Compost more, New York City


Among the challenges facing New York City after the walloping it has taken from COVID-19 is how to preserve critical programs and services in the face of looming budget cuts. In the years ahead, City Hall must deliver services more cost-effectively while advancing programs and jobs that are environmentally sensible and equitable for all.
Take the way the city disposes of its trash.
In the wake of the coronavirus crisis, Mayor de Blasio has slashed funding for critical sanitation services, including programs for voluntary curbside collection of organics, and for community composting drop-off sites.
But organics (food scraps, yard waste and food-soiled paper) amount to one-third of the city’s household trash. Dumping these materials into landfills or incinerators adds air pollution, boosts global warming and wastes valuable resources.

Instead, composting these materials produces a natural soil amendment that reduces the need for chemical fertilizers and sequesters carbon while supporting in-city green jobs.

Significantly, composting can save tens of millions of taxpayer dollars annually, once larger numbers of New Yorkers participate in the program. It is cheaper to haul organics to nearby composting facilities than tp have them shipped to distant landfills and incinerators, at a cost of nearly $130 a ton.

From an environmental justice perspective, taking organics to well-run, local composting facilities instead of relying on inequitably clustered waste transfer stations to export waste can lessen pollution burdens on communities of color.

Pulling the rug out from composting programs, even for a short time, is likely to upend public participation, even if the city later tries to bring them back.

That’s what happened in 2001 when the city “suspended” plastic and glass recycling. Although the City Council reinstated those programs a year later, the changes confused many New Yorkers and recycling rates never came back to pre-2001 levels.

We don’t have to make this same mistake twice; the current City Council has a chance to set things right.

Most immediately, the Council should restore $7 million in the FY 2021 budget to preserve community composting, neighborhood drop-off sites and related recycling education and outreach. This would enable dedicated non-profits to continue collecting food scraps from tens of thousands of city residents in all five boroughs.

The Council must also consider sensible legislation introduced by Councilmen Keith Powers and Antonio Reynoso that would direct the city to more equitably locate food scrap and clothing/textile drop-off sites, requiring at least three in every community district by June 2021.

But the biggest task of all is for the Council to enact a new law that would require mandatory separation of discarded organics and curbside collection of these materials from every city household. This is the path that San Francisco, Seattle and Portland have followed to build successful composting collection programs and cut costs as well.

Cities have saved money on organics collections by adjusting trash pick-up schedules. As localities added new pick-up days for collection of organics (and recyclables), they cut back on scheduled collections of regular trash.

This approach makes sense for New York City.

The amount of trash being placed out by residents remains unchanged. And the number of pick-ups by the Sanitation Department stays the same. All that is different are the days on which the sorted materials would be collected.

For example, say a neighborhood now receives trash collections on Tuesday and Friday, and recycling pick-ups on Wednesday. Once mandatory organics collections are implemented and broad participation followed, it would be easy enough to have organics pick-ups on Tuesdays, recycling on Wednesdays, and collections of everything that was left on Fridays. Similar schedules could be designed to fit each neighborhood type.

The COVID-19 crisis must trigger new thinking about how city government can operate more efficiently, more sustainably and more equitably. Let’s hope Speaker Corey Johnson and his Council colleagues lead the way in reinventing waste collection policies to meet these sensible goals.

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