10 Facts You Should Know About NYC’s Composting Efforts

by NYC Food Policy Editor
By Dierdre Appel and Leah Butz

New York City Mayor Eric Adams has announced an expansion of the City’s Curbside Composting program that will include all households in the borough of Queens (more than 2.2 million residents) starting October 3, 2022. This expansion will make New York City’s curbside program the largest of its kind in the country. No sign-up is required, and buildings with ten or more units will automatically receive brown bins from the Department of Sanitation prior to the October start.

Organic waste comprises about 34 percent of New York City’s waste. When this material is sent to a landfill it contributes to NYCs disposal costs and creates greenhouse gas emissions. When composted, however, food scraps and other organic waste are transformed into a useful product that adds nutrients to the soil for street trees, gardens, and more.

To prepare New Yorkers for this unprecedented effort, we compiled and updated 10 facts every New Yorker should know about the NYC composting program.

1. Organic waste—food scraps, food-soiled paper, and yard waste—accounts for a third (34 percent) of New York City’s residential waste stream. This number is on the rise.

While New Yorkers may be producing less waste at home than ever before (i.e., in 2005, residential curbside collections totaled almost 3.5 million tons per year, compared to 3.1 million in 2017 despite a population growth of about 300,000) organic waste remains the largest—and still growing—category of waste, providing the biggest opportunity for New Yorkers to divert waste from landfills.

Source: NYC Residential Waste Profile in 2017, 2017 NYC Waste Characterization Study, DSNY

In 2005, organic waste made up 28 percent of the total. In 2013 it was 31.5 percent, and in 2017 that number grew to 34.4 percent. Diverting these materials away from landfills and towards beneficial use is a core focus for creating a cleaner New York City. If every New Yorker recycled food scraps, yard waste, and compostable paper, landfills would see a drastic decrease in use.

2. In 2013, under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the Department of Sanitation (DSNY) introduced a pilot program to collect organic waste from households and schools.

Local Law 77, passed by the NYC Council in October 2013, required the DSNY to establish a voluntary residential organic waste curbside pilot program (in no fewer than 100,000 households) and a school organic waste collection pilot program (in no fewer than 400 public schools). The pilot program began in northern Staten Island, but over the course of two years was expanded to communities in the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Queens. The law also required a study monitoring the program and offering ways to improve community composting. 

DSNY continues to maintain a compost collection program for about half of NYC public schools, providing 32- or 35-gallon brown bins, posters, and decals to each school based on their student population. Each school is instructed to set up waste sorting stations in the cafeteria, and students are instructed to separate their recyclables from other refuse. DSNY then collects the organic material from all participating schools Monday through Friday.

3. In 2015, Mayor Bill de Blasio expanded the NYC program, making it the largest composting program in the country until the program was put on hold during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Since the pilot program was established in 2013, the NYC Organics Curbside Collection program has expanded to all five boroughs, serving more than 3.5 million residents. However, at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, funding was diverted from the compost program in order to support the COVID-19 response. During that time, dozens of food scrap drop-off sites were closed City-wide and curbside collections were halted entirely. An awareness campaign in 2021 resulted in the return of curbside pickups to a few communities in the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Manhattan. Participation in the NYC composting program is entirely voluntary. Unlike in some other cities where composting is mandated by law (such as San Francisco, Seattle and Portland), New Yorkers are not fined for failing to participate. 

4. Efforts to tackle organic waste in New York City date back to 1993 when the NYC Compost Project was created by the DSNY.

Efforts to reduce organic waste began long before the expansion of NYC’s composting program in 2015. The NYC Compost Project, initiated in 1993, works to rebuild NYC’s soil by providing residents with the knowledge, skills, and opportunities they need to make and use compost locally, and supports a growing network of community compost sites including the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, Big Reuse, Earth Matter NY, the Lower East Side Ecology Center, Queens Botanical Garden, the Snug Harbor Cultural Center & Botanical Garden, and the New York Botanical Garden.

5. The goal of New York City is to reduce landfill use by 90 percent by 2030. NYC Composting is integral to achieving that success.

New York City’s composting program is aligned with the efforts of the Mayor’s Office of Climate & Environmental Justice to send Zero Waste to Landfills by 2030. Zero Waste is a component of former Mayor Bill de Blasio’s 2015 OneNYC plan, which was outlined in a press release.

6. Restaurants and commercial operations are also part of the solution.

As of July 31, 2020, certain large food-waste generators in NYC have been required to follow the Commercial Organics Rules mandating that they separate their organic waste and either transport it to a composting facility (or hire a service to transport it), or maintain an on-site composting system. The Rules also note that establishments can handle their excess food and food waste by donating food to a charitable organization, giving food to a farmer who might use it as feed for livestock, or selling/donating meat products to a rendering company. Establishments covered by the Rules include: 

  • Food Service Establishments having at least 7,000 square feet
  • Chain Food Service Establishments with 2 to 99 NYC locations and a combined floor area of 8,000 square feet or more
  • Food Service Establishments in hotels having at least 100 guest rooms
  • Food Service Establishments with a combined floor area of 8,000 square feet or more in the one building or location
  • Retail food Stores having a floor area of at least 10,000 square feet
  • Chain Retail Food Stores with 3 or more NYC locations and a combined floor area 10,000 square feet or more
  • Food Service Establishments in hotels with 150 or more rooms
  • Arenas and Stadiums with a seating capacity of at least 15,000 people
  • Food Manufacturers with a floor area of at least 25,000 square feet
  • Food Wholesalers with a floor area of at least 20,000 square feet

7. Composting is available even if the city has not yet rolled out curbside pick-up to your residence or neighborhood.

While New York City may soon have the largest composting program in the country, curbside pickup still does not reach every New Yorker. Those who do not have organic waste curbside pickup can visit one of the dozens of food-scrap drop-off sites across the City. Notably, many GrowNYC Greenmarkets are also home to food scrap drop-drop off sites. The GrowNYC & DSNY Food Scrap Compost Program is a partnership among the City of New York, the NYC Department of Sanitation, GrowNYC, and community partners. Furthermore, various community efforts (including community gardens) across the City have (smaller) composting systems.

8. The DSNY is led by Commissioner of Sanitation Jessica Tisch, former commissioner of the Office of Technology and Innovation.

During Tisch’s tenure at the Office of Technology and Innovation she oversaw the technological response to the COVID-19 crisis and launched an effort to modernize the city’s information technology infrastructure, including improving communications within the New York City Police Department. Her work in technology will, hopefully, translate to a modernization of the Department of Sanitation, which might allow pickup routes to be completed more efficiently.

9. This upcoming expansion is the first time an entire borough will receive curbside service – and Queens was selected for a reason.

Queens has the largest number of street trees in the five boroughs, providing a particularly significant amount of leaf and yard waste. Leaf and yard waste is helpful for early composting, because it is typically the largest portion of compostable waste collected and produced. 

10. Interested residents can take NYC’s Master Composter Certificate Course to learn more about composting in an urban setting.

Enthusiastic composters are encouraged to participate in this advanced compost education program supported by the Department of Sanitation’s NYC Compost Program. To become a Certified Master Composter, participants must take seven courses about soil science, composting site design, using completed compost soil, and other areas of interest. Furthermore, they are required to complete 30 volunteer hours and attend two tours/field trips of various compost sites in the City. The course is free and available to any New York City resident over the age of 18. 

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