a problem. We summarized those interviews and visited local businesses to hand out the summary. We also asked the Chamber of Commerce to distribute a digital version.

We also had a huge letter-writing campaign that really gained strength once we screened the anti-disposables documentary Bag It. It was critical that we worked with the community in a spirit of collaboration.

How have consumers and merchants reacted since the ban? 

We spent six months on an education campaign before the law was enacted. It helped ease the transition. On rare occasion, we’ll hear of a business owner who has been using plastic bags, but once notified they’ve stopped. No one has ever been fined.

Has there been any discernable financial impact on the stores?

We haven’t heard of any business that has closed its doors as a direct result of the ordinance. CVS started handing out bags that were supposedly compostable. A resident wrote to CVS corporate about it, and at some point CVS reverted to paper. At the end of the day, it’s about adapting the concept of shoppers having four or five reusable bags available to get away from the disposable culture.

Any noticeable impact on the environment?

We have not measured it, and we probably should. Anecdotally, I don’t see as many plastic bags around. When you see someone carrying one, it looks jarring.

What advice would you give to other communities looking to explore a plastic bag ban?

You have to know your town really well. The reason we were able to do it is we listened to community concerns, and we worked with all groups to educate and assuage potential fears. We didn’t try to jam it through, and we knew where to seek help and support. You also have to be organized and prepared to work hard.



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The Return of Pelham’s Trash Busters

Pelham is particularly beautiful this time of year, when lawns turn green and forsythia blooms. It’s also a time when trash emerges from its winter cover of melting snow and rotting leaves.

On Saturday, Apr. 29 – in celebration of Earth Day, one week before — volunteers will once again gather for what has become a Pelham ritual: the annual spring cleanup sponsored by EcoPel. This prime anti-garbage event, which repeats in the fall, will begin at 10 a.m. at the Connecticut-bound side of Pelham’s Metro-North station.

EcoPel launched the cleanups in 2014 after hosting a screening of  “Plastic Paradise” at The Picture House. As moviegoers arrived, they passed a table in the lobby displaying litter collected by EcoPel founder Sydney MacInnis while walking her dog.

This inspired EcoPel board members Susan Weeks, David Brown and Amy Dunkin to organize a community crusade. “It was partly about cleaning up Pelham, but also about the example we set for our youth,” Weeks said.

Since then, more than 300 residents have attended a total of six cleanups – and they’ve found some truly strange items, including a Minnesota license plate and a cane. But most of the haul consists of plastic bottles and bags, beer cans, and coffee cups, with volunteers filling as many as 50 bags in one day with garbage and recyclables.

On Apr. 29, participants should bring work gloves, and EcoPel will supply collection bags donated by Pelham Manor resident Richard Ellenbogen, president of Garb-O-Liner. Middle and high schoolers can earn community service credits, made easy by EcoPel’s seamless process for notifying the schools.

If you can’t come to the community cleanup, consider picking up five pieces of outdoor trash per day. Pelham will thank you for it.


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How to Break the Plastic Bag Habit

Plastic bags. They’re convenient, ubiquitous and huge polluters. They clog landfills and block storm drains when they’re not dangling from tree branches or choking animals that accidentally get entangled in their handles.

Ultimately, plastic bags often wind up in the ocean, where they do incalculable damage to marine life. According to the Earth Policy Institute, a mind-boggling two million plastic bags are used worldwide every minute.

Once a plastic bag is produced, it never really goes away. The petroleum-based polymer in the material cannot technically biodegrade, so the bags just break down into smaller and smaller pieces.

Environmental considerations are why many communities, including nearby Rye and Larchmont, have enacted plastic bag bans or per-bag usage fees. But even in towns like Pelham, where plastic bags are dispensed freely, simple changes in behavior can make a huge difference. Here are some tips:

  • Keep a supply of reusable bags in your car, and remember to put them back after you’ve unloaded your groceries.
  • If you forget your own bags, use the “Costco” model. Load purchases back into your shopping cart after you pay for them and wheel them out to your car.
  • Ask yourself whether you really need a bag. If a container has a handle, for example, use it.
  • If you must take a plastic bag, at least ask the sales clerk not to double bag. If you buy something heavy that might tear a single bag, remove it and carry it separately.
  • Choose paper over plastic, if available.
  • Remember to bring your reusable bags to the hardware store, the drug store, the big box store — not just the supermarket.
  • The plastic bags used for items like produce and bread are a part of the problem, too. To reduce their use, buy small cloth bags or put these items “loose” in your cart.
  • If you want to be part of the solution, join with EcoPel’s new initiative to address the plastic bag problem locally. Just email us at
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Leaf Blowers

Nothing shatters the calm of a quiet morning like the sound and smell of a gas-powered leaf blower in your neighbor’s yard.

Leaf blowers are an accepted part of a gardener’s toolkit during the early fall when leaves are blanketing the ground, and again in the spring during lawn and garden cleanup season.

But from now until October 14, gas-powered blowers are a no-no in the villages of Pelham and Pelham Manor.

You may not know they are banned from the landscapers who continue to use these machines to blow grass clippings from lawns and sidewalks.

However, such activity violates a longstanding town ordinance, and landscapers are putting themselves and the property owners they work for at risk of receiving a $250 fine.

Leaf blowers are not just detrimental to human health as a result of the noise and noxious fumes from their unfiltered exhaust. Blasting plants with gale-force winds isn’t a very friendly act. It disperses the topsoil and weakens the root systems.

Gentler but equally effective alternatives are to just let grass clippings mulch in place after mowing the lawn, use a broom to sweep them from the sidewalk back onto the grass, and rake them into shrubs and flower beds.

How can each of us help maintain the calm of our neighborhood and keep the Pelham air healthier for our families?

You can start by visiting and typing “leaf blowers” in the search box. This will take you to a summary of the rules and a link to a flyer you can give to a gardener or homeowner who may unknowingly be violating the law.

And by all means, please visit EcoPel’s new redesigned website,, for more information on the leaf blower ban and other environmental concerns in our community.