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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.