A Salute to Union Square: A greener, cleaner, more sustainable district

The Union Square Partnership’s Clean Team helps keep the district looking great. So does waste reduction and food-rescuing initiatives by local restaurants, among other things. Photo by Liz Ligon

For more than 40 years, the Union Square Partnership has invested in beautifying and maintaining the neighborhood’s public spaces and sidewalks, as well as in Union Square Park, the district’s crown jewel.

U.S.P.’s Clean Team works seven days a week throughout the year, sweeping sidewalks, emptying waste receptacles, painting street furniture, power-washing high-traffic corners, and maintaining the plazas surrounding Union Square Park. With spring’s arrival, the team is out daily setting up popular seating areas in and around the park with U.S.P.’s signature lime-green bistro tables and chairs. This past winter, the team cleared crosswalks, bus stops, catch basins and areas around fire hydrants of snow, ice and slush to keep the streets unobstructed for the hundreds of thousands of pedestrians visiting Union Square.

With more than 178,000 bags of trash removed from the district’s streets last year, U.S.P. is turning its attention to reducing waste in the park and in the 125 public trash receptacles the organization maintains throughout the district, and to engaging local businesses, residents and employees on a host of sustainability issues.

“An essential role of the Partnership has always been to keep Union Square Park, as well as our district’s sidewalks and pedestrian plazas, clean and vibrant,” said Monica Munn, U.S.P.’s director of economic development. “Building on that legacy, we are well-positioned to demonstrate how business improvement districts can catalyze waste reduction in public spaces and help both businesses and residents make more environmentally friendly choices in their daily operations and lives.”

Earlier this year, U.S.P. kicked off a partnership with Columbia University to take a literal deep dive into the district’s trash. The goal was to examine what is being thrown out in Union Square, and identify potential solutions to help reduce how much is thrown out in the first place, and then divert recyclable materials and food scraps from landfill.

A team of graduate students from the Sustainability Management program at Columbia’s Earth Institute rolled up their sleeves and conducted the district’s first-ever waste-characterization analysis, revealing what kinds of items are thrown in Union Square’s public trash cans. The team also researched best practices in sustainable waste management that are being implemented in cities across the country and around the world.

Finding new ways to reduce waste and educate New York City residents and businesses on these issues will go a long way toward supporting citywide goals to achieve zero waste to landfill by 2030. Insights and recommendations from this research will be released this summer.

In addition to these efforts, the Union Square Partnership continues to push the needle on how to reduce waste at its own events. For 21 years, U.S.P. has donated surplus food from its annual food and wine fundraiser — Harvest in the Square — in cooperation with City Harvest, the nonprofit organization that has rescued more than 500 million pounds of good, nutritious food in the city since 1982.

Following last year’s Harvest in the Square, 500 pounds of food was donated to City Harvest. Eight hundred pounds was donated the year before. U.S.P. is now exploring how to increase the use of recyclable materials at the event and collaborate with Harvest chefs to incorporate dishes that leverage more parts of ingredients, such as the green carrot tops.

Several Union Square chefs and restaurants are already leading the way in sustainability by donating surplus edible food, thereby decreasing waste in their operations, as well as by procuring locally.

Breads Bakery, for example, is working to reduce waste throughout its operations, and donates surplus food through Rescuing Leftover Cuisine, a national nonprofit food-rescue organization headquartered here in New York.

Based in Lower Manhattan and founded by three N.Y.U. graduates in 2013, Rescuing Leftover Cuisine is devoted to “making food rescue sustainable and universal, and food hunger a thing of the past.”

“Rescuing Leftover Cuisine proudly partners with Breads Bakery and several Union Square offices to pick up their excess food and deliver it to nearby human services agencies, where these generous donations are distributed to those who are homeless and food-insecure,” said Robert Lee of Rescuing Leftover Cuisine.

Home to the renowned Greenmarket, Union Square has long been a destination for chefs seeking to connect with local farmers and shop for seasonal produce. Dig Inn, which launched a redesigned location near Union Square Park, works directly with local farmers to procure nutritious and sustainably produced products. Local procurement reduces transit time, keeping vegetables fresher longer and reducing waste. Whenever possible, Dig Inn’s chefs also make use of ingredients that are commonly wasted.

Other quick-service eateries, such as Cava Grill and Sweetgreen, focus on reducing post-consumer waste by separating food scraps at busing stations and waste receptacles in its restaurants.

Increasingly, the park itself is being leveraged to connect, educate and inspire Union Square residents on how to “go green” and reduce waste in their daily lives. Already the park is home to a drop-off point for food scraps sponsored by GrowNYC and the Lower East Side Ecology Center, helping local residents turn food scraps into valuable compost.

To welcome summer, the Union Square Partnership will host its annual community-oriented It’s My Park! Day on Sat., June 2, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. This year’s event will have a special focus on helping residents make their homes greener and more sustainable. In addition to sprucing up the park, planned activities for all ages include take-home herb gardening, a composting exhibit, a sustainable cooking demo, and a science-themed reading corner for kids.

“We all have a role to play in making our neighborhood more sustainable and keeping our streets and public spaces clean and green,” U.S.P.’s Munn urged. “From helping residents undertake simple changes that reduce their waste, and connecting restaurants with zero-waste and food-donation experts, to piloting innovative projects that divert public trash from landfill, U.S.P. is excited to lead the way and show what a ‘zero waste’ business improvement district can be.”

Awareness and engagement are unmistakably on the rise. In the years ahead, one can expect to see organizations, businesses and households throughout the Union Square community expand their commitment to waste reduction and other critical strategies in support of a healthy and sustainable urban environment.

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