‘The decision runs directly contrary to Mayor Bill de Blasio’s ambitious climate objectives, his “Zero Waste to landfills” goals and his long-standing commitment to environmental justice.’

City Limits/Manoli Figetakis

Organic waste comprises more than 33 percent of the city’s waste stream.

Every so often, government officials announce a decision that is so absurd and so unreasonable that you have to wonder what they could possibly be thinking.

The latest example, by the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation, involves the Department’s decision to evict two beloved non-profit groups that are running successful community composting operations on Parks’ properties.

The decision runs directly contrary to Mayor Bill de Blasio’s ambitious climate objectives, his “Zero Waste to landfills” goals and his long-standing commitment to environmental justice.

Waste is a major source of environmental injustice and a driver of climate change. Organic waste comprises more than 33 percent of the city’s waste stream, and this waste is sent to landfills and incinerators after being trucked into and out of environmental justice neighborhoods where garbage transfer stations are disproportionately located.

At landfills, the buried food waste emits methane – a very potent global warming gas and a major contributor to the climate crisis. At incinerators, the trash-burning – which uses fossil fuels to co-fire – releases particulates and toxic chemicals that pollute the lungs of people in surrounding neighborhoods, which are predominantly low-income. Sometimes the pollution drifts to other parts of the city too.

In contrast, sending food scraps and yard waste to composting facilities eliminates the pollution and produces a useful end product that reduces the need for chemical fertilizers, stabilizes and enriches soil, and helps curb plant diseases and pests.

Recognizing this, the mayor made expansion of organics collection his number one solid waste objective for addressing climate and sustainability in his 2015 OneNYC sustainability plan.

Yet, two of the most respected community compost organizations – the Lower East Side Ecology Center and the Queens-based Big Reuse – are now facing eviction from their land. The two sites belong to the Department of Parks, which has ignored the organizations’ pleas to remain in their spaces. This is despite the fact that these community composting operations are supported by their neighbors and elected officials, bring New Yorkers into parks and teach young people about nature, keep processing food scraps in the absence of an official city food waste collection program, process Parks’ yard and food waste at no cost, and provide finished compost to the Parks Department and to local community gardens.

If there’s a legitimate reason why the Parks Department is taking such a position, we haven’t figured it out.

Department representatives point to a 2013 legal decision in Raritan Baykeeper v. Spring Creek, in which a judge ruled the Spring Creek facility was an alienation of parkland in violation of public trust. However, comparing that case to the current situation is like apples to oranges.

Here are some major differences:

  • The size of the facility: Spring Creek was more than 20 acres, while both composting sites here are less than one acre.
  • Accessibility and public engagement of the operations: Spring Creek was fenced off to the public, whereas both composting sites here are open to the public and host community events and provide educational opportunities.
  • Actual nuisance: Spring Creek caused odors and triggered community complaints, while neither composting organization has ever attracted local opposition.
  • Commercial use: Spring Creek was an “industrial” facility, while both composting organizations at issue today are nonprofits that provide park-related community benefits. 

It is hard to see how a court would find the Lower East Side Ecology Center or Big Reuse site – or other similarly-situated community composting operations – to be an alienation of parkland in violation of the public trust.

Perhaps most importantly, these “legal” concerns would only be problematic if there were a legal challenge, as there was in the Spring Creek case. But LES Ecology Center has been operating for more than two decades with no threat of legal action, and Big Reuse for almost half a decade. The surrounding communities have embraced these two organizations and do not want to lose their services.

At a recent City Council hearing on the issue, dozens of New Yorkers from all boroughs and across racial and demographic lines turned out to demand that the Parks Department renew the licenses of LES and Big Reuse and support community composting more broadly.  Councilmembers Antonio Reynoso, Jimmy Van Bramer and Carlina Rivera were among those asking tough questions. But the Parks Department representative was unrepentant and unmoved. In response, the Parks Department has since offered only a six-month extension to Big Reuse and to “negotiate” to find an alternative site for LES Ecology Center. But kicking the can down road will not solve the problem.

The focus now turns to Mayor Bill de Blasio. Will he step up to protect his environmental legacy, promote the well-being of environmental justice communities, and save these neighborhood composting gems by reversing the Parks Department’s ill-advised and unsupported decision?

Melissa Iachan, Esq. is senior staff attorney in the Environmental Justice Program at New York Lawyers for the Public Interest (NYLPI). Eric A. Goldstein, Esq., is a senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council.