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Politics

Eric Adams Just Cut the Only NYC Compost Programs That Ever Worked

Bye bye, community compost program budget. Hello, delays in curbside organic waste collection.

Eric Adams.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

For the past 30 years, New York City has funded community-based programs that spread the gospel of compost. What started as a few education and outreach sites at the city’s botanical gardens has grown into a vast network of more than 200 neighborhood food scrap drop-off locations where devoted New Yorkers enthusiastically deliver bags of rotting waste each week. Today, the programs employ 115 people and divert more than 8.3 million pounds of organic waste from landfills each year.

Now, with the stroke of Mayor Eric Adams’s pen, they will likely have to shut down.

Adams eliminated all funding for community composting, totalling $15 million over the next four years, in a round of budget cuts announced last week that are meant to offset the rising cost of aid to migrant asylum seekers. This comes in spite of the fact that the city’s publicly run — and much more expensive — curbside composting program is still not fully functional more than a decade in.

“It feels very dire right now,” Christine Datz-Romero, the co-founder and executive director of one of the oldest community compost groups, the Lower East Side Ecology Center, told me.

Adams’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

Few services have escaped the strain caused by the flood of asylum-seekers fleeing poverty, violence, authoritarian governments, and climate change. In September, Adams asked all city agencies to prepare to cut their annual budgets by at least 5% to address a projected $7 billion fiscal shortfall. The plan released last week shows the Department of Education losing about $1 billion over the next two years, which threatens the city’s free preschool program and will eliminate hundreds of non-classroom positions. Cuts to library budgets will force many locations to reduce their hours.

Community composting organizations knew budget cuts were coming. They were already bracing for a decline in funding because of the city’s plans to scale up the Department of Sanitation’s curbside organic waste collection program, which picks up food scraps right at people’s doorsteps, similar to recycling.

“We built all the support for it,” Justin Green, the executive director of Big Reuse, told me. “Now that the city is rolling out curbside, to be cut without warning is pretty galling.” Even that rollout is no longer assured — a planned expansion to Staten Island and the Bronx will now be delayed until next October. Originally budgeted for around $24 million a year, the curbside program saw its budget slashed by $4.8 million between now and 2025.

Curbside composting has been a holy grail for New York mayors since Michael Bloomberg, but has long remained mired in the bureaucratic swamps. Former Mayor Bill DeBlasio managed to get a voluntary program off the ground in 2013, but it was criticized for poor management and only serving wealthier neighborhoods, and participation was notoriously low. In 2020, the service fell victim to the pandemic.

On the campaign trail in 2021, Adams vowed to bring curbside collection back as a way to cut emissions and solve the city’s rat problem, and in February announced plans to relaunch voluntary curbside pickup in every borough. (For now it’s available in Brooklyn and Queens, plus parts of Manhattan and the Bronx.) The city council then went a step further, passing an ambitious zero-waste package in June that will make food waste separation mandatory as curbside collection grows.

Organic waste is the city’s third largest source of greenhouse gas emissions after buildings and transportation, producing about 20% of New York’s total climate pollution. Composting doesn’t fully eliminate food waste emissions, but it has the potential to reduce them by up to 84%, according to a recent study.

It’s unclear how much real composting the curbside program will do. Currently, most of the organics picked up by the sanitation department go to wastewater treatment facilities in New Jersey and Brooklyn, where the scraps are mixed with sewage and put through an anaerobic digester. The process breaks down the solid material and separates out methane gas, which is then injected into gas pipelines and carried into people’s homes. Or at least, that’s the idea — a few weeks ago, Gothamist reported that the system was undergoing maintenance and the gas was being burned off on site.

Datz-Romero hopes the city will eventually invest in real utility-scale composting facilities. It’s a chicken and egg problem — the wastewater treatment facility is already there and has capacity to manage the waste, and the city can’t justify spending millions on its own site until there’s robust public participation in food waste separation.

“What do you create first, the infrastructure or the need for infrastructure?” Datz-Romero said. During the DeBlasio administration, the city was shipping organic waste to private processing facilities. It did build one large composting facility on Staten Island, but that has limited capacity.

Low participation is one reason community composters say they still have a crucial outreach role to play, even as curbside pickup expands. They are in communities every day talking to people about food waste, teaching them about composting, and bringing tangible benefits like soil restoration to their parks and street trees.

“People can actually engage with that, and they can also understand on a whole other level why separating food scraps out is so important,” said Datz-Romero. “Even if composting is mandatory tomorrow, people are not going to wake up and say, ‘Oh yeah, that’s what I always wanted to do — separate my banana peels.’”

Green and Datz-Romero said they will have to lay off the staff that run their food scrap pick-up sites and outreach and education programs. Though they do get some funding from foundations, Green said that without the support of the city, those other sources could dry up.

The coalition of community composting groups started a petition urging the mayor and city council to reverse the decision. At time of publishing, it had more than 20,000 signatures.

Community composting might not be making a significant dent in carbon emissions, Green told me. But it has helped people feel empowered to do something about climate change.

“People are hungry for things that they can do together as a community. This is one step that they could do to be like, ‘Okay, I’m taking my compost to the farmers market, and I can volunteer to apply the compost to street trees in my neighborhood.’ I think that was valuable. When people are feeling so much hopelessness around climate, it gives them something active to do.”

Green
Emily Pontecorvo profile image

Emily Pontecorvo

Emily is a founding staff writer at Heatmap. Previously she was a staff writer at the nonprofit climate journalism outlet Grist, where she covered all aspects of decarbonization, from clean energy to electrified buildings to carbon dioxide removal.

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