As we experience unseasonably warm temperatures in New York City this fall, we are reminded again that climate change is not just a future threat but a present reality. Record hot temperatures were reported across the globe this summer — from Algeria (124 degrees) to Montreal (97.9 degrees) to Portugal (112 degrees). Hurricane Florence just delivered record rainfall and damage to the Carolinas, the latest region of the U.S. to experience historic harm from a hurricane in the past year alone. Forest fires – unprecedented in size and scope – have scalded large parts of the West. Here in New York City we experienced several debilitating heatwaves this summer and our city has still not fully recovered from Superstorm Sandy’s coastal flooding almost six years ago. All the while, rising sea levels and more frequent storm surges mean that parts of our city will be underwater in the decades to come.
Tackling this crisis requires creative thinking and coordinated efforts, both big and small. One way that New Yorkers can act locally to mitigate climate change is by adopting smarter, more sustainable waste disposal practices. Food waste is a huge component of our city’s waste stream, accounting for 34 percent of New York City’s residential garbage.
Food waste contributes to climate change by emitting methane – a potent greenhouse gas – as it decomposes in landfills. Instead of throwing food scraps in the trash, composting is a sustainable alternative that ensures this resource is recycled into fertile soil that can be used for farming and home gardens, or used to generate biofuels that can be used in place of traditional fossil fuels.In New York City, some of our food waste is taken to facilities like the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant, where it is broken down through a natural process and the byproducts used for biogas – a natural energy source that we can use in our daily lives. In fact, a new partnership with National Grid will ensure that much of this renewable natural gas will be pumped into our electric grid to heat homes and businesses.
New York City’s residential organics collection program is designed to meet the challenge of climate change. The Department of Sanitation has been seeking to collect compostable food waste from over one million households across the five boroughs. This worthy initiative has grown under New York City’s Department of Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia. But participation has been voluntary, the program has faced start-up strains, and the City’s food and yard waste collection trucks have been finishing their runs without full loads.
In response, the de Blasio Administration has paused plans for expanding curbside organics collection to additional neighborhoods across the city. Given the inevitable and impending climate crisis before us, this is a step in the wrong direction. If the City wants its sensible organics collection strategy to succeed, it must enhance this program by increasing public education, addressing residents’ concerns in communities that already have curbside food waste service, and boosting collection efficiency.
We recently worked together to introduce a bill in the City Council that could help fill the Department’s food waste collection trucks. It would require that all City agency buildings participate in the organic waste collection program.
Our public servants should be leaders on this issue and help move our City towards greater sustainability and responsibility. Educating and training over 300,000 municipal employees to separate food waste for composting is needed to propel a cultural shift throughout the city and improve the efficiency of the curbside organics program.
If this legislation is enacted, it will reduce New York City’s global warming emissions and get us closer to achieving the de Blasio administration’s Zero Waste by 2030 goals, while also saving taxpayer dollars.
Organics collection should also be expanded to other big municipal waste generators, like CUNY and Health and Hospitals Corporation buildings, so that all such facilities are properly disposing of their food waste. This would engage the next generation and ensure greater sustainability across a broad array of public institutions.
We’ll never tackle the climate challenge unless we begin with simple steps like separating our food and yard waste and turning this trash into useful compost and clean energy. Employees in our city agencies should lead the way.
Letitia James is the public advocate for the city of New York and the Democratic nominee for state attorney general. Eric A. Goldstein is a senior attorney and the New York City Environment Director with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).