Fertile Ground: NYC Could Move Step Closer to Universal, Mandatory Composting
The city’s Independent Budget Office estimates a citywide composting program could save $33 million annually — after five years.
The brown heap of food scraps, leaves and twigs in Susannah Laskaris’ Flatbush backyard teems with pink worms and black pill bugs.
The critters are helping to turn the banana peels, egg shells and avocado skins she’s thrown there for the past two decades into what she calls “black gold,” or nutrient-rich compost.
Laskaris, 63, who owns an urban gardening and landscaping business, appreciates feeling connected to nature and to “the full cycle of recycling from scraps.”
The nearly three-foot-tall pile doesn’t have the capacity to decompose all the organic waste her family of three produces, and there’s no organics drop-off site near her two-family home, so she’s organizing her neighbors to pay for a private service through Vokashi. The company charges a fee to pick up food waste and deliver it as compost to community parks and other public spaces.
The $23-a-month per bucket service is worth it to Laskaris so she can do her part to tackle the climate crisis, avoiding the emissions of methane, a highly potent planet-warming gas, that result from organic waste going to landfills.
“I would need three buckets a month [without the pile], if you’re talking about salad and scraps. I have a 23-year-old. It’s expensive for people,” she said. “This is why the city needs to do this and pay for it.”
Separating out food scraps from trash is not mandatory in New York City, and the availability of household organic waste disposal is piecemeal, leaving many motivated composters scrambling to find workable solutions through community groups and small businesses.
But under a legislative proposal due for introduction next week, New Yorkers would be required to separate their food scraps and set it on their curbs for pickup — as they do with recyclable materials.
‘A Public Utility’
Councilmember Shahana Hanif (D-Brooklyn) is the lead sponsor of the universal composting measure, which would phase in organic waste pick-up from residential buildings by mid-2023.
“This should be a public utility. Our city should be invested in addressing environmental inequities fully,” Hanif told THE CITY. “We shouldn’t simply rely on community-based organizations and the local drop-off centers to make a deep impact.”
The bill already faces some political hurdles: Mayor Eric Adams’ in his preliminary budget in February proposed suspending a planned expansion of the existing curbside organic waste pick-up pilot program — despite championing universal composting as part of his mayoral campaign.
But City Council Speaker Adrienne Adams is supportive of a mandatory citywide food scrap pick-up program.
“We celebrate Earth Day by establishing a commitment to always do our part in confronting the climate crisis with action,” she said Friday in a statement backing Hanif’s bill and other green proposals.
It’d be a move that environmental advocates have long been championing as a way to fight climate change — and it could save the city millions of dollars each year, according to a new analysis.
Transforming food and yard scraps into compost or energy is good for the environment. It diverts waste from landfills, slashes emissions associated with transporting the waste and returns nutrients to soil. Food waste left in garbage bags on sidewalks attract rats.
Organic material like food scraps and yard clippings makes up about a third of the waste stream. If all New Yorkers recycled and composted perfectly, about 68% of waste could be diverted from landfills, according to a 2017 study by the Department of Sanitation. (The city is nowhere near having perfect recycling practices.)
Hanif’s proposal would require the city to set up a curbside organic waste pick-up program for residential buildings, starting in January 2023 for most multi-family buildings and with all residences covered by June 2023. Public housing would not be included.
The Department of Sanitation would be tasked with outreach to educate residents about the curbside composting program, its benefits and how to correctly separate organic waste. Hanif emphasized the need for language accessibility in those efforts.
The city’s Independent Budget Office on Wednesday published reports on various ways the city could potentially save money, including by mandating composting citywide.
The IBO estimates the DSNY costs for “collecting and disposing of the refuse, recycling, and organics” would initially rise about $39 million in the first three years of universal composting, up from a total of $775 million in 2019.
But those costs would even out in the fourth year and then result in savings of about $33 million per year after that, the IBO said.
The reason for the estimated drop in costs is due to the city’s increased ability to negotiate prices for processing of the organic waste as the volume increases with wider participation. The IBO report, which includes arguments for and against each recommendation, notes that in the short-term, universal composting could increase trucks traffic and associated pollution, but as the volume of non-recyclable garbage decreases, fewer trucks and routes would be needed.
The budget office also noted that, “Opponents may argue … that despite years of a mandatory recycling program, New Yorkers still do not perfectly sort their recycling and it may take many years for city residents to sort enough organics to increase tonnage sufficiently.”
Still, the IBO’s savings estimate raises questions about the mayor’s proposed suspension of the expansion of the current curbside pick-up program in his preliminary budget, a move his administration estimated would save $91 million over five years.
The Adams administration is set to release its executive budget next week in response to Council hearings, the state budget and other feedback, so it’s unclear whether funding will be restored for organic waste services.
A spokesperson for the mayor said Adams “has consistently supported” the organics program and “believes we must find innovative ways to increase participation and uptake.”
Taking It to the Streets
There are over 200 sites around the city (with the majority in Brooklyn and Manhattan) for residents to drop off their food scraps. Hanif doesn’t envision those sites going away if her bill becomes law. But she believes for many, a curbside pick-up service would be a welcome replacement to dropping off.
Miles, an architect who declined to provide his last name, keeps food scraps in his freezer and brings them to his local drop-off site in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, most Thursdays, when he has time.
He would “absolutely” like an option for his organic waste to be picked up at home, just like trash and recycling are, Miles told THE CITY at the site Thursday: “I won’t have to haul a trash bag of garbage down my block.”
When the pandemic hit and City Hall suspended food scrap services — both the curbside pick-up and drop-off locations — Lou Reyes, 40, and his partner Caren Tedesco started a community composting effort called Astoria Pug, fronted by their dog, Rocky.
Partnering with Big Reuse to get the scraps composted, Astoria Pug oversees eight — soon to be nine — drop-off sites in Queens, and offers free organics pick-up for about a dozen residents.
One of his neighbors who relies on the pick-up service is 87 years old, he said, and her closest drop-off site is nine blocks away — too far for her to walk. Another is a single mom who can’t find time in her busy schedule to stop by a drop-off location, but wants to participate.
“We try to make it accessible,” Reyes said. “I’m the first to tell you Astoria Pug shouldn’t be around. We shouldn’t have to rely on a group of volunteers to do the heavy lifting. We shouldn’t have to have residents donating money to an environmental cause because the city isn’t doing their part.”
Through the city’s voluntary curbside composting pilot program, some residents receive a brown bin for their food scraps, which DSNY picks up. The program reaches seven community districts — four in Brooklyn, two in Manhattan and one in The Bronx — for now but requires participants to opt in to expand. Once there’s enough interest, the service can theoretically spread to a new neighborhood.
Thirty-seven more districts are eligible for curbside composting but have not received service, according to DSNY figures. And renters who live in buildings with at least 10-units must get property managers to sign up before they’re eligible.
Building managers and homeowners will also have to figure out how to store a separate waste stream. But there are plenty of examples of how different multi-family buildings are already doing that and encouraging residents to separate their organic waste.
“Unless they make it mandatory for buildings to offer this to tenants, and comply and put out the brown bins — just as every building management is required to put out metal, glass and plastic and source separate it — we just don’t know how you can scale up composting to the point that it has a real climate impact in New York City,” said Justin Wood, director of policy for New York Lawyers for the Public Interest.
Nina Planck Kaufelt, 51, a writer and farmers market entrepreneur, worked out a system in her brownstone in Greenwich Village. She keeps a one-gallon container of compost on her counter and on her terrace, two five-gallon buckets sit, waiting for a $25-per-bucket pick-up by the bicycle-powered small business, Reclaimed Organics.
“I pay for it because it’s a value of mine,” Kaufelt said. “I think it should be a public service… Sanitation is a very ancient human problem. It’s health, it’s the beauty of the neighborhoods. Composing just relates very clearly to the health of the environment, and also the health of farmland because we waste all the nutrients by putting them in a landfill.”