Many things fell by the wayside as the world adjusted to the ever-evolving challenges presented by the coronavirus pandemic. New York City Department of Sanitation’s curbside composting program was one such casualty. As life now inches closer to normalcy, it’s slowly returning. Yet while this extraordinary initiative has the potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and rebuild depleted soil, many hurdles lie ahead.
The Rise & Fall of NYC’s Curbside Composting Program
In 1993, the NYC Department of Sanitation (DSNY) established the NYC Compost Project in an attempt to reduce waste and rebuild the soil. The program collected food waste, composted it, and provided this to area nonprofits and city agencies in need of healthy soil. Residents could drop off their organic waste—including coffee grounds, tea bags, shells, bones, spoiled food, paper soiled with food, and yard waste—at designated locations or leave it in DSNY-issued brown bins alongside curbs for pickup.
Before the pandemic, approximately 3.5 million New Yorkers had access to curbside composting. Once it hit, however, the city quickly shuttered its drop-off locations due to safety concerns. Curbside pickup was also halted soon thereafter, due to budget cuts.
How COVID-19 Changed NYC Composting
While DSNY’s curbside composting program was put on pause, demand for eco-friendly organics disposal continued. Alternative options flourished around the city.
The Upper West Side’s Mobilization for Change Community Garden offered free drop-off service for area residents to dispose of their food scraps responsibly. From there, local, bicycle-driven organics collection project Reclaimed Organics processed the material for use in community gardens and other projects. By late summer 2021, around 150 families participated—nearly triple the number from just one year prior. This single facility collected more than 22 tons of compost.
Other initiatives, such as BK ROT and GROUNDCYCLE, also helped fill the gap left by the curbside composting program. BK ROT offered free food waste drop-off. Pickup via bike was also available, for a fee. Meanwhile, GROUNDCYCLE provided a compost subscription program with the option of produce delivery during food waste pickup.
The Return of NYC’s Curbside Composting Program
After initial safety fears subsided, city-run drop-off locations began reopening in September 2020, but curbside composting remained a thing of the past. On April 22, 2021—Earth Day—NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that the program would be relaunched.
With the budget restored for 2022, curbside composting is poised to make a comeback. While it was originally slated to resume in June 2022, the timeline was moved up due to political pressure. In August 2021, the city also began enabling some residents to sign up for curbside pickup. Organic waste pickup is already resuming in Manhattan and Brooklyn neighborhoods.
The revised program’s new approach to registering for the service also introduces new problems. Rather than automatic enrollment, buildings must sign up with the approval of management. This means areas without sufficient demand could miss out. Additionally, wealthy neighborhoods are more likely to sign up, thereby diverting the budget and raising concerns about exacerbating existing environmental racism.
However, with food scraps and yard waste making up around one-third of New York City’s total waste output, a sustainable and equitable composting solution is essential.
American Organic Energy’s large-scale anaerobic digester aims to process 180,000 tons of local food waste annually, helping New York City reach the Zero Waste goals introduced by OneNYC 2050. Contact us to learn more about this ambitious project.