NEW YORK - Food scraps makeup one-third of the city's waste stream and diverting them from landfills was a central part of Mayor Bill de Blasio's 'Zero Waste' initiative. But budget cuts in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic forced the city to pause residential curbside pickup of scraps, leaving volunteers trying to pick up the composting slack.
"We are actually overflowing with compost," said Benjamin Lucas, a volunteer with the Woodside Sunnyside Composting program.
Lucas said in the last eight to ten weeks he has seen drop-off of food scraps increase sixfold.
"Every week we have to refuse a few people," he said. "We are volunteers and I think this is something they should really deal with at the city level."
The rollback of the city's brown bin compost program has brought environmental advocates together under the group Save Our Compost NYC. Nearly 22,000 people have signed a petition asking the Mayor to restore the service, citing the harmful emissions food scraps produce in landfills.
"Other large cities that had composting before the pandemic hit have not defunded their composting programs, because they understand in the long run composting saves money," said Meredith Danberg-Ficarelli, of the zero-waste consulting group Common Ground Compost. "Now is not a time to be removing funding from programs that support an environmentally responsible and efficient future," she added.
Last week the New York City council voted to restore $2.9 million for community composting, but that money won't bring back curbside brown bin pickups.
Department of Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia admits it's a setback for the City's climate agenda.
"This is a critical component, we cannot meet our zero waste goals without it," Garcia said. As of now, the curbside compost program isn't set to resume until next June. The climate change question will have ongoing impacts for generations to come, but I think these were really difficult choices in this environment," Garcia said.
A bill to establish more community compost dropoff sites across all five boroughs called the “Community Organics and Recycling Empowerment (CORE)” Act is pending in the City Council.