Blog 02.08.23

Will NYC’s Latest Attempt to Force Composting Work?

New Yorkers are under threat from the climate crisis with increasingly hot summers, deteriorating air quality, and natural disasters like Hurricane Sandy.[1] Reducing greenhouse gas emissions is key to tackling the crisis and composting programs can help cities decarbonize. Domestic organic waste represents the largest portion of residential solid waste that could be diverted from landfills.[2] This is significant considering that when organic matter decomposes in landfills it releases methane, a greenhouse gas with a global warming potential 28 times more potent than carbon dioxide.[3] Not to mention, composting can help tackle the rodent problem that so many city dwellers love to hate.[4]

Compost programs not only cut greenhouse emissions, but they also save money. If, by the end of 2030, the entire United States increased its compost to waste ratio to 28% from 10% it could reduce carbon emissions by 30 million tons and save roughly $16 billion in municipal waste management costs.[5] This is all thanks to repurposing old leftovers (and not by reheating them in the microwave). But if composting programs are obviously great, why have NYC’s been so stop and go?

Composting initiatives have been on the city’s agenda for 30 years. The first time NYC attempted an organic waste management program was in 1993 when the city’s sanitation department established the NYC Compost Project to collect the city’s food waste. However, despite expanding programming to more neighborhoods, less than 4% of households participated.[6] In 2021, Mayor Eric Adams’ initially based his mayoral campaign on mandatory composting, bringing attention to the underfunded program. However, the program expansion was suspended in 2022 due to resource constraints.[7]

In early June, the NYC Council tried composting again by approving a bill requiring New Yorkers to separate food waste from regular trash.[8],[9] The mandate will be rolled out borough by borough, with all included by October 2024. Whether it will succeed this time remains to be seen.

One reason composting programs have failed is because early critics considered them prohibitively expensive. A 2016 study found that a separate collection of organics could cost NYC as much as $251 million annually.[10] But composting means less trash is transported outside the city, offering savings on fuel, landfill taxes and other costs associated with disposal. A more recent estimate shows the program’s costs closer to $40 million.

This time, NYC leaders hope that composting will succeed by mimicking the city’s curb-side recycling program, which depends on fining people who don’t comply. Fines, however, don’t always work at ensuring more sustainable behavior. The city’s overall curbside recycling diversion rate, meaning the trash that is recycled instead of sent to landfills, is roughly 17%.[11] The low compliance is likely due to a lack of fining enforcement.

An alternative to fines is to encourage buy-in from the more than eight million New Yorkers who love their city by showing them how they can help to save it.[12] Changing the hearts, minds, and habits of New Yorkers is not only essential for the success of the composting program, but also for the future of the city that so many people (and rats) call home.12

[1] Securing Our Future; Strategies for NYC in the Fight Against Climate Change, New York City Council

[2] Can The Organics Collection Program Be Fiscally & Environmentally Sustainable?, New York City Independent Budget Office Fiscal Brief

[3] Fight climate change by preventing food waste, World Wildlife Fund

[4] New York to Expand Composting Citywide, Targeting Trash and Rats, The New York Times

[5] How the US Economy and Environment can Both Benefit From Composting Management, National LIbrary of Medicine Journal

[6] Food Scraps and Yard Waste, New York Department of Sanitation

[7] Composting in NYC is hard. Cyclists and a pug named Rocky are helping, The Washington Post

[8] New York City Residents Will Soon Have to Compost Their Food Scraps, The New York Times

[9] Council Votes on Legislative Package to Create Citywide Residential Curbside Organics Collection Program, New York City Council

[10] Can We Have Our Cake and Compost It Too?, Citizens Budget Commission

[11] Focus on Equity, New York Department of Sanitation

[12] Creating careful circularities: Community composting in New York City, National Library of Medicine Journal

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Talia Vicars

ESG Consultant

Clients: United Rentals, Utz

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