Three NYC Composting Failures That Reflect Troubling National Trends

Date: 18 Dec 2023 | posted in: Composting | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

Recognition is growing that in order to meet waste reduction and climate goals, the U.S. needs to tackle its wasted food problem. For many local government organics recycling programs, the solution is simple: focus on maximizing tonnage diverted from landfilling and incineration. New York City was different. 

NYC has long been a leader not only in composting, but community composting – a distributed, decentralized approach that keeps the composting process and compost use local, while offering community engagement and education opportunities. According to the Institute for Local Self-Reliance’s 2022 Community Composter Census, New York is home to the largest concentration of community composters in the country – a thriving ecosystem of local businesses, environmental nonprofits, and neighborhood gardens.

NYC’s 2014 Community Composting Report was the first by a major city to center community composting as a part of its municipal waste diversion strategy. Founded in 1993, the NYC Compost Project (NYCCP) supports seven composting nonprofits across the city in providing local composting services, education, and outreach to thousands of New Yorkers. The program has been uplifted as a trailblazing model for community composting not just coexisting with, but actively supporting a city’s curbside organics collection. 

Youth employees process food scraps at BK ROT, an NYC community composter. Photo credit: ILSR.

When earlier this year the City finally passed a bill making residential organics collection mandatory in all boroughs by 2024, composting advocates celebrated the expansion as one more step in the right direction. But there wasn’t long to celebrate before the Mayor’s Office announced a revised November 2023 budget that promises to eliminate the community composting program entirely. 

In fact, the community composting cuts are just the latest in a series of issues New Yorkers have raised with their changing organics recycling program – many of which are resonating across the country as local governments begin using the billions recently allocated towards infrastructure and climate projects to start or expand similar projects. From New York, to Massachusetts, to Alaska, what at first appear to be isolated problems with government organics recycling programs are revealing themselves to be concerning national trends.


Trend 1: Government programs aren’t composting – they’re greenwashing

In New York, much of what goes into bins labeled “compost” doesn’t actually get composted. While the city’s curbside composting program slogan is “make compost, not trash,” currently all  collected organic material is trucked to a wastewater treatment facility. There, it undergoes anaerobic digestion (AD), a process by which organic material is broken down into biogas and a digestate made up of the leftover organic liquids and solids.

New York City recently announced that its digester would use the biogas to heat homes, rather than flaring off 60 percent of it into the atmosphere as they had been for a decade. But the city’s struggles to execute this plan are reflective of a national problem: as of 2017, only a third of U.S. wastewater treatment facilities with an on-site anaerobic digester (also called co-digestion facilities) were actually able to use the biogas produced for energy. 

Lor Holmes, former manager of worker-owned composting cooperative CERO, saw pushback for this model when Cambridge, Massachusetts, rolled out its curbside organics recycling program. Residents thought that they were composting their wasted food, but actually it was sent 30 miles away to a wastewater treatment facility located in an environmental justice community. Holmes called the plan “a recipe for turning food into sewer sludge.” 

“Yes they’re making energy,” says Holmes. “But we’re losing all the value in that food waste, instead of it being viewed as a resource to replenish soils and to feed people.’”

Anaerobic digester eggs at a wastewater treatment plant in Boston. Photo credit: HABesen

The leftover solids are also a big concern. As of 2021, more than half produced by wastewater treatment facilities in the U.S. go to landfills and incinerators, rather than towards land application. Even when the leftovers are used as a soil amendment, contamination problems abound. In Cambridge, the fertilizer pellets produced from co-digestion were found to be toxic to human health and a source of pollution. 

In New York City, it is unclear what percentage of digestate produced even makes it to a composting facility and, if it does, the quality of the end product is still a question. Separating anaerobic digestion (AD) from the sewage treatment process would be a step in the right direction, but advocates of community composting say that if wasted food is processed on an industrial, centralized scale, contamination will always be a problem.

“It’s not that AD is the technology we want to be against,” clarifies Holmes, “It’s really about, what you put in is what you get out. Garbage in, garbage out.”

Contamination and quality issues in organics recycling are the last thing the country needs as it faces the twin crises of toxic chemical pollution and degraded national soils. Land application of high-quality compost has the potential to not only address these problems, but also to combat climate change by sequestering carbon and building climate resilience. 

In New York, a passionate group of composters, gardeners, and activists called Save Our Compost are raising awareness of the difference between industrial anaerobic digestion and composting. Although the group formed initially in 2020 to advocate for mandatory citywide organics recycling, now they have a new rallying cry: “Don’t frack our food scraps!”


Trend 2: Government programs are replicating equity and monopoly issues in the conventional waste industry

Environmental racism and corporate malfeasance in the waste industry notoriously formed the impetus for the modern environmental justice movement. Governments have the opportunity to turn over a new leaf when it comes to organics recycling. Unfortunately, in New York, this is proving to be a struggle. 

In 2018, just three neighborhoods in NYC bore the burden of processing 75 percent of the city’s waste destined for landfill, incineration, anaerobic digestion, and composting. Now, the 200 tons daily of food scraps collected in compost “smart bins” from every borough besides Staten Island are all processed at a single Williamsburg transfer station owned by Waste Management. Environmental justice groups have fought hard against this exact facility for years, arguing that waste transfer stations cause noise pollution, toxins, and unsafe traffic, as well as disproportionately burden low-income and non-white communities.

New York’s situation is not unique. In Wilmington, Delaware, similar concerns led to the 2014 shutdown of a large industrial composting facility. When Waste Management became its largest individual owner, poor management practices led to contamination and odor problems for the surrounding majority Black population. As a result, the state refused to renew its permit – a serious blow to the region’s composting infrastructure.

Baltimore Compost Collective; Marvin and Kenny pose in front of their new electric vehicles, 2022

Avoiding exacerbating environmental burdens in already vulnerable neighborhoods, is one reason community composting advocates push for local, distributed composting infrastructure that leads to less traffic and emissions. The Baltimore Compost Collective in Maryland is one of the over one in ten community composters that offer a bike-powered hauling service. Program manager Marvin Hayes says this is specifically to reduce emissions in a neighborhood heavily impacted by waste industry pollution. “During Covid, we had the highest mortality rate because people already had pre-affected respiratory systems,” Hayes explains. 

Local, community-oriented operations like Hayes’ draw a sharp contrast to the national corporate conglomerates that are winning government organics recycling contracts. Waste Management, for example — aforementioned owner of the controversial Williamsburg transfer station and largest shareholder in the failed Wilmington composting facility – is also the biggest player in the U.S. waste collection industry. 

Because waste companies make money for every pound of material handled, new regulations that require wasted food to be diverted from landfills and incinerators threaten their bottom line. Kirstie Pecci of Just Zero, a zero-waste nonprofit, says that their response is to pursue vertical integration in the composting industry to maximize control and profits. This dominance across sectors creates little incentive for good resource recovery. 

“If something is too contaminated to be recycled or composted, they can just throw it in the landfill and incinerator, and they’ve already gotten their per ton fee.” Pecci explains. “So they’ve already made their money, they don’t care if the system actually works or is truly circular.”

The influence of these powerful corporations on the organics recycling industry is only set to grow. A fund managed by BlackRock Real Assets recently acquired Vanguard Renewables, a leader in the anaerobic digestion industry, with the goal of rapid expansion and the commission of over 100 new anaerobic digesters across the U.S. BlackRock is the world’s biggest asset management firm with hundreds of billions invested in fossil fuels, and in 2022 was nominated for Corporate Accountability’s Corporate Hall of Shame.

For Pecci, corporate giants’ expansion into the organics recycling industry raises serious concerns. “They don’t want to make a little bit of money,” she warns. “They want to make all the money.”


Trend 3: Government organics programs are drawing support away from community composting

If powerful corporations are looking to corner the market as governments roll out their new organics recycling programs, what will happen to the small businesses and nonprofits that have been working in their communities for years? 

In New York, in addition to the threat of the recent budget cuts, the city curbside program’s misleading claim to compost food scraps for free threatens the bottom line of small businesses that actually are composting. BK ROT, a Brooklyn-based and bike-powered composter that employs local youth of color, reported losing 200 customers after the City’s smart bin rollout, and expects more will be on their way out soon.  

When a city’s mandatory organics recycling program isn’t free, that creates its own set of problems for community composters. Monique Figuereido of Compostable LA says her company has lost 30% of its residential customers after LA’s rollout of “green bins.” Residents are required to pay for the City’s composting service and there is no fee waiver for her clientele.

“I had so many members say, we love you, we love your service, but we just can’t justify paying for two things,” says Monique. “And I can’t argue with that.”

For community composters looking to avoid this kind of competition, collaboration with government programs isn’t always easy. In Alaska, Lisa Daugherty, owner of Juneau Composts!, says that her local government claims their new plans for citywide composting aren’t competing with her because she can bid on an RFP to run their composting facility. 

“They won’t listen when I explain that means me giving up all ability to make business decisions – ranging from financial to product quality control – in order to execute the manual labor of their facility as a contractor,” says Lisa. “And that Juneau Composts as it exists now wouldn’t be possible.” 

Even when the terms of government contracts are ideal, winning them can be impossible for community composters that are expected to meet requirements written with industrial facilities, full-array trash and recycling services, or deep pocket companies in mind. In many places these conditions are coupled with the creation of solid waste franchise districts that grant contractors exclusive waste hauling rights, meaning that community composters unable to secure government contracts actually face cease and desist orders if they dare to continue providing their services. 

Summer Youth Program at ECO City Farms, where students learn about composting as one part of the food cycle. Photo credit: ILSR

Moreover, contracts and zero waste plans that emphasize diversion metrics don’t often factor in – let alone prioritize – the holistic benefits of composting that many community composters offer, including engaging and educating the community, building healthy local soils, increasing food security, greening neighborhoods, and more. Advocates like Pecci say that if given a fairer playing field that prioritized these values, community composting would come out on top.

 “If we set regulations that require composting to be done safely and sustainably in a truly circular fashion, community composters will be far ahead of any other composters,” says Pecci. “Community composting, because it comes from that ethos, has a huge advantage over these large corporations that are used to and in fact insist on, cutting corners and honestly, poisoning people, to make mega profits.”

There are hopeful examples of this in action: from Montana, where a USDA grant is funding a partnership with the City of Bozeman and food scraps hauler Happy Trash Can, to D.C.’s launch of curbside collection in collaboration with two local composting businesses, to the suburb of Sun Prairie, Wisconsin changing its zoning code to allow the creation of Green Box Compost.

And it’s not too late for New York City to change course. Given the city’s low participation rates in other recycling initiatives, community composters and allies are hopeful that the City will recognize (as it has in the past) that community-based programs are essential to successful recycling outreach and education.

“At the launch of curbside collection, they’re cutting the outreach team that’s talked to over 75,000 people this year, has knocked on over 35,000 doors.” Justin Green of NYC partner Big Reuse said at a Save Our Compost rally last week. “None of this makes sense. In a time of growing climate crisis, with COP28 happening, with wildfire smoke hitting the city, with record rainfall, with neighborhoods flooding, this is not the time to cut green jobs.”

39th District Council Member Shahana Hanif was one of almost a dozen NYC Council Members who spoke at last Wednesday’s Save Our Compost Rally. She assured the crowd, “We will do everything in our power to restore those cuts, and add more money.” Credit: Dario Carrascosa Hidalgo.

New Yorkers seem to agree. In the days since the budget cuts announcement,  over 45,000 NYC residents signed a petition calling on their government to save the community composting program. Advocates point out that if the City can afford a new encrypted radio system for its police force that costs $500 million – over 20 times the yearly cost of the entire composting program – it’s clear that it can also afford to support community composting. 

Across the country, community composters and their allies are challenging local governments to think more creatively than handing big corporations money to send food scraps out of sight and out of mind. They are asking them to lean into a growing national movement for local and distributed composting, and recognize that not only is a better way possible, it is already happening. It just needs a fair shot. 





About the Institute for Local Self-Reliance

The Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR) is a national nonprofit research and educational organization founded in 1974. ILSR has a vision of thriving, diverse, equitable communities. To reach this vision, we build local power to fight corporate control. We believe that democracy can only thrive when economic and political power is widely dispersed. Whether it’s fighting back against the outsize power of monopolies like Amazon or advocating to keep local renewable energy in the community that produced it, ILSR advocates for solutions that harness the power of citizens and communities. 

Image: NYC Save Our Compost rally against the budget cuts. Photo credit: Dario Carrascosa Hidalgo

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Follow Clarissa Libertelli:
Clarissa Libertelli

Clarissa Libertelli coordinates the Community Composter Coalition for the Composting for Community initiative, as well as provides graphic design support across all initiatives.

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Follow Jordan Ashby:
Jordan Ashby

Jordan Ashby is the Advocacy and Communications Lead for the Composting for Community Initiative, where she applies her passion for education, equity, and sustainable futures to assist with the development and execution of the communications strategy.