Boroughwide Composting: The bigger picture, and why community composting matters
Last week, Mayor Eric Adams announced that curbside composting would be city-wide in New York within the next 20 months. This comes as a huge win for the coalition of composters who only months ago were fighting budget cuts to composting in New York City.
That said, the fight for widely-adopted, community based, sustainable composting — which creates good green jobs, keeps compost local, and prioritizes the communities most harmed by New York City’s waste system — is far from over.
One key issue is that participation in the prospective NYC Department of Sanitation program is voluntary, which, in the past, has led to low rates of adoption, unlike mandatory programs, such as recycling. New York City Council’s Zero Waste package and other legislation call for mandatory organics recycling, which will be key to a successful municipal program. Lest we forget, just a year ago, Adams announced that he was halting plans to expand the limited DSNY curbside organics collection service due to low participation.
Organic waste makes up around a third of the city’s residential waste. Community organizations are and have already been filling in the gaps left by the city’s wavering support for composting. With options cut down by the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, community composters independent of city funding saw an influx of organics (kitchen scraps, yard trimmings, etc.) coming their way. Community composting organizations also address further, intersecting questions: employment in gentrifying areas, traffic pollution, the need for cleaner, greener public spaces and the dignity of waste work. These models are working, and need to be part of the city’s strategy.
A significant missing piece from the planned DSNY curbside composting program is the deep understanding of waste inequity in New York City, and the scars left by historical waste practices in low-income communities of color, which were largely excluded by the previous city curbside program. These are, by no accident, the areas that have given rise to community composting organizations.
Hauling and processing organics locally closes the food loop and provides access to high quality compost in the same neighborhoods where the scraps are sourced. One example of a community-based, zero emissions composting solution is BK ROT, an organization founded a decade ago in response to the need for equitable waste solutions in Brooklyn. Hiring local youth, buying a fleet of used bikes, and cultivating a relationship with community gardens, Sandy Nurse and Renee Peperone established New York City’s first bike-powered microhauling (low or zero emissions alternatives to traditional, diesel-fueled hauling) organization. Since then, more microhaulers have established themselves across the boroughs, fostering an understanding of the work that goes into supporting this vital process of composting.
The vision must go beyond separation and diversion of organics from black bags on the curb and a terminus at the landfill. Organics should not be added to the storied history of New York City’s harmful waste system. They can be transformed, through labor and love, into nourishment for local growers and green spaces. There are many more pieces to the puzzle of waste inequity. Community composters set our sights higher, to a green, circular economy that allows us growth, clean air, and a healthy urban ecosystem.
KEY BENEFITS OF COMMUNITY COMPOSTING:
The philosophy of community composting is contained in the name, and microhaulers live up to that by paying their workers for this necessary work. For example, BK ROT employs local youth, who ride bikes with trailers to pick up food scraps from residences and small businesses. All workers are longtime residents of Brooklyn, from Bushwick and the surrounding neighborhoods, and are largely BIPOC, immigrants, and LGBTQIA+ folks. Paid a dignified wage, and offered workshops and skillbuilding in compost and environmental justice, this next generation of leaders keep daily operations running year round.
Reduced Vehicle Emissions
Currently, the DSNY program budgets $45 million for new waste hauling vehicles to collect and move organics. In neighborhoods where heat stress and air pollution from waste hauling and commuter traffic have left lingering marks, largely Black and brown communities, the need for clean hauling is paramount. All of BK ROT’s hauling is done by manual bicycle or e-bike, with on-site solar panels powering all electrical needs. This both reduces truck traffic and dramatically curbs the harmful emissions from traditional diesel hauling.
Composting For Small Businesses
Community-scale microhaulers like BK ROT can also collect non-edible food scraps from small businesses like restaurants and stores, who often cannot get affordable composting service from traditional private sanitation companies. The new, more efficient Commercial Waste Zones program mandated by Local Law 199 presents a huge opportunity for city government and commercial waste industry to help microhaulers scale up and divert more business waste from landfills and incinerators. Partnering with microhaulers to consolidate materials makes more sense than adding trucks on every block for pickup. We need to ensure the contracts the City will negotiate with each hauler include provisions to coordinate with microhaulers and small-scale recyclers in each district, with consistent and accessible services and customer education for small businesses and their employees.
Microhauling brings the work of hauling waste close to home — literally. Processing organic material locally ensures that that material becomes compost that returns to the communities who provided the organics. Material collected by community composters is guaranteed to actually be composted, which has not always been the case with city composting programs. This “black gold,” should be made available to neighbors, nearby gardens, schools, parks, and residential buildings, creating closed loop cycles in our neighborhoods that builds community, mitigates climate change and allows for engagement and education about the composting process. Processing food scraps on a community scale demystifies the process of composting, and makes the environmental benefits tangible to community members.
A citywide program will generate an enormous amount of compost, if done effectively. Long-time composters have known the difficulties of managing contamination and quality of finished compost. If it is to be distributed for farming or gardening, or applied to public green spaces, it will be critical to monitor the compost’s health throughout the process. At the very least, constituents need to know that the collected material will not be sludged and deposited in a landfill, or flared. There is room for creativity! Compost can also be used for flood mitigation, reforestation, and wetlands restoration. Plans for the compost produced by a municipal program should be made transparent and held to account.
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