The Future of Composting

Program squeaks through budget cuts due to efforts by UWS resident Anna Sacks and Council Member Keith Powers

23 Jul 2020 | 04:43

On July 1, the results of New York City’s fiscal budget meeting were in. Many New Yorkers were involved and interested, likely more than ever before, in how the city would be spending its money. One program that squeaked out from under the guillotine was the budget for city composting programs.

Pre-pandemic, composting in New York City meant a few different things. Some neighborhoods were eligible for brown bins for food scrap collection, for individual homes and apartments to be picked up by the city. For homes without brown bin collection service — a program for which participation is voluntary depending on the landlord or homeowner — residents can take their food scraps to drop off locations set up by communities or GrowNYC, often located at farmers’ markets each week. When the pandemic took hold in New York, composting of any kind (except composting within your home, if you are so brave), was COVID-canceled.

Anna Sacks, an Upper West Side resident, was one of the forces behind the budget fight who prevented composting in the city from being eliminated altogether. Sacks has become well-known online as “The Trash Walker,” making it her personal hobby to go through peoples’ trash collections and save items that are in good condition from going to landfills.

“A third of all of New York City’s residential waste consists of stuff that can be composted. That’s a major chunk of it,” she said. “And right now, what we’re doing is throwing out that material. What we’re producing is not actually trash, what we’re producing is waste, but this waste could be used in other ways.”

Sacks is a senior associate at Think Zero, an environmental consulting company located in Tribeca, and with the company in support of her, she created the Save Our Compost petition. It received over 21,000 signatures. She used that data in her testimony at the budget hearing and in her emails to council members to show that composting is important to New Yorkers, and that it deserved funding.

Fighting From the Political Side

One of those in the fight was Council Member Keith Powers, who co-created the CORE Act (Community Organics and Recycling Empowerment Act), which, as described on the City Council website, is “legislation that would allow for the recycling of organic and inorganic recyclables not collected at the curb at mandated, proper disposal sites.” Powers described this as a “baseline” for New York City to move forward with organics and recycling, should the composting budget be removed altogether. By holding a town hall, which he said had about 1,000 people in attendance, and initiating his own petition, and introducing the CORE Act, he fought for the budget from the political side.

“The nitty-gritty of this happened as we were fighting with the mayor over parts of the budget, and which areas we need to restore, which areas were also going to get cut,” he said. “We were not going to be able to get everything we wanted this year because of the fiscal constraints, but it was a program that I fought very hard to save, because I knew if we didn’t save this part of it, there would be absolutely no composting in the next year.”

The composting budget was saved — partly. Sacks’ goal was to keep the approximate budget of $7 million (the previous funding amount for the programs), though the budget landed on $2.86 million. Upon learning of the new number, Sacks had mixed emotions. She said that $7 million seems like a lot, but then she put it in perspective.

“In the context of an $88 billion budget, it’s not that much,” she said. “New York City spending $2.86 million on its entire composting system, when we spend over $300, if not $400 million exporting our trash every year ... to me, it’s not right.”

Sacks has an idea for the city to even out this gap.

“On the Upper West Side, we have three days a week of trash and one day a week of recycling,” she said. “What I think New York City should be doing and thinking about, is doing one day a week for trash, one day a week for recycling, and one day a week for organics, and make organics mandatory.”

Powers agreed with the premise. “Ultimately, we want to find a better balance,” he said. “I mean, we want New Yorkers to be doing more of recycling and composting to create a higher demand for the pickup, and then find a better balance between the waste pick-up and the composting [and] recycling.”

Next Goal

Though the composting budget was at risk of being removed from the city’s budget for the next fiscal year, Powers points out that sending all the organic waste that the city produces to landfills costs more in the long term through the cost of tipping waste into landfills.

“The reason composting is good, is you get to do environmental good around sustainability,” he said, “but you also get to reduce the cost of tipping waste, which does save the city money over time. So, you know, we’d be costing us more money in the long run and also not be doing our role as the largest city in the United States to be leaders around environmental issues.”

Though hoping for more of the budget to be restored, Sacks acknowledged that this was a victory for composting. Her next goal is to address the discretionary funding from individual council members and try to get that funding directed toward city composting programs as well. After that, she said they will start working with community boards to prepare for next year’s budget hearing.

“It’s tough because composting isn’t seen as a priority, and climate change issues are not seen as a priority, I think because those are longer term crises,” she said. “That’s not to say climate change isn’t affecting us. It is.”

Powers also continues to look ahead. “Ultimately, it just can’t be a few City Council members who are fighting for this every year. We really need the council as a whole to understand the role of recycling and composting in a major city, and to view our city as being required to be a leader in this country around it,” he said. “We desperately need to make sure New Yorkers know what it is, aren’t afraid to do it, and have a convenient way to do it.”

New Yorkers can visit the list of drop-off sites that recently reopened and are funded by the new budget to compost for the next fiscal year. A link to the list of open sites is provided by Sacks on the Save Our Compost Instagram page, @saveourcompost.

“We really need the council as a whole to understand the role of recycling and composting in a major city, and to view our city as being required to be a leader in this country around it.” Council Member Keith Powers