The Pros and Cons of New York’s Fledgling Compost Program
Posted November 10, 2018 6:43 p.m. EST
NEW YORK — Composting has such potential. It can reduce the garbage sent to landfills and save money at the same time. San Francisco claims to have reduced landfill usage by 80 percent, and Seoul, South Korea, a city of 10 million, claims that it saves $600,000 daily by charging residents and businesses fees for discarded food scraps.
But for New York City, where food scraps account for an estimated one-third of all garbage, composting is hardly making rapid or dramatic progress.
In 2015, Mayor Bill de Blasio introduced the “Zero Waste” initiative, aiming for a 90 percent reduction in landfill use by 2030. A cornerstone of the plan was a robust compost program, where organic matter would be placed in brown bins provided by the city, picked up by the Sanitation Department, and then sold or delivered to places that turn the food into compost for gardening or convert it to energy. It is the largest compost program in the country, with brown bins for 3.5 million residents across the five boroughs, said Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia.
But the program picked up only 43,000 tons of food scraps last year.
That’s about 5 percent of the city’s total food waste sent to landfills. For those following the Zero Waste target: We only have 85 percent more to go.
The brown bin compost program, which started as a small pilot program on Staten Island in 2013, was expected to expand citywide by the end of this year. But the pickup service in some of the 24 neighborhoods where it is offered has been reduced and expansion plans have been delayed.
This leaves many New Yorkers wondering whether a composting program across the city will work. Here is an explanation of where things stand.
How does composting save money?
The less we export to landfills, the more money we save.
The city will spend $411 million in 2019 to export about 2.5 million tons of residential, school and governmental trash to landfills located as far away as South Carolina. In 2014 the city spent $300 million. The export cost is expected to increase to $421 million by 2021.
“At this rate, we will be spending half a billion dollars,” said Antonio Reynoso, chairman of the City Council’s sanitation committee.
Is composting lucrative for the city?
Not yet. The compost program cost the city $15.7 million this year, and unlike recycling (which costs less to process than landfill waste, according to Reynoso), so far it doesn’t bring in much money. Last year, the city earned $58,000 from selling compost, according to the Sanitation Department. So there’s room for growth.
Who currently gets the brown bins?
Buildings with nine or fewer units in the community districts where there is curbside service automatically receive brown bins, along with information on what can go in them (yes to meat and bones and coffee grounds and food-soiled paper; no to cat litter, diapers and plastic bottles). Buildings with more than nine units must apply for the program.
Is the compost program in jeopardy?
It’s certainly not a raging success. At this moment, the Sanitation Department is not on track to expand the program on time and has cut brown-bin pickup service from twice a week in some areas to once weekly, on recycling days. Service and pickup schedules have been experimental as the Sanitation Department tested behaviors, types of garbage trucks and routes, a Department spokeswoman said.
What was the problem with composting?
Low participation in the neighborhoods that took part in the pilot program led to inefficiencies and high costs, Garcia said. “We love composting,” said Kristin Brady, of Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, who uses the service every week. “But most of the people we know don’t compost because of cleaning the honestly somewhat gross outdoor brown bin.” A Department spokeswoman said that residents put only about 10 percent of their food scraps in the brown bins, throwing the rest in the garbage. Thus, garbage trucks with special compost compartments were running around with little to carry.
Why is participation so low?
Reynoso, who represents parts of Brooklyn, said he thinks the problem is a lack of advertising and education, and the fact that the program is voluntary. His efforts to increase the compost advertising budget have been unsuccessful, he said.
“Survey 10 people in New York City, and you would be hard-pressed to find a single person who knows how recycling works and how to make it work right, and what it means to the city financially,” Reynoso said. “In my building, we received the brown bins, and some flyers. I guarantee I’m the only person in my building who knows how to use them.”
What are the major hurdles?
“The biggest challenge is asking New Yorkers to do something different,” Garcia said. She told a story about how the department was handing out brown bins and an older man said that he didn’t want one.
“But we were handing out compost at the same time, and he definitely wanted the compost,” Garcia said. “We said, ‘We really need your banana peels in order to make this in the future.’ He took the brown bin.
Is there any good news?
New Yorkers are throwing out less trash. In 2017, the Sanitation Department collected 2.5 million tons of garbage destined for landfill, down from 2.8 million tons in 2005, even as the population grew.
While our residential recycling rate is quite low at 17 percent, New Yorkers are good recyclers of corrugated cardboard, for example (79 percent).
What about waste from businesses?
Businesses in New York City must pay to haul away their trash (an estimated 11 million tons of it every year). In 2017, large food service establishments and arenas were required to separate their food waste or face fines. In August of this year, the New York City Council passed an ordinance to require large restaurants and hotels and large food manufacturers to separate out their food waste. Fines will begin in February.
Just this week, the city announced new rules that will require all private haulers picking up commercial waste to provide recycling and organics collection. Businesses will be incentivized. They will pay lower rates for food scrap and recycling pickups than they will for garbage, a spokeswoman for the Sanitation Department said.
Will composting come to high-rise apartment buildings?
It’s a work in progress. The Department of Sanitation says that 2,000 high-rises throughout the five boroughs currently have brown bin service. An effort is underway to sign up more high-rises in Manhattan and the South Bronx.
Council member Ben Kallos represents the Upper East Side of Manhattan. The 168,000 residents in his district, the second largest in the city, mostly live in high-rises. Kallos has proposed a measure that would mandate the mayor’s Zero Waste initiative to include targets and updates. The measure failed, and the effort to bring residential composting to his district has been frustrating, he said.
“We’ve worked with a number of residents and buildings to get composting,” Kallos said. “But I’ve yet to hear of any successes. I’ve never seen any brown bins in my district and I’d be surprised if there are any.” Is there a future for composting in New York City?
Experts are cautiously optimistic. Garcia said the city’s compost program is a priority, and the city remains dedicated to its Zero Waste goal. Garcia pointed out that residential compost collection is increasing. In 2017, the city collected 13,000 tons. In 2018, that amount grew to 43,000 tons (31,000 from brown bin pickups and another 12,000 from fall leaves, Greenmarket pickups and the Christmas tree recycling program).
“We’ve seen a lot of growth,” said Garcia, aided in large part by the work of nonprofits like the NYC Compost Project (nyc.gov/compostproject) and GrowNYC, which provide food scrap drop-off sites at subway stops and at green markets.