Op-Ed: In Honor of Earth Day, Let’s Fight for Municipal Composting
This Op-Ed was originally published in the Forest Hills Post on April 22, 2021.
I worry now more than ever about my children growing up on an uninhabitable planet. The science is loud and clear that we need to act urgently.
If I were in City Council now, during these final months of budget negotiations, I would fight to restore and expand funding to municipal composting, and work to make composting mandatory.
New York City is one of the most wasteful cities in the world. generating nearly four million tons of trash each year — a third of which is organic matter. Making composting mandatory is a clear policy remedy.
The most obvious argument for mandatory composting is the urgency of the climate crisis. Rerouting 80 percent of NYC’s organic matter from the waste stream would cut methane emissions equal to four billion pounds of CO2 every year, or the equivalent of removing 400,000 cars from the road.
There is an environmental justice aspect to this as well. In NYC, the majority of our trash is processed in working class communities of color. Historically, just three neighborhoods — the South Bronx, North Brooklyn and Southeast Queens — have processed over 75 percent of NYC’s waste.
Recent legislation has begun to amend these inequities. Removing a third of NYC’s waste from our frontline communities would further the movement for waste equity.
Municipal composting also makes financial sense. Last year, we spent $409 million shipping our trash to landfills as far away as South Carolina and Kentucky. This is costly, inefficient, and misses the opportunity to use organic matter as a revenue-generating resource.
While expanding composting city-wide requires an upfront investment, at the end of the day the less we send to landfills, the more money we save.
Last year, New York almost entirely defunded our municipal composting operation. At its height, our voluntary compost program reached 3.3 million people, yet we were only diverting 4 percent of our organic waste from landfills.
When participation is that low, it’s hard to justify sending trucks out that are returning nearly empty. The best way to truly expand composting, and set it up for success, is by making it mandatory.
Recycling has been mandatory in NYC since 1989, so this isn’t a particularly controversial proposal. Really it would just mean separating our garbage into four categories instead of three. San Francisco made composting mandatory in 2009, and now they divert 80 percent of their waste from landfills. By comparison, NYC diverts an embarrassing 17 percent.
If we are to truly live up to the climate goals this moment requires, we must do better. Time is running out. Passing mandatory municipal composting is an obvious place to start.