Save Composting in NYC from
Mayor Adam's Budget Cuts!
Recycling of paper, glass and plastic didn’t exist in NYC until 1986, when it started as a voluntary program. It became mandatory in 1989. Now, residents recycle 17% of their waste. It’s only half of what they could be recycling, but it’s still good progress.
There are even better reasons to recycle organic waste, and there’s been a voluntary program to do so for some time. But instead of strengthening the program, Mayor Adams has proposed cutting the budget for community composting programs by 50%, and halting the planned expansion of the curbside composting program.
That’s a mistake, as this is one of the easiest ways for NYC to fight climate change. We urge the City Council to oppose the cuts, and enact legislation that moves us toward mandatory organics collection.
Right now, two thirds of the city’s waste that is non-recyclable trash is mixed together with one third that’s organic waste – food scraps and yard waste - about 4,000 tons per day. This mixed waste is mostly sent to out of state landfills or incinerators, with financial, climate, and public health impacts.
First, the cost of shipping trash to landfills is steadily increasing as landfills fill up and fuel prices rise.
Second, when left to rot in landfills, organic waste generates methane gas, which has more than 80 times the warming power of carbon dioxide in the first 20 years after it reaches the atmosphere. Landfilled organic waste accounts for about a fifth of US methane emissions, and NYC’s landfilled trash generates about 1 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions each year.
Third, food scraps are a major food source for rats, easily accessible in standard black plastic bags. An effective organic recycling program would help residents separate waste, through curbside collection from resealable and animal-proof containers. This will reduce the rat population.
Instead of throwing it into the trash, organic waste should be separated so it can be recovered and put to good used. When composted, food waste is a great addition to soil and can be sold to landscapers. Organic wastes can also be put in anaerobic digesters. The methane gas from these enclosed tanks is captured and cleanly burned for energy. The remaining volume of waste, now sharply reduced, can still be composted, cutting landfilling costs.
Mayor Adams cited all these factors in his online campaign plans, which originally supported composting all of NYC’s organic waste. The budget cuts are a big surprise, and a complete reversal for the Mayor. (After the election, Adams deleted all his online campaign plans, fortunately still archived by Gotham Gazette.) The cuts would supposedly save only $27.5 million out of a $2 billion cost cutting package.
Adams calls the current food recycling system broken because of low participation. That’s partly the result of the city repeatedly cutting back on funding for the program. When de Blasio suspended the city’s already languishing food waste pick-ups at the start of the pandemic, Adams described the decision at the time as a “mistake.” Now, he wants to do it again. Yes, participation in voluntary organics collection is low, but that’s only to be expected when most New Yorkers don’t know it exists or why they should do it. Only the most dedicated recyclers have been jumping through hoops to use the city’s food scrap drop off (FSDO) services. Instead of breaking the program more with budget cuts, we should fix it.
Council Member Sandy Nurse, chair of the Council’s sanitation committee, opposes the cuts. “This is a disappointing move from the Mayor, who committed many times to expanding organics collections. Simply put, we cannot have clean streets or meet our Zero Waste goals if we do not fund this program.”
Eric Goldstein, head of the NYC chapter of the Natural Resources Defense Council, says composting is being treated an after-school clarinet program. Instead, it should be a fundamental piece of the sanitation department’s budget, just like regular trash pick-ups and snow removal.
In central Queens, when the service was stopped because of the pandemic, Forest Hills Green Team, a volunteer green group, set up its own FSDO site at the local greenmarket, in collaboration with Queens Botanical Garden and Big Reuse. This newly reopened FSDO site will be shut down again after June 30, as well as the new Commonpoint FSDO that FHGT has been organizing with QBG, expected to start on April 3.
Urge the Council and the Mayor to Reverse the Cuts
The immediate thing to do is reverse the cuts. Call your City Council member and the Mayor’s office and ask them to restore full funding for existing community composting programs and FSDO sites, and for the planned expansion of the curbside composting program. Look up the Save Our Compost coalition’s online letter writing campaign.
Call Council Member Lynn Schulman at 718-544-8800 and email her here.
Email Mayor Adams here.
NYC must start moving toward mandatory composting
Next, the Council and the Mayor must pass legislation that would phase in mandatory organic waste collection and composting, and include a detailed agenda as set out by the NYC office of the Natural Resources Defense Council. In the first year, the Department of Sanitation would study what it has gone right and wrong so far with curbside composting, and what it can learn from other jurisdictions. In the second year, DSNY would come up with a multi-year plan describing how the program should be designed and implemented, and then gradually phased in, accompanied by an extensive public education campaign.
Right now, it costs more per ton to compost waste than to landfill it, but the NYC Independent Budget Office reported that as public participation and volume increase, it can eventually drop to match.
We don’t quibble much about the costs of removing snow from city streets. Remember, just a few weeks ago we had record breaking heat waves at both the North and South Poles. We have to cut methane emissions, to do our part to minimize the worst consequences of the climate crisis. Municipal organics composting must become standard practice.
What happens if Mayor Adam’s cuts go into effect and he tells his Department of Sanitation to continue landfilling and incinerating organic wastes? NY State Senator Brad Hoylman, who represents Manhattan, has a backup plan. He has introduced a bill, S 8374, that would require cities with a population greater than one million to provide composting services to all residential buildings. Let’s hope the Council and the Mayor step up first, so NYC can be a positive example for the entire world.
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“Project Drawdown Solution Summary: Composting”
NYC Community Composting Sites
NYC Food Scrap Drop Off Sites
“NYC Must Enact a Universal Food Waste Composting Law,” NRDC
“NYC Must Enact a Universal Food Waste Composting Law-Part II,” NRDC
“Can The Organics Collection Program Be Fiscally & Environmentally Sustainable?,” NYC Independent Budget Office, 2021
“How Much Potential Revenue Are New Yorkers Wasting by Trashing Organics?”, NYC Independent Budget Office, 2019, one pager
“Can We Have Our Cake and Compost It Too?,” An Analysis of Organic Waste Diversion in New York City Analysis of Organic Waste Diversion in NYC, Citizens Budget Commission, 2016
In 2017, the IBO reported that if all 1 million tons of organics in the city’s total residential waste stream were processed, it could produce as much as 500,000 tons of compost per year. could be produced each year, worth an estimated $12.5 million for use in landscaping and farming. If those organic wastes were used to produce biogas, it could produce an estimated $22.5 million per year in electricity.