NEW YORK — For a brief moment in early March, New York City seemed poised to tackle one of its biggest quality-of-life issues — the mounds of black trash bags that line the sidewalks every day, broiling in the summer sun and luring rats in broad daylight.
City Council Speaker Corey Johnson had proposed moving forward with legislation requiring residents to separate their food and yard scraps for composting. The program, already mandated in several West Coast cities, was designed to eliminate one of the single biggest sources of waste: organic material.
One-third of the city’s trash comes from this type of waste, and no mayor has been able to figure out a way to reduce it. As a result, 1 million tons of this residential trash is sent to landfills and incinerators every year.
For a moment, then, a solution seemed at hand.
And then the Covid-19 pandemic hit, sending the city into a financial tailspin that led to deep agency cuts — including a $24.5 million reduction in the sanitation department’s budget for organics recycling. Drop-off sites were closed and the program sharply reduced.
New York, once on the verge of creating the most ambitious composting program in the nation, is now at square one. Staff at compost sites have been laid off. Residents are finding it difficult to repurpose their leftover dinner scraps and so are turning to their trash bins. Mayor Bill de Blasio, who has long heralded himself as a green mayor, has drawn the ire of advocates who say he has continued a long tradition of slashing environmental initiatives when times get tough.
“Basically the city’s composting program is hanging on by a thread and the situation isn’t good,” said Eric Goldstein, the New York City environment director at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “The mayor can’t say he’s a national leader on sustainability and climate change if he’s sending our organics to landfills and incinerators — many of which are located in environmentally overburdened communities of color.”
The setback is particularly painful for longtime advocates like Goldstein, who have been championing the value of an organics program for a decade.
De Blasio promised a mandatory program to recycle food and yard scraps during his campaign for mayor in 2013, but never saw it through. He punted the responsibility to the Council during an Earth Day event last year, then reiterated the pledge during his short-lived run for president.
Now there’s little cash to support even the most avid of composters who are willing to go out of their way to repurpose their food and yard scraps.
All that remains in the sanitation department’s budget for food scrap recycling is $2.86 million for drop-off sites — a fraction of the $7 million typically needed to pay for drop-off bins and the transport of the material to compost sites throughout the five boroughs. The sanitation department and City Council still are figuring out how to allocate the funding that was approved over a month ago. The $21.1 million curbside program has been eliminated entirely.
“Not only are we going to cut a significant amount of sites, but even the sites that stay on are going to see cuts as well,” said Council Member Antonio Reynoso, chair of the Sanitation Committee. “It’s twice as bad as what we want it to be.”
Belinda Mager, a spokesperson for the sanitation department, said the goal is to “reopen some food scrap drop-off sites around Labor Day.” She didn’t specify how many bins will reopen. Before the pandemic, the sanitation department funded 175 drop-off sites.
Residents and industry leaders say the $2.86 million appropriation in the sanitation department’s budget — which came after City Hall initially proposed cutting all aspects of the composting budget — makes for a difficult proposition.
“We really have to stretch on this one,” said Matthew Civello, a board member of Earth Matter, which runs a compost site on Governors Island and had to lay off four people. “It’s going to be very tough.”
“It’s so limited it almost feels symbolic,” Lou Reyes, an Astoria resident who used to rely on a communal bin, said in an interview. “It’s not going to really make a dent to the extent we need to.”
When the city shut down the drop-off sites, Reyes used an Instagram page for his dog offering to transport residents’ food scraps to compost farms that were still operating around the city. He started posting areas in the neighborhood he was willing to meet people and soon was shuttling 60 pounds of food scraps every week to composting sites.
The initiative has since grown — Reyes now transports 2,200 pounds of scraps in a U-Haul he rents every Saturday morning. He gives the piles of organic waste to community gardens in Queens, a compost farm on Randall’s Island and to Avid Waste — a private waste hauler that takes the material to McEnroe Farm in upstate New York. He said the ad hoc program’s popularity shows that people understand the importance of composting.
“The thing is, I think that we’ve [made] it a very hippy dippy thing in the past 10 years or so,” said Reyes, who grew up in Pasadena, Calif. “All of my neighbors [growing up] had a composting bin and I just thought it was normal. I moved to New York and I was like, ‘Oh my God we don’t compost here? We have to bike seven miles to compost?’ That’s weird.”
Proponents of composting have long pointed to that tension as the root of their frustration — the idea that repurposing food scraps is seen as a luxury hobby, rather than an essential service. Turning food waste into fresh compost or biogas can cut down on the amount of methane emitted by organic materials left to rot in landfills, and can reduce the $409 million spent annually to ship trash to increasingly expensive landfills.
But rolling out a mandatory organics program will require an upfront cost of between $177 million and $251 million each year, the nonpartisan Citizens Budget Commission concluded in 2016.
De Blasio has regularly heeded the advice of City Hall budget makers, who have pointed out that participation in the voluntary program was very low and too costly for what it produced, POLITICO previously reported.
“I sincerely look forward to the day that curbside organics and community composting can return for good,” Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia said in a statement, adding it’s a key part of the city’s waste reduction goals. “In the meantime, I strongly urge New Yorkers not to get out of the habit of separating their organics and to take advantage of drop off sites when they reopen, or, for those that have the ability to do so, consider backyard composting.”
With little money for composting in the city coffers, New York isn’t poised to emulate the waste practices of San Francisco or Seattle anytime soon.
Proponents say they’re still pushing to institute a mandatory program at a later date, but the immediate future looks bleak.
Reynoso said he saw little reason to be optimistic that things will return to where they were in March. “The hill got steeper and the obstacles are more daunting than ever considering the coronavirus and the health epidemic in front of us,” he said.