The budget cuts in New York City are destroying community composting groups, which is a huge waste.
Steven Roig was thrilled to secure a position handling and processing compost in May of last year. He had recently completed a job training program called Green City Force and had devoted much of his adult life to contributing to a greener New York City through his work with green roofs, urban agriculture, and landscaping. His passion for composting was evident as he worked alongside his colleagues at Big Reuse, processing 10,000lbs of food scraps and yard waste from Brooklyn and Queens each week, aiding in the transformation of organic waste into nutrient-rich soil.
He stated that it was a great deal of effort, but he found satisfaction in gathering the fragments, transforming them, and observing them progress through various stages.
It came as a painful surprise when his employment suddenly came to an end in December, forcing him to seek alternative means of supporting himself and his two-year-old daughter.
Roig held a position as one of the 115 community composting roles in New York, which were supported by funding from the Department of Sanitation. These roles were in danger of being eliminated due to budget cuts proposed by Mayor Eric Adams. While around 70 of these jobs were temporarily saved through private donations, their long-term sustainability is uncertain once the donations run out. As a result of the cuts, some composting organizations in the city have been completely shut down and others are operating with minimal staff.
“These cuts represent a tiny fraction of the budget, but have outsized impacts on people’s lives,” said Anna Sacks, legislative chair of the Manhattan Solid Waste Advisory Board. “To dismantle overnight what has taken grassroots groups decades to build, in service of saving 0.006% of the New York City budget, is shameful.”
Lily Pollans, an associate professor at Hunter College and author of “Resisting Garbage: The Politics of Waste Management in American Cities,” stated that community organizations were responsible for educating New York City about composting and promoting its importance, rather than the city government or sanitation department.
After the initial announcement of potential cuts, members of the composting community took immediate action. Save Our Compost, a coalition that includes Sacks, coordinated three rallies and collected over 50,000 signatures through a petition. They also reached out to the mayor’s office through phone calls and written correspondence. However, their efforts were ultimately unsuccessful.
What would suffice? What measures are necessary to establish a composting system in New York that can offer a dependable, long-term, eco-friendly resolution for the organic waste generated by the city’s 8 million residents?
The origins of political issues surrounding waste management.
If you have only resided in a place where you simply dispose of your rubbish in a bin and never have to worry about it again, it can be easy to overlook the importance of waste management infrastructure. However, the process and recipients of garbage collection are much more intricate and politically charged than what meets the eye. In cities like Manila and Detroit, marginalized groups have often been forced to endure living among waste until community efforts or demands have resulted in a more efficient system.
Examples of this type of organizing can be found throughout New York’s history. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Young Lords, a group of Puerto Rican activists influenced by the Black Panthers, worked to improve the cleanliness of East Harlem. The neighborhood was not regularly serviced by garbage trucks and street sweepers. The Young Lords first went to the local sanitation office to request better service, and even attempted to bag up the trash themselves to make collection more efficient. However, their efforts were largely disregarded, as noted by Hiram Maristany, the group’s official photographer.
The group made a decision to alter their approach by dragging the garbage that had not been collected onto the streets, resulting in blocked roads for cars. This ongoing tactic, known as “the Garbage Offensive”, ultimately compelled the city to take action and address the neglected state of the neighborhood.
The practice of composting in New York has also been influenced by persistent community groups. During the 1970s and 1980s, activists started to revitalize and make their neighborhoods more environmentally friendly through gardening, composting, and recycling initiatives. Many of these individuals have become leaders in the composting movement, establishing grassroots organizations that are still active today, such as the Lower East Side Ecology Center and Earth Matter.
However, the city’s participation in composting initiatives has been inconsistent over time. At a compost “teach-in” held at the Brooklyn public library in January, a timeline of composting programs in New York illustrated the issue: the city has repeatedly invested and then withdrawn support for composting, making the current budget cuts more commonplace than unusual.
According to Pollans, this presents an issue as citizens need consistent programs in order to become familiar enough with them to utilize them. The constant interruptions result in a loss of trust, making it likely for the programs to fail upon resuming due to confusion and lack of confidence in the system.
Creating a more promising tomorrow:
For the city to successfully implement a long-term program that increases public trust and motivates widespread involvement, certain adjustments will be necessary.
The city is currently implementing its own program for collecting organic waste from curbsides. Some of this waste is sent to a composting program operated by the department of sanitation on Staten Island, while the majority is sent to an anaerobic digestion facility. While anaerobic digestion has the potential to convert food waste into fuel and compost the remaining solids, the New York facility currently burns the excess methane it produces and disposes of the solids in landfills.
Pollans suggests that the sanitation department’s primary objective should be reevaluated. Currently, their focus is simply on removing waste. However, if this goal does not also prioritize social and environmental concerns, initiatives like recycling and composting are likely to be deprioritized when resources are limited. This is because they are not considered essential to the department’s mission.
Pollans also stated that cities with effective composting initiatives have greater support from the public, promote transparency, and offer incentives for residents to get involved. These incentives may include charging higher fees for sending waste to a landfill and lower fees for diverting waste to composting or recycling programs.
Sandy Nurse, a council member in New York City and previously the chair of the sanitation committee, suggests that the city could potentially save money by increasing participation in composting programs. This is because of the concept of economies of scale, where larger quantities can be processed more efficiently. Currently, the city spends approximately $495 million annually on sending trash to landfills. Nurse is also exploring potential legislation to support the financial stability of community composting organizations in the long term.
One proposal is to offer free or inexpensive access to public land for composting organizations, which could significantly reduce their operating expenses. Another idea is to permit grassroots groups to sell their own compost, something that has previously been restricted if they are using public land. (Usually, they only give it away for free to community gardens, parks, and other organizations.) While these measures may not completely save community composting, they could aid in improving the financial stability of grassroots groups, especially during times of budget changes.
Ultimately, a successful and widespread composting program in New York will likely require a variety of approaches, as well as the trust of residents to participate. Sacks and Nurse urge concerned citizens to take action in any way they can, such as joining the Save Our Compost coalition and reaching out to the mayor, sanitation commissioner, and new chair of the city council sanitation committee to express the importance of prioritizing composting.
There is no assurance that the supporters of composting will be successful in their endeavors, even under these circumstances. However, as evidenced by past events, there are instances when it requires collective efforts and determination from communities to achieve victory.
Nurse emphasized the importance of valuing and prioritizing this crucial public service, as the future of our city relies on promptly incorporating climate action into the public good. He also stressed the need for accessible composting options for all New Yorkers, tailored to their individual needs.