Residents Fight to Keep Composting From Getting Trashed in New York City’s Covid-19 Budget Cuts

Advocates say composting programs will help the city meet its climate goals, reduce the pollution faced by communities near landfills and save money in the long run.

Just this past March, New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson proposed making composting mandatory for city residents to help combat climate change. Now, with the coronavirus taking an immense financial toll on New York, even food waste recycling programs that existed before that proposition have become casualties of Covid-19. 

The New York City Department of Sanitation (DSNY) temporarily suspended its collection of curbside composting on May 4. Although the program is set to resume on June 30, 2021, many city residents and elected officials have spoken out against the 14-month blackout, concerned that it will impede the city's progress in reducing waste and set back efforts to combat climate change. Some worry the disruption could also disproportionately impact marginalized communities.

The suspension of compost collection, along with other cuts to programs like GrowNYC's zero waste programs and the NYC Compost Project, represent $28 million of the cuts proposed by the mayor to the city's nearly $90 billion budget for the upcoming fiscal year. While composting is only about 0.03 percent of the total budget, its advocates say it has an outsized impact on the city's environment.

On top of the additional waste that will end up in landfills and the elimination of green jobs in organics recycling, many environmental advocates see the cuts as a symbolic blow to the climate movement from a city administration that boasts of its leadership in the fight against global warming. 

"We feel that this is a really shortsighted decision and a failure to prioritize necessary environmental and social services, despite lip service to the contrary," said Tok Michelle Oyewole, policy & communications organizer for the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance. 

In response, environmental organizations, city residents and elected officials are banding together as part of a shared campaign to prevent New York composting from getting trashed. 

A coalition of community organizations, including the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance and The Alliance for a Greater New York (ALIGN), hopes to sway the council's vote on Mayor Bill de Blasio's proposed budget to salvage funds for organics recycling.

In addition to restarting the curbside program, the New York City Community Composting Coalition's #SaveOur Compost campaign demands that the council push to maintain all city residents' access to composting. It also calls on the council to support processing residential food scraps at existing community composting facilities, and to provide free finished compost to residents and neighborhood groups, along with education, outreach, technical assistance and overflow processing capacity.  

The Costs of Cutting Composting 

The proposed budget cuts could impede the city's ability to meet its climate mitigation goals in the coming decade, the composting program's supporters said.

DSNY promoted the expansion of curbside composting as essential to the city's goal of sending zero waste to landfills by 2030. In testimony to the council and the city's Office of Management and Budget last month, Debby Lee Cohen, founder and executive director of Cafeteria Culture, a school-based recycling program, said that suspension of composting would undoubtedly set back the city's "hard-earned progress" toward meeting its waste goal.

"Our rapidly rising price tag of almost half a billion tax dollars annually to export our garbage to (mostly) out-of-state incinerators is not disappearing," added Cohen. "In fact, these proposed budget cuts to the organics collection can only drive this cost higher and more rapidly, while simultaneously increasing our city's greenhouse gas emissions."

The pause in compost collection may have long-term environmental justice costs, as well, Oyewole said. In the program's absence, the DSNY instructed city residents who can't compost at home to discard food scraps and yard waste with their trash, sending many tons of organics to rot in landfills. 

Belinda Mager, DSNY's director of communications, estimated that the city collected 50,000 tons of compostables curbside during the 2019 fiscal year. If residents produce the same amount of organic waste this year, that amount will instead decompose in landfills, which will also take in an additional 2,650 tons of food and yard waste that residents previously dropped off at seven now-defunded NYC Compost Project sites, including the Red Hook Community Farm in Brooklyn. 

Unlike composting sites, waste buried in landfills must break down without oxygen. A byproduct of this anaerobic decomposition is methane, which is 84 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide when measured over a 20-year-period, and a significant contributor to climate change. Landfill emissions are currently the U.S.'s third largest source of human-produced methane. Aerobic composting reduces or eliminates release of methane.  

Communities of color in the U.S. are more likely to live near landfills and other sources of such pollution,  research from the U.S. General Accounting Office shows. It is also likely that these communities are where New York City residents' waste eventually ends up when it travels on a barge or train up to 600 miles to landfills and incinerators outside the city.

As of 2014, the top recipient of the city's trash was the Atlantic Waste landfill, over 300 miles away in Waverly, Virginia, where 65 percent of current residents are black and the poverty rate in 2018 was 3.9 percent higher than the national average. Such communities may face increased health risks as a result of living by this waste, including a higher vulnerability to respiratory conditions, which, in turn, may make them more susceptible to Covid-19. 

Many New York residents may not even realize that their waste has repercussions for those living outside of the city, said Frank Franciosi, Executive Director of the U.S. Composting Council.

"You know, the average taxpayer doesn't know where their trash goes," he said.

Oyewole sees an opportunity in the current moment to make the city's waste management more socially just and environmentally sustainable, which she fears the mayor's proposed budget cuts will jeopardize.

Currently, diesel trucks carry city residents' landfill-bound waste to transfer sites located primarily in North Brooklyn, the South Bronx and Southeast Queens—where many low-income residents and people of color live. Those trucks' heavy emissions of carbon dioxide contribute to harmful air pollution. Composting household organic waste in the neighborhoods where it is produced could cut down on the number of trucks traveling to those transfer sites.

"If we are able to fund local organics collection and local organics processing, it will reduce the need to rely on these intermediary transfer stations that then transport waste out of the city to incinerators and landfills," Oyewole said.  

Supporting composting among city residents could thus help alleviate the broader burden that New York waste disposal places on marginalized communities within and outside of the city, which Oyewole said are hit "first and worst by environmental and climate justice issues." 

Building Momentum for Organics Recycling 

The city's curbside collection program was limited, even before the cuts. A New York Times article noted that "less than half the [city's] population has the option to request the voluntary program's brown recycling bins" and that a mere 10 percent of residents in neighborhoods where they are available use them.

Given the vast amount of waste city residents produce—12,000 tons per day, over one-third of which consists of organics suitable for composting—and residents' historically low participation in curbside composting collection, suspending the program may seem like a small sacrifice for residents and easy savings for the city.  

But the program's limited reach reflects an inequitable distribution of composting bins and sites for city residents, Oyewole said, rather than a lack of will or desire to compost among the city's communities.

"Unfortunately, there's this narrative that communities of color don't really care about the environment," she explained. "But we've seen consistently, in response to insufficient programming and services of the city, communities and residents [of color] pushing back against that and creating their own programs."

She cited BK Rot, a community-based and fossil fuel-free food waste hauling and compost service facilitated by young people of color, as one example. 

Beyond perpetuating gaps in the service's accessibility, more than a year without curbside compost collection may hinder efforts to increase the low rates of participation in the program. Cohen said that the city is "still recovering from similar setbacks caused by the recycling cuts after 9/11," when the city temporarily suspended glass and plastic recycling to conserve funds.  

Oyewole shared Cohen's concern. Even as residents have been told to keep their brown composting bins for curbside collection on hand, the habit of using them may dissipate by the time the program is scheduled to be revived next summer, she said. 

Campaigning for Compost

With more than 25,000 signatures on petitions to "Tell Mayor Bill de Blasio: Composting is Essential to NYC" and "Save Community Composting in NYC!", public support for the city's organics recycling programs remains high. 

Numerous city officials have also expressed support for the programs amidst the pandemic. Among them is Antonio Reynoso, District 34 council member and Sanitation Committee chair, who has spoken out about the need to expand the city's recycling programs and to make climate change and resiliency a priority in the city budget after the pandemic. In comments to Politico, Reynoso said that the city's cuts to composting services cast doubt on the de Blasio administration's environmental commitments. 

Oyewole echoed Reynoso's frustration.

"Cutting all of these green jobs in organic waste recycling and slashing programming that serves people of color and youth and improves the air quality for our community and mitigates climate change" is antithetical to any alleged commitment to climate or environmental justice, she said. 

In addition to having lasting consequences for the city's marginalized communities, she said she has been disheartened to see the limited budget cuts made to the New York Police Department relative to those made to the city's social and environmental services. This imbalance may shift in the coming weeks, given the Mayor's recent commitment to further cut police funding in response to ongoing protests in the wake of George Floyd's death. 

The cuts to funding for community composting in New York will result in the loss of 88 green jobs, including 37 full-time and 51 part-time positions. One of those belongs to Domingo Morales, a site manager for compost operations at the Red Hook Community Farm in Brooklyn. 

Without building on investments like community composting, Morales said, the city is effectively "just stuck in in this [unsustainable] system of creating hazardous conditions on our planet." 

Seeking to fill what they see as a void in city leadership, Reynoso and his colleague, District 4 Council Member Keith Powers, introduced the "Community Organics and Recycling Empowerment (CORE)" Act to create drop off sites for compost no longer being collected at the curb and alleviate unequal access to composting.

Oyewole would like to see New York become a leader on waste reduction, following the models of other cities such as Seattle. That would include "Save as You Throw" programs that incentivize people to recycle by financially penalizing them for waste disposal. 

Meanwhile, Politico reported that some city residents are already paying a premium for composting by turning to the private sector to fill the void left by cuts to the city program. But the cost of commercial hauling will likely prove prohibitive to lower-income communities, exacerbating already existing disparities in their composting rates. 

For Oyewole, the present campaign to keep composting in the city's budget serves a longer-term vision. By strengthening and expanding infrastructure for organics recycling to reach marginalized communities, she said she hopes to help shape a more sustainable and healthful future for residents citywide. 

Anna Belle Peevey contributed additional reporting to this story.

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