Pause in Queens Compost Pilot Leaves Participants in the Dumps
Concerns about breaking good habits and overflowing landfills are clouding otherwise sunny outcomes for popular program that’s gone on a winter break after just starting last fall.
Gloria Boyce-Charles began separating her food scraps last spring, packing them into brown bags and storing them in a freezer in the basement of her southeastern Queens home.
The retired Brookville resident says she always meant to bring the scraps to a compost drop-off site, but never got around to it. So the bags sat in her freezer — until October, when the Department of Sanitation launched its curbside organic-waste pick-up program, which covered all of Queens.
“It was seamless: all I had to do was set it out on the curb on the same day with my recycling,” Boyce-Charles said.
She and DSNY both consider the pilot program a success: Queens residents diverted about 12.7 million pounds of organic material that would have otherwise gone to landfills, according to the department.
But, in December, the program “paused for winter” until March.
“I feel personally disappointed the composting program is on hiatus,” Boyce-Charles told THE CITY. “Once curbside started, I became really religious. Now... I have to make more of an effort to find out where to drop off the food waste.”
Sanitation officials scheduled the three-month hold because the program focusing on outdoor organics. “As any New Yorker can see from looking outside, there is not much yard waste in the winter time, so the program will take a short pause before resuming in March,” DSNY spokesperson Vincent Gragnani wrote in an email.
But for many of the program’s participants and cheerleaders, the break is a frustrating misstep.
“I think the reason for pausing it is wrong and misplaced,” said Eunice Lau, a filmmaker and avid composter who helped her neighbors in her Long Island City condo get on board. “We may not have as much yard waste in the winter, but people don’t stop eating.”
On Thursday, Queens Borough President Donovan Richards sent a letter to Sanitation Commissioner Jessica Tisch — praising the program and asking for her to lift its suspension.
“This is an indisputable triumph we should be capitalizing on and continuing, not suspending,” Richards wrote in the missive shared with THE CITY.
Asked about the BP’s letter, DSNY spokesperson Joshua Goodman said the department “will definitely take his feedback into account for next year.”
Up in Smoke
Transforming food, yard scraps and other organic material into agricultural compost or energy is good for the environment in several ways. It diverts waste from landfills, both saving space and preventing rotting organics there from creating methane, a potent greenhouse gas. The practice also decreases the food waste, which attracts rats and other vermin, left in sidewalk garbage bags.
But a portion of the scraps in the DSNY’s composting program may just be getting burned off into the sky.
While some of the organic material goes to a composting facility in New Jersey and some is sent to become “biogas” at Pine Island Farm in western Massachusetts, an amount gets poured into the “anaerobic digesters” at the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant in Brooklyn — in theory to be used for energy.
The DSNY said it could not provide a specific breakdown of how much material goes to each place, but it’s unclear how much up at Newton Creek is being turned into biogas.
The project, helmed by the Department of Environmental Protection and National Grid, has been mired in delays, as THE CITY previously reported. The delays meant that instead of the methane from the digestion process being routed to customers’ homes, it was burned off into the atmosphere.
National Grid on Friday said the plant, which was originally scheduled to be operational in 2015, is now partially working.
“The facility has run intermittently as part of the final commissioning stage,” National Grid spokesperson Karen Young said in an email. “We’re committed to delivering this important clean energy source.”
During the pause in the composting program, Queens residents can still separate their organic materials from their recyclables and waste but sanitation workers will toss the brown bins’ contents in with the garbage.
‘We may not have as much yard waste in the winter, but people don’t stop eating.’
Instead, composters can bring their organic material to the DSNY drop-off sites peppered across the five boroughs, or leave it in “smart bins,” which are only in Astoria, Queens and parts of Manhattan. But many say those options rarely have convenient locations or hours.
“I always say our area is a desert when it comes to drop-off sites,” said Andrea Scarborough, from Addisleigh Park in southeastern Queens and a member of the Queens Solid Waste Advisory Board, a part of the borough president’s office.
Her Community District 12 had the highest amount of organics collected during the pilot program’s initial run from October to December. Before, Scarborough would drive up to 25 minutes to drop off her organics at the Queens County Farm Museum in Little Neck. She plans to go back to that routine.
“I would rather not have to. I really got spoiled with that. I really hope they bring it back and they bring it back soon,” Scarborough said. “We didn’t want it to stop. You finally get neighbors buying into this and then you stop it. It’s the wrong approach if you’re trying to move people in the direction of composting and moving waste from landfills.”
Lou Reyes, who runs compost drop-off sites as part of Astoria Pug with his partner, said he noticed much less material coming his way after DSNY started the universal program.
“I don’t see it as a negative. I like to think more people are composting and they’re choosing the alternative that’s closest and most convenient to them,” he said. “I do predict we’ll see a spike in the coming weeks… Another side of me thinks once you change a habit — like the way you recycle your organics and then you break the habit and try to restart it — it’s really difficult.”
At the two public housing developments DSNY included in the curbside organics program, College Point Rehab and Leavitt Houses, NYCHA has made an effort to “support the behavior change toward separating food scraps” during the pause, housing authority spokesperson Nekoro Gomes said in an email.
NYCHA is bringing the material collected from those two complexes to Astoria Houses, where Domingo Morales runs a compost processing site as part of his initiative called Compost Power.
“Some residents just got really accustomed to doing this at the end of November,” Morales said. “Do we really care about zero waste? … It’s a mistake to show residents, nine months out of the year we care about this but not three months.”
Morales pointed out that while DSNY accepts all organic materials, many community composting efforts including his don’t process meat, bones or dairy. That means he and other volunteers need to decontaminate the stream if people don’t limit what they separate during the pause.
“Now that I’m taking material from two developments in Queens, I have to separate that waste,” Morales said. “The brown bin system made it so easy for residents that anything else is just a culture shock.”
In Brookville, Boyce-Charles acknowledged she’ll have to get up to speed on what material is accepted at the site she’ll end up bringing her organics to.
“I don’t want to lose the habit and I know how important it is,” she said. “Because people in our communities are likely to feel the impacts of climate change more dramatically, it’s important we do what we can to stave it off and it’s the right thing to do for the health of our planet, the health of everybody.”
For City Councilmember Sandy Nurse, who chairs the sanitation committee, the popularity of the program and its current pause point to the need for universal organics collection, a plan for which was introduced in the Council last spring.
“What we really need is a codified citywide program that is mandatory and is rolled out for everybody,” she said. “What we’ve seen with the organics program run with Sanitation is this stop-start process, which is why it’s so important for the bill to pass.”