Successful Roll-Out of Citywide Composting Program at Risk Amid Community Program Budget Cuts

Although the roll-out of a mandatory citywide curbside composting program by the New York City Department of Sanitation (DSNY) has begun, the program that is being phased in borough-by-borough has met with delays. Until recently, community composting programs have been the backbone of the efforts to divert organic waste from landfills; and until the DSNY’s program is fully implemented, seen as essential in helping the city reaching its aggressive 2050 net-zero emission goals. However, despite diverting an estimated 4,150 tons of organic waste from landfills each year, the community composting programs are slated to be eliminated because of budget cuts in city support programs; and while a few of the programs have been granted a partial reprieve by donors, it has led to layoffs and reduced food scrap pickup locations. Over 3 million tons of waste are collected by the DSNY, of which 80% is sent to landfills, and roughly a third of the waste collected is made up of food scraps, making the city’s landfills the “third leading source of emissions after buildings and transportation;” and on a nationwide level, “release as much CO2 each year as 23.1 million gas-powered cars.”

When organic waste is left in the low-oxygen environment of a landfill, it “releases an explosive mix of methane and carbon dioxide — both potent greenhouse gases;” and when food waste is incinerated, its moisture content makes the burn less efficient and worsens air pollution. In addition to improving the environment, effective composting can also reduce some of the real estate needed for waste. One analysis of a residential composting program launched in Seattle in 1989, that was made mandatory for all residences, multifamily buildings, and business by 2015, found it reduced city waste management costs by $17.2 million between 2007 and 2018. In 2023, New York City spent $470 million exporting waste to landfills and incinerators. The success of Seattle’s program shows the benefits of a consistent approach with heavy investment in outreach via mailers and the recruiting of “Master Composters” to constantly re-educate people. As best said by New York City Council member Shekar Krishnan, “For us, and the generations that come after us, composting is one of the most basic ways that we can show that we will care for our climate, that we care for our city, that we care for our parks, that we care for our planet.”