New York City Council members are under pressure from constituents to salvage the city's organics recycling programs, a victim of budget cuts due to fallout from the new coronavirus.
During an hour-and-a-half long committee meeting last week on the city's sanitation budget, multiple council members questioned the decision to cut the curbside organics collections and other efforts, arguing they are key to achieving 2030 "zero waste" goals aimed at combating climate change.
"I've received the most amount of emails and calls relating to organics recycling," said Council Member Antonio Reynoso, chairman of the sanitation committee, who pushed Kathryn Garcia, commissioner of New York's Department of Sanitation (DSNY), on the decision.
Garcia called the choice to suspend curbside collection until June 30, 2021 "just really awful," but asserted the program generates only $50,000 annually at present and doesn't pay for itself.
Belinda Mager, DSNY's director of communications, confirmed to Waste Dive the department "is dealing with changing budget realities." Out of $106 million in cuts to DSNY programs, $21.1 million is hitting curbside organics collection. Seven city compost project partner organization efforts — part of the 27-year-old New York City Compost Project — have also been suspended for the 2021 fiscal year, freeing up $3.5 million, along with $2.9 million in annual recycling outreach funding for GrowNYC. Those cuts discontinue funding to GrowNYC's zero waste programs, resulting in a loss of 32 full-time jobs and 50 part-time jobs.
"The Department of Sanitation has long supported our recycling partners – they play a crucial role in their communities and helping the city move towards zero waste," wrote Mager via email. "While our budget cuts were painful, and not taken lightly, we do look forward to a day in the future when funding for all Sanitation-related programs can be restored."
A new campaign to save compost
Organics recycling proponents hope they can lessen the impacts from some of the cuts. A coalition consisting of a number of local groups have banded together under #SaveOurCompost, which includes support from the New York Lawyers for the Public Interest (NYLPI), New York City Environmental Justice Alliance, ALIGN NY, Big Reuse, and the solid waste advisory boards for Brooklyn, Queens, and Manhattan.
The coalition has had some success so far, garnering more than 15,000 signatures on a petition arguing organics recycling is essential for the city. And the group is supporting efforts such as the Community Organics and Recycling Empowerment (CORE) Act, which would create 177 drop-off sites for organics and electronics waste. The coalition is seeking to preserve around $7 million for community organics recycling and curbside e-waste, focusing on the smaller cuts suggested to the budget.
That relatively small amount of funding would, proponents argue, go a long way towards filling the void left in the wake of the curbside cuts. It would also help GrowNYC continue to operate its 76 food scrap drop-off sites, which provide the feedstock for six community composting facilities.
"It's not going to replace tonnage that curbside was doing, but [it's] going to give people an option," said Justin Wood, director of organizing and strategic research for NYLPI.
Wood said the new coalition is intent on preserving the momentum around organics that has been building in recent years. Mayor Bill de Blasio set the city's zero waste goal in 2015, with widespread organics recycling being a core part of that agenda. DSNY's curbside residential program previously serviced around 470,000 single-family homes and larger buildings on a voluntary basis. Collected volumes went to several locations including a city-owned anaerobic digester and a composting site in Staten Island.
DSNY initially told Waste Dive in March the city planned to continue its organics recycling programs. But in April, DSNY said the program would not return until June 2021, with residents told to begin trashing their food and yard waste beginning May 4. The department assured residents the cuts would be temporary, along with the shuttering of food waste drop-off sites.
"These cuts are painful and I do not take them lightly," Garcia told council members during the Thursday Zoom meeting.
Other cities are also considering major changes to various programs, targeting curbside recycling in particular, with New Orleans and Omaha, Nebraska among the areas considering such steps. New York, at times the U.S. epicenter for the virus, has been particularly hard-hit by the pandemic, making its budget cuts unsurprising. But the city would be the biggest to make such changes and its decisions will have widespread implications.
Reynoso and other lawmakers notably pushed back on the cuts during the sanitation meeting. One priority is preserving the $3.5 million for the partner organizations, along with outreach efforts. Council Member Keith Powers argued they should "at least consider" sparing that amount, while also remaining vigilant about composting equity across boroughs.
Both council members are behind the CORE Act, which they say would help counter the city's organics recycling problems. The legislation is comprised of two bills — one that would ensure three drop-off sites throughout each community district before June 2021 (Int. 1942), and another that would allow for collecting recyclables such as electronics (Int. 1943). Lawmakers are also working on legislation that would make organics recycling a city-wide reality as part of a climate change plan.
Reynoso did not respond to a request for comment, nor did City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, who has championed a plan for citywide curbside organics recycling. Powers argued the two bills are critical for preserving organics recycling in some form.
"The CORE Act is designed to sustain community composting not only during but beyond the pandemic," he said in a statement to Waste Dive. "The legislation would require the operation of community sites across the city to continue allowing New Yorkers to have a place to compost, even if not at their front door."
That effort has drawn support from #SaveOurCompost. The coalition's short-term priority is ensuring the city continues to fund community drop-off sites and related outreach.
Wood of NYLPI said the coalition has concerns about the long-term implications of suspending city organics programs. He pointed to the early 2000s following 9/11, when former Mayor Mike Bloomberg made cuts to city recycling amid an economic downturn that affected recycling participation for years even after they were reversed.
Officials and organics recycling proponents familiar with the budgeting process and cuts also highlighted to Waste Dive the implications of scaling back public education and outreach. The city has seen a significant uptick in detritus associated with COVID-19, namely in the form of personal protective equipment left littered on the streets. General waste and recycling education, they argue, is necessary to stem issues like this.
Ana Champeny, director of city studies for the non-partisan Citizens Budget Commission, however told Waste Dive the city's decision reflects budget realities, as well as the shortcomings of the program.
"The city's organics program is faced with high per ton collection costs due to low participation rates and a small share of organic waste being separated by households," she said. "The city has decided to suspend an inefficient, though environmentally beneficial program."
But citing 2016 analysis done by her organization, Champeny also offered a potential solution to some of the issues that have faced the program.
"[A] cost-effective organic program could be implemented if sufficient organic waste is separated to permit offsetting reductions in refuse collection, either through less frequent refuse collection or the use of dual bin trucks for refuse and organics," she said.
Meanwhile, residents are increasingly turning to private sector options to fill the void left by the DSNY curbside organics program. And lawmakers critical of the budget cuts have indicated they will continue to fight in order to preserve the smaller line items. The back-and-forth could also open up the possibility for new approaches to how New York tackles its waste.
During the May 14 meeting, some council members floated introducing a "pay as you throw" or "save as you throw" program. That that would mean New Yorkers are either charged based on the amount they throw away or rewarded for reducing their waste volumes. Council Member Helen Rosenthal suggested considering such a program, which Garcia appeared open to, even though that approach has been floated before and stalled despite DSNY hiring a consultant in 2018.
"Maybe this is a moment where, if we can get some willing participants, that could show that it could work," Garcia said.
In the meantime, #SaveOurCompost members, including Wood, encourage organics recycling proponents to submit testimony or call into a public committee hearing on the budget today, when many are expected to weigh in on the broader proposal.
"From our perspective, it is just really short-sighted to lose all of the behavior change and embrace of recycling and composting that New Yorkers have made as a city," Wood said.