New York City is embarking on a new approach to curbside composting after a decade of fitful progress and scrapped promises, with a program that aims to strip organic recycling of its long-running “psychodrama.”
Set to launch in October, the pilot program will offer weekly pick-ups of food waste and yard scraps to all residents of Queens, no sign-ups required. While not mandatory, the initiative will encourage New Yorkers to separate their organics into sealed bins – with the goal of cutting down on both harmful emissions and rat-enticing street trash.
“We designed this program to be the last composting program that we roll out in New York City,” Sanitation Commissioner Jessica Tisch said during a press conference on Monday. “This is by far the cheapest, the most efficient, the easiest for New Yorkers to use.”
Leftover food and yard scraps make up roughly a third of the city’s residential waste stream – amounting to 8 million pounds per day of recyclable material that is left to rot in landfills and produce methane, one of the most harmful greenhouse gas emissions.
Converting New Yorkers’ decaying mounds of egg shells, coffee grounds and soiled paper into nutrient-rich soil – or renewable energy, through a process known as anaerobic digestion – is crucial to the city’s climate goals. But previous attempts at municipal organics collection have floundered, with low participation that experts blame on a lack of funding for education and expansion.
After allowing pilot programs to languish in a handful of neighborhoods for years, former Mayor Bill de Blasio paused organics pick-ups as a result of COVID budget cuts. In February, Mayor Eric Adams squashed a planned expansion of the program, deriding the effort as largely “symbolic” and not worth the price-tag.
The revamped strategy, according to Adams, will meet his demands of a more targeted and cost effective approach. The city will spend just $2 million in “new needs” during the next fiscal year, with a cost per district of less than half the previous program, according to a Sanitation Department spokesperson, Joshua Goodman.
Because yard scraps are believed to make up the largest share of composting material in the start-up phase, the program will begin in Queens, home to 41% of the city’s street trees. Given the reduction in yard waste over the winter, the city will suspend pick-ups at the end of December, before resuming in late March.
Eric Goldstein, the New York City environment director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, questioned the wisdom of putting the program on hiatus just three months after its debut – especially as city officials stress the importance of recycling food waste.
“The details matter: For this program to be successful it has to be simple and consistent,” Goldstein said. “Stopping and starting the program sends a confusing message to city residents.”
Other tweaks will seek to incorporate past lessons, officials said. Unlike earlier initiatives, residents will not be required to sign up for pick-ups. They can also request a free brown bin from the city, or use their own, as long as it has a secure lid (yard scraps can go directly into bags).
Buildings with more than 10 units will receive a bin automatically, a response to previous complaints from residents that their landlords were blocking them from participating.
Say to your building manager: ‘We know that you have a brown bin, it was delivered to you by the city of New York, where is it?
“If you live in a building and want to participate in the compost program, say to your building manager: ‘We know that you have a brown bin, it was delivered to you by the city of New York, where is it? I would like to put my food scrap in it,” Tisch said.
According to Goldstein, the key to the city’s composting success lies in building awareness through a sustained voluntary program, then rolling out a universal and mandatory curbside collection, similar to trash or recycling. Despite the mayor’s cost concerns, he notes that cities such as San Francisco or Seattle, which have adopted universal composting, have seen longterm taxpayer savings.
“The Council likely forced [the mayor’s] hand here,” said Goldstein. “That’s a good thing.”