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Claire Miflin

DSNY organic brown bins set out on the street alongside Bryant Park.

New York City’s Mayor de Blasio just committed to a green recovery that prioritizes equity, fairness, and the climate crisis. Composting, which creates green jobs, supports local food production, and increases environmental equity, should fit squarely within this mission. Yet, in this year’s crisis budget, the city cut all funding for organic waste collection.

Organic waste costs the Department of Sanitation (DSNY) five times more per ton to collect than garbage. Less than 4 percent of organic waste was separated by New Yorkers. Low participation makes collection inefficient, increasing costs and reducing benefits. The city’s OneNYC 2050 plan and many waste advocates believe the solution is to make organics separation mandatory. But is the current system designed to be scaled up?

NYC.’s trash bags are almost half full of organic waste. To comply with mandatory separation, a 250-apartment building would need at least 50 of DSNY’s organic waste bins. In a typical building setup, a resident puts trash into a chute which feeds into a compactor and bags, saving space and labor. The city’s organic waste bins can’t work with that setup. Most buildings don’t have ventilated space to store the bins, or enough labor to manage them. And DSNY workers would need to empty hundreds of bins by hand on every city block, weaving through parked cars to place them back on the sidewalk.

The system needs a redesign, so the city can affordably collect all organic waste, transforming an inequitable problem into a valuable resource.

When organic waste is mixed with trash and sealed in bags, it putrefies—attracting rats and leaking garbage juice. It’s rightly named “putrescible waste.” As New Yorkers start to use city sidewalks again, navigating stinking piles of putrescible waste makes for an unpleasant experience. But the consequences of putrescible waste go far beyond inconvenience – especially for the most disadvantaged New Yorkers.  In under-staffed, badly maintained buildings, it can lead to cockroach and vermin infestation, overuse of poisonous pest-control chemicals and high levels of asthma.

Most of the city’s waste passes through transfer stations in just three city neighborhoods, where diesel garbage trucks speed by every few minutes. These contribute to traffic danger, noise and elevated air-particulate pollution, which leads to respiratory illnesses and higher COVID fatalities. The waste is then transported to incinerators or landfills up to 600 miles away, causing more pollution and contributing to the climate crisis.

Yet, in these same neighborhoods, inspirational solutions can be found. BK Rot and East New York Farms collect organic waste from restaurants by bike, composting it to transform empty lots into urban farms. This work provides fresh vegetables and green jobs, builds community resilience, and empowers youth to be environmental justice advocates. Compost is used to keep street trees healthy: improving air quality, absorbing stormwater, and cooling the city in summer.

Since 1993, DSNY has been supporting community composting through the NYC Compost Project, but this too was slated for cuts. A huge advocacy effort convinced the city of the many benefits, and the final budget partially restored funding.

An urban planning approach can explore how best to scale up these small-scale systems to accommodate all of the city’s organic waste. In neighborhoods where buildings don’t have enough space or staff, residents can deposit waste directly into containers on the street. Public and private open space can be designed to accommodate small composting operations.

Private investment in district-scale infrastructure can be incentivized through the commercial waste zoning process. Distributing facilities throughout the city reduces transport impacts. High quality compost can replace fertilizers made from fossil fuels, and regenerate the soils of regional farms.

Buildings can be designed to incorporate equipment that reduces the volume and odors of organic waste. Restaurants can be designed with dishwashers and reusable dishware. Well-designed waste stations help people separate their waste more accurately. Alongside waste tracking these measures reduce waste and ensure it is better quality for composting or recycling. They can also help restaurants reopen safely, with reduced costs.

To be sure, redesigning a complex system in a diverse city is not easy. What works in a low density residential neighborhood may not work in a high density commercial district. Extensive collaboration between city agencies and private stakeholders will be necessary. The city will need to ramp up the pilot program for containerized waste storage. DSNY will need to adapt their trucks so they can automatically empty large containers. This will save workers the many injuries caused by lifting 5 tons of waste each shift.

Enforcement of a mandatory organics policy will be required, and is best supplemented by technical assistance and the financial incentive of volume-based waste fees. The Citizen’s Budget Commission calculated that these could save New York City $57 million a year. Both policies have been applied in Seattle, where organic waste collection now costs less than trash.

The pandemic has forced cities to reconsider how public space is used. To safely and hygienically accommodate pedestrians, vendors, diners, bikes and playing kids, NYC needs to stop using the sidewalk as a garbage dump. 

Transforming NYC’s waste system requires vision, design, leadership, and political will. But it’s essential for the green and just recovery envisioned by the C40 global alliance. For the current garbage system creates inequitable pollution and health impacts, but a redesigned compost system could allow all New Yorkers to participate in restoring public and planetary health.

Clare Miflin is the founder of the Center for Zero Waste Design.

11 thoughts on “Opinion: To Avoid Rats, Odors and Inequity, NYC Must Redesign its Organic Waste System

  1. The DSNY Composting program proved unpopular which is why the program was dropped. The program never reached my neighborhood. If it ever does I won’t participate. I’m not going to store food waste in my freezer and I’m not going to keep an awful smelling composting receptacle on my property. The program failed because New Yorkers don’t want to stink up their apartments or homes. I also don’t want to chase an empty composting pail blowing all over my block after it’s collected by the DSNY.

    • Thanks for your thoughts, and I believe it’s important to design the organic waste system so its not inconvenient and smelly for users. Maybe if you could drop off a bag of organic waste (which wouldn’t have to be stored in a freezer, but could be in a simple caddy or outdoor bin) in a shared container at the end of your block, you’d be willing to participate? Or maybe if you would save money by reducing your garbage? These are the things that need to be figured out in conjunction with residents and other stakeholders.

    • I would not jump to conclusions about a program you haven’t tried. I have used it for years. I keep food scraps in a small, covered plastic bin under my sink, not in my freezer. It does not smell. When it fills up, I empty it into my brown plastic bin from DSNY. Odors cannot get out, and rodents cannot get in. It’s wonderful.

      This has also made it far easier for me to store and carry out regular garbage, because with no food waste, it never stinks. And there is far less of it. Our family of four fills just one small plastic bag per week with trash.

      It’s true that many folks did not try separating food scraps, perhaps because they had the same expectations you did. This was their loss — and the city’s.

  2. Sadly, what’s efficient for some is a threat to others. Designing $57M out of the waste system means eliminating $57M in pay for union workers 🙁

  3. Sadly, what might seem efficient to some is a threat to others. Designing $57M out of the waste system means designing $57M worth of wages away from union workers. Replacing people with robots sounds great but ask those people if they’d rather keep their jobs and see what their representatives are willing to negotiate with the City…

    • A valid concern, but I’m encouraged that Green New Deal organizations are working with union leaders to make sure that people keep jobs in the change to a more sustainable and just future. There are just as many jobs collecting organic waste as garbage, and even if the trucks get automated systems to lift bins / containers, they’d still likely need 2 workers per truck as now. Reducing waste could reduce collection needs, but there are still many options for reassigning work. Creating more options for reuse of materials actually increases labor compared to the current garbage system.

  4. The DSNY program failed because it was a “secret”–most people did not have a clue about it. The program was poorly advertised and promoted. Those who did get brown bins did not find their buildings over run by pests or “stinking” but the opposite: because crganics were now secured in rat proof bins and not in easy access black bags. Moreover, the garbage in their own apartments dramatically shrunk is size (and smell!) as organics were removed.

    Ms Miflin makes some good points that one size does not fit all, especially in large cities like NYC. There is room for a redesign of the program. Let’s hope it happens sooner rather than later.

  5. Privatizing waste management, like privatizing anything, will inevitably drive up costs for residents and reduce service quality. I’d be glad to compost organic waste, but austerity is absolutely the worst way to attempt it.

    • Pay-as-you-throw is NOT privatizing waste management.

      Second, the privatized system for commercial waste collection costs LESS than public collection and the service is excellent. Yes, I know workers get paid little and many toil in dangerous conditions. But to your point that it costs more, that is not true.

  6. “To safely and hygienically accommodate pedestrians, vendors, diners, bikes and playing kids, NYC needs to stop using the sidewalk as a garbage dump. “ Good point!!
    We can do this- we need to. In my neighborhood in Crown Heights there was a compost drop off collection site right by the subway that was always busy. I think people see the many benefits of getting organic waste out of their “regular” garbage and used to create a public good…compost.

  7. Thank you for your very insightful article. As a business owner in the waste management tech industry, I have noticed an unwillingness for DSNY to reach out to and collaborate with new companies and innovators in the industry. NYC and DSNY must be far more inclusive, innovate and diverse if they want to make any significant progress in addressing this issue.

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