Inside the Battle to Save Compost in New York City – Outside


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Earth-loving New Yorkers are drawing from an unlikely arsenal of activism, hip-hop, marathon city-council Zoom meetings, and one sassy pug to hold the city to its zero-waste commitments. If they succeed, the environmental benefits could be huge.
Receive $50 off an eligible $100 purchase at the Outside Shop, where you’ll find a selection of brand-name products curated by our gear editors, when you zero waste to landfills by 2030. De Blasio also included the recycling of organics in his plan to turn New York City into a global leader in the fight against climate change, committing the city to slashing 80 percent of greenhouse-gas emissions by 2050.
But as the years passed during his time in office, it became apparent that de Blasio’s actions did not match his rhetoric, Goldstein says. (The de Blasio administration did not respond to interview requests for this story.) At times the mayor skirted around the compost issue like a pile of rancid sidewalk garbage on a hot summer afternoon: as recently as Earth Day 2019, de Blasio was talking about making composting mandatory across the city. Yet in 2018, his administration had quietly suspended the curbside program’s expansion and cut back on the number of collection days per week for neighborhoods that had it.
Within a few years of its launch, the compost program came under fire from critics as piecemeal and even racist for failing to serve low-income neighborhoods. The paucity of public education and the voluntary nature of the program, combined with infrequent collection services, also contributed to its lack of success. In neighborhoods with brown bins for the curbside collection of organics, only 10 percent of residents used them. “How do you get your neighbors and, most importantly, your landlord, to get on board with doing this thing if you don’t have a law saying you have to do it?” says Wood of New York Lawyers for the Public Interest.
Despite its flaws, though, the compost program was better than nothing. In 2019, it diverted 50,000 tons of waste from landfills, including scraps collected from 950 schools and around 100 community drop-off sites. But then, virtually overnight, it was gone.
After the incident at the collection site in Astoria, Reyes and Tedesco began hoarding scraps in their freezer and fridge. When they ran out of space, they filled planters outside. Eventually, they found a community garden that would accept organics. Reyes wondered whether some of their neighbors were in the same predicament. He posted a message on Instagram, using the account of his pug, Rocky (@astoriapug), offering to collect people’s scraps. He picked up 500 pounds that week. “There’s a level of environmental compassion that we had not imagined,” he says. Reyes wound up scaling back his fashion work and now dedicates 40 hours a week to Big Reuse, a community-scale composting facility, on top of his volunteerism with the operation he and Tedesco call Astoria Pug. “I took a huge pay cut, but for the first time, I feel like I’m not doing something harmful to the environment,” he says.
Astoria Pug now collects over 4,000 pounds of food waste a week at six free community drop-off sites. “People want to do two things—drop off their food scraps and get a photo with Rocky,” Reyes says. “We get a lot of complaints if Rocky’s not there.”
Astoria Pug hasn’t been the only private organics pickup group to see participation grow since the city shut down its services. Some drop-off programs (including Astoria Pug) run entirely on donations, while others offer at-home pickup for a fee. BK Rot, for example, is a subscription-based nonprofit in Brooklyn that employs youth microhaulers. After the city’s compost closure, BK Rot saw its membership nearly triple. The group doubled its team and partnered with gardens to add sites for transforming scraps into compost.
One spring morning, I joined Brys Peralta, a 17-year-old wearing neon pink eye shadow, as he made his weekly rounds to collect scraps for BK Rot in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood. Peralta was riding a rickety old bike—and had the added burden of hauling a giant tub of compost on wheels behind him—but I struggled to keep up. He jumped curbs, zipped down sidewalks, and made sudden, screeching stops to empty the scraps from purple buckets dotting porches and steps along his route. Back at the Green Acres Community Garden, we were joined by several human volunteers and four enthusiastic chickens, who helped Peralta break down the scraps. One volunteer named Carmen Mondesire, a petite woman who’s lived in the neighborhood for 37 years, told me cheerfully that the reason she composts is to “recycle back to Mother Nature!”
The demand for services like BK Rot’s still far outstrips availability, especially when it comes to processing space. With key facilities closed by the city program’s shutdown, many collection groups were forced to pay a farm an hour and a half north to take their scraps.
In April 2020, a diverse group of around 30 elected officials, lawyers, social-justice experts, waste-reduction specialists, and other composters—many of whom are people of color in their twenties and thirties—launched Save Our Compost. To them, the city program’s closure wasn’t an unmitigated disaster but a chance to rally community support around compost and create something better. “The problems we face are opportunities,” says Meredith Danberg-Ficarelli, director of Common Ground Compost, a zero-waste consulting group. “We have to break the things in the system that are holding us back right now.”
Immediately, Save Our Compost garnered a groundswell of interest, collecting more than 20,000 signatures on a petition sent to the mayor’s office to retain a budget for composting. In May 2020, the group’s first Zoom town hall drew 1,200 attendees. That June, their efforts paid off with a small but important victory: the restoration of $2.86 million for composting in the city’s 2021 budget. This was just 10 percent of the compost program’s previous funds, but it was enough to reopen 100 of the former 170 community drop-off sites and, in September, to resume operations at seven nonprofits that the city partners with to process scraps.
The modest budgetary celebration was short-lived. Shortly after, the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation determined that community composting should no longer take place on park land, and moved to evict the city’s two largest compost partners, Big Reuse and the Lower East Side Ecology Center. The evictions were originally set for the end of 2020 but were postponed until June 2021 after parks officials were subjected to five hours of public pushback in a December city-council meeting. The dozens of testifiers did not mince words. “I just wanna say, this is really climate stupid,” one commenter said. Another described the evictions as “a crime against humanity.”
Come June 2021, the campaigners’ demands were answered. The parks department called off the Ecology Center’s eviction and gave Big Reuse a one-year extension, with a handshake agreement that the facility can relocate to Greenpoint, Brooklyn, after June 2022. “The push from the coalition was huge and made this happen,” Wood says. “The goal now is to get a bill introduced and passed that would put a timeline on mandatory composting.”
I’ve been schlepping my scraps to various neighborhood drop-off points in Brooklyn for a decade now, but before working on this story, I’d never really thought about what happens to my bags of coffee grounds and kale stems after I dump them into a collection bin. To find out, on a warm spring afternoon, I joined Dior St. Hillaire at Synergi Urban Garden in the Bronx.
St. Hillaire handed me a mini pitchfork to tackle my first job: transferring 187 gallons of newly minted compost from a plastic digester to a windrow—basically a glorified pile—where it could air out. St. Hillaire played some hip-hop on her phone and I began to shovel. Forty minutes later, with blisters on both palms, I moved on to the next task: preparing fresh food scraps for processing. This entailed picking through buckets for non-compostable waste—like twist ties and those “hella annoying” fruit stickers, as St. Hillaire put it—and then chopping up the larger bits to speed along their breakdown. Finally, I mixed the scraps with carbon-rich yard waste donated by landscapers.
St. Hillaire normally processes all her compost herself, save for the occasional help she gets from volunteers. Two days later, my arms and shoulders were still sore. “When we think about this being a ‘volunteer’ effort as opposed to a green job that needs to be paid, that’s an equity issue,” she says. “We place lower value on the work that happens on the land, and there’s a very delicate and controversial history that’s attached to that.”
Even the question of who gets to compost is its own equity issue, St. Hillaire says. Being able to care about compost is a privilege. St. Hillaire addresses common barriers to entry by making it easy and time-efficient to participate through her pickup service. She also educates her community about the importance of compost through hip-hop performances at parks, neighborhood events, festivals, and farmers’ markets. “The issue around sustainability is that it’s very Eurocentric,” she says. “It’s very much ‘Save the polar bears’ and places sustainability as this thing that’s outside of us as opposed to this thing within us that we have to interact with for our survival.”
These individual efforts mirror the broader pushes that Save Our Compost is undertaking across the city. The idea is to keep composting as community oriented as possible and for the city to fairly compensate those involved. The plan also includes a pilot program that would test various solutions for collecting scraps from bigger buildings, including public housing; a proposal for an expert-led study to determine how to more effectively accommodate brown bins on New York City’s limited sidewalk space; and an educational outreach strategy. These moves would set the stage for eventual mandatory food-scrap collection and a new, industrial-scale processing facility within city limits. “If we make composting mandatory, companies would be fighting with each other to come to New York to handle the processing,” says Brooklyn borough president Reynoso.
De Blasio’s City Hall did not embrace these plans, as evidenced by a surprise announcement the former mayor made in a press conference on Earth Day 2021: “Now, thankfully, we have the resources to bring curbside composting back!” de Blasio declared. To an outsider not steeped in the world of waste, this probably sounded like a happy resolution to the compost story. But de Blasio’s fix didn’t address any of the systemic problems that originally plagued New York City’s pre-pandemic program.
“I really feel like he just smacked us in the face,” Domingo Morales, a master composter (essentially a compost PhD, earned through a mix of hands-on training and volunteer hours) told me the day after the announcement. “He took away the program that Bloomberg started back in 2013 and then just reinstated the same program on Earth Day 2021.”
Save Our Compost is looking to the new mayor, Eric Adams, to take the lead on zero waste. “Given that Eric Adams is vegan, we are hopeful that he’ll be receptive to what the NYC compost projects mean to the city,” Reyes said shortly after Adams was elected in November 2021. “However, as of now, his campaign has yet to make a meaningful environmental pitch.”
The Adams administration declined an interview request for this story. But in late February, the mayor’s office announced planned budget cuts that included suspending the compost program’s reintroduction and expansion—a line item that represents just 0.02 percent of the city’s overall budget. Adams told The New York Times that the program was “broken,” because participation was too low.
As Wood points out, this only highlights what Save Our Compost has been saying all along. “There are major problems with the fact that the composting program is not mandatory,” he says. “It’s just not going to collect enough material, because landlords cannot be compelled to listen to their tenants.”
Save Our Compost immediately called an emergency meeting, and city-council members plan to push back on the mayor’s preliminary budget. Sandy Nurse, a city-council member and sanitation chair, warned on Twitter that cutting the compost program will only lead to “more rats ripping open our trash bags” and “lower quality of life for our city’s most disadvantaged communities.” In March, Nurse organized a rally on the steps of Brooklyn Borough Hall, complete with people in rat costumes, to protest the budgetary cuts.
As the curbside pickup program continues to be hashed out in city hall, members of the coalition are pressing ahead. Reynoso and a city-council member have proposed two bills that would mandate zero waste by 2030 and lay out plans for getting there. With the sudden surge of public interest in trash, composting could very well soon become a legal obligation.
New grassroots programs have also firmly taken root. Last October, Morales won the $200,000 David Prize, awarded to New Yorkers with big ideas. He used the funds to build ten new processing sites in underserved New York neighborhoods. “If we want to make sure our zero-waste initiatives can survive a pandemic or a budget cut, they have to be rooted in the community,” Morales says. “I want to see a more united composting culture in New York City, where everybody is in on it, everyone is equally important.”
Key to success is converting all New Yorkers to the cause. As with recycling in the 1980s, normalizing composting and ingraining it into the culture of New York City and beyond will take time. One way to expedite the process is to reach young people: St. Hillaire and her five-year-old daughter recently published a children’s book on composting, and in the summer of 2020, BK Rot launched a youth-leaders program for its composters and microhaulers, all of whom are young people of color.
But those more set in their landfill-leaning ways can be won over, too. To get her mom, Lisa Mosely, excited about compost, St. Hillaire recently showed her Nate and Hila’s music video, in which she makes a cameo as a hungry, rapping worm. The humor was initially lost on Mosley, who asked St. Hillaire why she was “taking a chomp out of that girl’s head.” St. Hillaire patiently explained the message behind the video.
St. Hillaire says she’s still trying to “support my mom’s learning curve.” And every now and then, Mosley gives her a little baggie of frozen scraps.
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