At an Earth Day press conference four years ago, Mayor Bill de Blasio pledged New York City would send zero waste to landfills by 2030, in part by scaling up an aggressive composting program to turn food scraps into nutrient-rich soil. At an Earth Day event this year he touted the plan again, saying he would push for a mandatory composting program across the five boroughs.
You wouldn’t know it from his rhetoric—including the way he has been touting his environmental bonafides on the campaign trail—but the mayor has already fallen behind the schedule he laid out in order to meet his 2030 goal: expanding curbside pick-up of food scraps from a handful of pilot areas to every street and block of New York City.
In fact, last May, the sanitation department suspended its expansion plans, freezing out one third of the city’s community boards. In all of Manhattan and the South Bronx, buildings have to opt in to the service instead of getting it automatically. And in neighborhoods that have regular curbside collections, the city has cut back the number of collection days per week.
“It’s been a low priority for City Hall,” said Eric Goldstein, the New York City environment director at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “You can’t under-fund and under-nourish the organics program and call your city a believer in sustainability. It just doesn’t make sense.”
Environmentalists see composting as an excellent way to reduce greenhouse gases and shipments to landfills. Rotting organic waste sent to landfills is the third largest source of human-related methane emissions in the country, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. When composted methane emissions are reduced, there’s the added bonus of creating usable soil.
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Plus the material that qualifies for the organics program—food scraps, yard waste, and soiled paper (it’s the perfect way to give a second life to New Yorkers’ greasy pizza boxes)—make up an estimated 34 percent of the city’s waste stream.
More than a year since the program’s expansion was halted, the city has still not announced when it will be expanding curbside pickup, leaving composting enthusiasts in vast swathes of Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island waiting in vain.
“It is pretty infuriating,” said 26-year-old year old Anita Chan, a near lifelong resident East New Yorker, who runs a composting operation at a community farm there. “I really want them bring it.”
Chan says there’s plenty of demand: East New York Farms can hardly accommodate more scraps than what the neighbors drop off. Last year, the farm composted more than 22,000 pounds of food, with some residents traveling more than a mile to do so.
“East New York is so big and we have so many gardens here,” Chan said. “People are about this.”
Sanitation Department officials say they stopped expanding in order to focus on improving collection rates in areas where the program already exists, before bringing in new neighborhoods. They’re particularly looking to recruit large apartment buildings, where they can get lots of scraps with a single stop.
“We’re learning as we go,” said Bridget Anderson, the Deputy Commissioner of Recycling and Sustainability.
“We’re trying to provide the service where we can and we want to expand the service. But in the meantime we have the service running; we want more people to participate,” she said.
They've had some success so far, she said. The city is now collecting food scraps from 2,252 large buildings, with 699 signing up in the last fiscal year. For buildings with ten or more apartments, the Sanitation Department collects scraps three days a week, so as to prevent large amounts of rotting food from accumulating.
“It’s growing, which is great. We have buildings every month signing up to start the program,” she said. The result has been a spike in the tons of organics they’re collecting, from 25,500 tons collected in fiscal year 2017 up to 44,000 tons in 2018, she said.
But in general among curbside pickup areas, participation is lackluster.
“When the program first came out I think there was a little enthusiasm about it,” said 42-year-old Tony Melone, a musician in Park Slope, one of the first neighborhoods to get curbside pick-up back in 2013. “And now we haven't gotten any more advertising about it, any sort of messaging, except for the Sanitation workers who don't like it.”
Park Slope is one of the highest participating areas in the city and still, just 12 percent of organic waste made its way into compost bins in 2018, slightly less than the previous year, according to the Sanitation Department annual statistics. (Among all 23 community districts that have curbside pickup, the collection rate is 10.6 percent.)
On a recent evening, only about half of the buildings on Melone's block had their bins out by the curb for collection that day, and the ones that did hadn’t done such a great job separating organics from recyclables and other garbage. A survey of their contents revealed a mix of cans, plastic bags and other non-organic waste.
Since De Blasio announced his Zero Waste plan, the percentage of trash diverted from landfills has crept slightly upwards from 15.4 percent in 2014 to 18 percent last fiscal year, leaving roughly 10,000 tons of garbage still getting hauled off to landfills, each day.
But critics say the organics program, which was supposed to divert the most from landfills, isn’t growing fast enough; and its stagnancy has to do with a lack of city funds.
“There’s been no new money. There’s been no increase in budget, in staffing in anything,” said Councilman Antonio Reynoso, who chairs the City Council's Sanitation Committee. “It’s a lot of talk with no walk.”
The organics program budget for the coming fiscal year is $23 million, which is about how much was spent in fiscal year 2018, according to the Independent Budget Office. Operating the compost program citywide is estimated to cost more than seven times that, anywhere between, $177 and $250 million, according to the Citizens Budget Commission.
At a budget hearing in May, Reynoso grilled the city's representatives on why they weren’t putting more funds towards the program. Assistant Sanitation Commissioner Gregory Anderson responded they’d done as much as they could to get people to participate voluntarily.
“Some people are very committed to it, others aren't yet participating and really the way we can drive that participation is by making it mandatory,” Anderson said.
DSNY’s Brigette Anderson said the administration would like the City Council to draft legislation by the end of this year that would phase in mandatory composting.
But experts say Seattle and San Francisco built up their programs in a very different way.
“You've got to build up a strong voluntary program,” said Goldstein, the attorney from Natural Resources Defense Council. “[You have to] make sure that it’s being implemented effectively, work out all of the kinks, and keep a sustained effort going before you seek to switch to mandatory.”
But Councilman Reynoso said that’s passing the buck to the council, and avoiding what de Blasio could do right away, he said.
“There is nothing that is stopping the Mayor from expanding voluntary organics recycling right now today,” he said.
Even if the city did scale up the program, there’s the subsequent challenge of where all that rotting food would go. A 2016 report identified capacity for 176,000 tons of organic waste at facilities in an 150-mile-radius of New York City, just 10 percent of what the city would need if it managed to collect all of its organic waste.
Gwynne Hogan is an associate producer at WNYC. You can follow her on Twitter at @GwynneFitz.