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New York City Defunds Community Composting, Leaving Few Remaining Groups Scrambling

As the few remaining grassroots programs scramble in search of a plan, Mayor Eric Adams administration is rolling out what DSNY calls the nation’s largest curbside composting program, under its universal curbside collection law. So far Brooklyn and Queens residents receive this service, to be extended to the Bronx, Manhattan, and Staten Island in October 2024.

Arlene Karidis

January 23, 2024

5 Min Read
Norma Jean Gargasz / Alamy Stock Photo

New York City has defunded the eight community composting programs that serviced its residents for decades, and now three of those programs are working in collaboration trying to stay afloat with philanthropic funds and a skeletal staff.

One of them is nonprofit Big Reuse, who, among its work, was collecting 700,000 pounds a year of food scraps from 70 drop-off locations throughout Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx, which it converted to finished compost, returning some of it to local gardens, parks, and schools for food production. The effort was part of a larger community composting network of 200 drop offs, many which have closed and will now be the sites for city-owned and serviced smart composting bins where residents can drop off their organic discards using a smartphone app.

Big Reuse, now short $1 million that was its share of the obsolete city funds, had to lay off seven of its 10 staff and stop collections. It now runs only one of the three processing sites that were part of its operation.  When the philanthropic money runs out that site may shutter too, says Justin Green, executive director Big Reuse & Big Initiatives.

Earth Matters is the only other remaining community program still processing food scraps but, like Big Reuse, has cut back. GrowNYC once picked up food scraps at farmers markets and transported them to various composting sites; it still does some collecting but now only takes materials to the city’s compost operation in Staten Island.

“The New York Department of Sanitation has a $1.8 billion budget, but the composting program was eliminated to save $5 million in Fiscal Year 25, saving .0027 of that budget,” Green says.

“We are working on fundraising, but it will be difficult to source enough to do what we were doing from private funding.  We feel like community composting is a valuable part of city infrastructure and should be funded like other DSNY work,” he says.

As the few remaining grassroots programs scramble in search of a plan, Mayor Eric Adams administration is rolling out what DSNY calls the nation’s largest curbside composting program, under its universal curbside collection law. So far Brooklyn and Queens residents receive this service, to be extended to the Bronx, Manhattan, and Staten Island in October 2024.

In a statement, DSNY said: "For more than two decades, past administrations have been working to achieve citywide composting. Today, despite a massive fiscal challenge, the Adams administration is on track to do just that, and to get this waste material to a beneficial use, both as compost and as renewable energy.”

While the universal curbside organics collection law is a real game-changer, it’s not enough to ensure a successful composting operation, attests Eric A. Goldstein, senior attorney and New York City environment director, Natural Resources Defense Council.

“What is needed is a strong educational component and an on-going, on-the-ground presence that can demonstrate to New Yorkers what composting is, how it works, and why it’s important to participate.  That’s where community composting comes in.  This is the necessary educational arm of a successful citywide program,” he says.

Some of the community groups were hosting youth internships and master compost programs. They conducted workshops and other educational activities to teach waste reduction and composting best practices. And they canvassed addresses and came to events to tell New Yorkers about the curbside composting program that was coming their way. These projects have been eliminated.

Some public officials argue that cutting the community programs could hinder the city’s progress toward its food waste reduction goal, despite the hike in residential collections and increased food waste processing capacity the city recently announced.

New York City Council Member Sandy Nurse does not believe the city has bandwidth to process all its residents’ organics with or without the community programs.

“I just don’t see how it will be possible. These programs have mass capacity but can’t manage a million pounds of food waste a day,” she says.

Nurse opposed slashing community composting support.

“When the city found money to restore cuts to the Department of Sanitation’s Litter Basket program the rationale for defunding community composting was that smart bins and a universal curbside collection program where every New Yorker can separate food waste for diversion was [a] sufficient [organics management] plan.”

But she disagrees, calling grass roots-driven compost operations one important layer of a multilayered approach that is needed to create as much access as possible.   

Like Goldstein, Nurse sees the community education and outreach piece as big.

“To get millions of people to participate, especially in a transient city, you need ongoing education. You need ongoing awareness and communication to remind New Yorkers why we are doing this,” she says.

Lower East Side Ecology Center is the only community program still standing that collects food scraps and hauls them to Big Reuse or Earth Matters. The Center was able to collect 1,343,000 pounds of food scraps, facilitate multiple education programs, and provide community groups with technical support with last year’s $1.3 million in city funding.

But this year looks leaner. The organization has six drop-off sites left of what had been 20 and had to let go of 11 full-time employees.

“We have raised enough funding to continue operation through the spring of 2024 and hope to restore the full scope of our program,” says Christine Datz-Romero, co-founder and executive director, Lower East Side Ecology Center.

“Our best chance is through the budget negotiations between the Mayor and City Council, as private philanthropy can’t replace government funding for an essential program such as this in the long term,” she says.

In Green’s eyes, the city is missing a big opportunity not only to support its curbside collections, but to create a different model that involves the community more deeply than standard trash programs.

“When trucks roll into your neighborhood to pick up your waste you hardly notice. It just disappears. But community programs engage people. They get to turn waste into something productive and to green their community.”

About the Author(s)

Arlene Karidis

Freelance writer, Waste360

Arlene Karidis has 30 years’ cumulative experience reporting on health and environmental topics for B2B and consumer publications of a global, national and/or regional reach, including Waste360, Washington Post, The Atlantic, Huffington Post, Baltimore Sun and lifestyle and parenting magazines. In between her assignments, Arlene does yoga, Pilates, takes long walks, and works her body in other ways that won’t bang up her somewhat challenged knees; drinks wine;  hangs with her family and other good friends and on really slow weekends, entertains herself watching her cat get happy on catnip and play with new toys.

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