What To Do With Old Newspaper Boxes? Make Them Streetside Compost Bins

Print is dying, but composting is alive and well. Why not make it easier for city residents to participate?

Since curbside newspaper boxes don’t get a lot of action selling papers anymore, a new urban intervention puts them to use as something else: convenient compost bins.


“The boxes are so commonplace in the city, and I wanted to subtly tweak them to make people stop, look twice, and think about what they are seeing versus what they expect to see,” says designer Debbie Ullman, who created the New York Compost Box Project.

Placed next to community gardens, the boxes serve as a place for anyone to recycle food waste as they walk by. “The idea is to make it possible for busy New Yorkers to drop their scraps whenever it’s convenient for them, 24/7,” she says. “On their way to work, especially.”

Ullman, who spent a decade working at the New York Daily News, mocked up a design for an issue of “New York Compost”–and a fake logo on the side–that look so much like a typical tabloid that people walking by tend to assume it’s actually still a newspaper box.

“People think I’m crazy when photographing them and ask me why I’m taking so many photos of a newspaper box. I ask them to read what the side of the box says and they say ‘New York Post,'” she says. “Across the board. It’s so interesting. We are so conditioned to see things a certain way that we see things that way regardless of subtle changes.”

As New York City runs compost pickup pilots in some neighborhoods, Ullman wanted to encourage everyone else to also try it. The surprise of the boxes is meant to be a way to reach people who might not have been interested otherwise.

“So far, the boxes seem to be a encouraging interaction,” she says. “They are helping non-composters to think about it in a fun and memorable way and to ask questions…The novelty of the boxes seems to be overcoming the ick factor for these folks, it seems.”


As people bring up a long list of perceived problems–from lack of space for a compost bin to the potential for the stench of rotting food in their kitchens–Ullman hopes to convince them that it’s simpler than it seems. “I want people to ask questions so they can learn the truth about how easy it is, and learn about all of the options for disposing of food waste in New York City,” she says.

By placing the boxes next to community gardens that can collect the compost, it’s also a way to more directly participate. (The photos next to subway stops were staged, after Ullman realized the boxes would be confiscated too quickly.) People with access to the boxes–anyone in the community with a free code to unlock it–can also take compost out for their own gardens.

“Composting on site, even as opposed to trucking it to Brooklyn or Queens or another state, keeps it local, eliminating carbon emissions from transport,” she says.


About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.