‘No Drama’ Compost? N.Y.C. Is Expanding Food and Yard Waste Pickup

What happens to food scraps in the garbage is both gross (rats, garbage juice) and weighty (methane emissions, climate crisis). In New York, the fate of old food has recently inflamed passions and caused a political stink.

But now, the city is trying to move past compost “drama” with a new plan to help more New Yorkers separate organic waste — food scraps and yard waste that can be transformed into rich soil — from other, non-compostable trash.

New York has long lagged behind other big cities in recycling organic waste, which makes up a third of the garbage it sends to landfills. In 2020, City Hall suspended its composting program and plans to expand it to the entire city, citing pandemic budget strains. When it returned, there was a new, convoluted opt-in process that served only a handful of neighborhoods.

Eric Adams had citywide composting on his “Get Stuff Done” list during his mayoral campaign. But after taking office, he called the program “broken” and scrapped it to save money. He vowed to find a cheaper, more effective, more equitable approach, but compost devotees were enraged.

Now, City Hall is unveiling a new pilot program that it says will get more people to participate at a lower cost. It also has a new organizing principle: no drama.

City officials plan to announce on Monday that starting in October, garbage trucks will cruise by every dwelling in Queens every week to pick up separated food scraps and yard waste.

Jessica Tisch, the sanitation commissioner, said that developing the program and making trash separation feel less like an extra headache than a new city service were top priorities for her department.

“Simple and easy to use,” Ms. Tisch said in an interview on Sunday. “No drama for New Yorkers.”

New York City gives compost to parks and community gardens or sells it in bulk.Credit…Sarah Blesener for The New York Times
After food scraps decompose, they become rich soil.Credit…Sarah Blesener for The New York Times

Officials and environmental advocates said the key to success is marketing the program as one that will make garbage cleaner, both inside people’s homes and on the streets, and reduce the city’s growing rat problem. That, they argue, could make composting just as attractive to people who rarely think about the climate impact of their garbage as it is to passionate environmentalists.

“The whole concept,” Ms. Tisch said, “is that New Yorkers want to do the right thing and if you make it easy enough, they will.”

The new compost trucks will just show up, she said. No opt-in needed (“That was a psychodrama”). No requirement to participate (“We’re not there yet”). And no “bin drama.” The city will provide brown bins as it does in the existing opt-in program, which will continue. But in Queens, yard waste, such as leaves, can also go in a bag. For food scraps, any bin is fine — as long it is sealed and rat proof.

Ms. Tisch also has a plan to eliminate what she calls a whole other “level of drama”: Apartment residents will no longer need approval from building managers, who often veto their requests for organics pickup in the Bronx, Brooklyn and Manhattan neighborhoods that offer it.

Sanitation officials say building managers often assume food-scrap bins mean more messes, more odors and more trouble for building superintendents.

“They are wrong,” said Josh Goodman, the assistant commissioner for public affairs at the Department of Sanitation. “The garbage is gross now. Rats rip the bags open now. If the organic material is in a separate, sealed container, rats have a much harder time getting into it.”

Officials say that the compost experiment pairs with another anti-rat program being tested in Brooklyn Heights, in which garbage bags are placed in sealed street-side containers for pickup, instead of left in oozing, easily scattered piles across the sidewalk, one of the city’s less beloved signature features. (Especially in summer.)

The Adams administration also hopes the Queens plan will dampen the political drama.

Some of the environmental advocates, climate experts, public-housing residents, community gardeners and others who have lobbied successive administrations to adopt universal composting were consulted on the plan. They cautiously call it promising.

Fresh compost dumped at a compost site under the Queensboro Bridge.Credit…Sarah Blesener for The New York Times
Starting in October, new compost trucks will stop by every dwelling in Queens every week to pick up separated food scraps and yard waste.Credit…Anna Watts for The New York Times

“This could be the metamorphosis of New York City composting,” said Eric A. Goldstein, a lawyer and New York City environment director for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Hopefully a beautiful butterfly will emerge.”

He said that “butterfly” would be universal curbside composting collection for everyone in the city.

City Hall was likely to be pushed this direction in any case. A City Council bill that would require mandatory citywide organics collection has gathered a veto-proof number of sponsors, including the speaker, Adrienne Adams, and Sandy Nurse, the sanitation committee chair. Mr. Goldstein contended that the Queens plan did not take away the need for that measure and said its timing was “probably not a coincidence.”

The ultimate goal is to capture the eight million pounds of compostable waste that now goes every day to landfills, where it emits methane, a greenhouse gas far more potent than carbon dioxide. Even in districts with opt-in composting, just 10 percent of residents take part, meaning trucks travel long distances between stops. The mayor has argued that makes the cost per ton of collected organics prohibitive.

Sanitation officials say by more efficiently designing routes and work schedules, their plan reduces the organics operations cost per community district by more than half, from $860,000 to a projected $320,000. The program’s new costs, they say, total $2 million, which is less than $1 per Queens resident.

Innovations include trucks that will follow compost-only routes that reach more homes per day. Other routes will use two-sided trucks to collect both recyclables and organics. The department will hire 76 new organics-only sanitation workers, helping to reduce overtime pay.

Queens has more trees and yards than other boroughs and was chosen because yard waste is an entry point that has helped cities such as Seattle and Toronto achieve high composting rates, since people already have to place cuttings and leaves in separate bags.

The borough’s diversity — dense apartment districts, single-family homes, large public-housing complexes and various underserved areas — will also test how best to make composting universal and equitable, officials said.

Mr. Goodman said that another pilot program exceeded expectations. The city placed sealed compost bins on sidewalks. By unlocking them with an app and cranking a handle, people can deposit organic waste. The bins, placed mostly in the Astoria section of Queens, fill up daily, with almost no inappropriate items.

New street bins, mostly in Upper Manhattan, the South Bronx and Central Brooklyn, will bring the total to 400.

City organics waste goes to a facility on Newtown Creek, which turns it into renewable energy, and to a city composting site on Staten Island, which turns it into soil that is given to parks and community gardens or sold in bulk.

The city also plans to spread the word that people can keep compost in their freezer or a small sealed indoor bin between collection days to make their kitchen less stinky.

“It’s not new stuff,” Mr. Goodman said. “It’s in your garbage anyway.”

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