Compost Collection is One Casualty of New York’s Corona Virus Budget Cuts

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In keeping with a track record littered with broken promises about becoming waste-free by 2030, New York City has announced an indefinite pause for all of its composting programs. The initiative, which was first proposed by former mayor Michael R. Bloomberg in 2013, has seen delays and dubious participation since its inception. Now, in light of Corona virus-related budget cuts, garbage reform has been temporarily trashed.

A public announcement on New York City’s sanitation website reads “The New York City Department of Sanitation (DSNY) will temporarily suspend curbside composting service beginning Monday, May 4, 2020 until further notice.” This is one of many budget cuts Mayor Bill DeBlasio’s office has made for the coming year, to offset losses caused by the pandemic and allocate funds to core programs and emergency services.

Unlike organic waste initiatives in cities like San Francisco, participation in New York’s program is completely voluntary. Only some neighborhoods in NYC currently offer curbside organics pickup, and buildings with 10 or more units need to apply to take part in the program. San Francisco’s recycling and composting ordinance requires residents to separate trash and organics and building owners face fines if tenants are not provided with necessary tools and information. New York is still working out kinks in its eco-conscious waste collection system, and faces unique challenges in part due to high volumes of renters and fines that fall on property owners, creating little incentive for residents to recycle properly.

A March report by New York City Council cites non-mandatory waste separation as one reason why the city has thus far only achieved a 10% rate of organic waste landfill diversion. The report recommends that legislation introduce compulsory separation of materials and provide bins to every building in the Five Boroughs. It also claims that brown compost bins are more effective than traditional trash receptacles for keeping out rats, though evidence of this has yet to be produced.

Another reason alluded to in the Council’s report for occupants’ lack of enthusiasm is a dearth of publicity campaigns about why composting is so important. With an estimated one third of its trash made up of biodegradable scraps, NYC could make a huge impact on lowering methane emissions produced by landfills. By reducing the amount of trash that needs to be hauled hundreds of miles to said landfills, composting also cuts down on fossil fuel impact. Finally, decomposed food waste makes amazing fertilizer, in turn contributing to healthy soil, which has huge implications for sequestering carbon.

In 2018, New York’s Department of Sanitation halted plans to expand the program to more neighborhoods, due to lack of participation in existing areas. In addition to challenges obtaining brown compost bins and limited public information to raise awareness of composting procedures, New Yorkers report being put off by the “ick” factor of stinky waste in small domestic areas. For residents who do want to participate, it can be discouraging to open the bin only to find plastic cups and other non-biodegradable trash.

In the long term, compost collection could save the city a lot of money, with landfill exports in 2019 estimated at $411 million. The price of converting natural waste into compost is much lower, with the added benefit of offsetting costs by selling it as fertilizer to local farms. In the current state of emergency, however, money for organics collection is being diverted. At the same time, compost drop-off sites have been shut down to encourage social distancing. City residents with limited outdoor space who want to do their part in reducing carbon emissions are left with few options. For the die-hard among us, the question is, do you have a drill?

In favor of climate policy reform and regenerative agriculture. Pasta enthusiast.

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