Happy Compost Awareness Week! The first full week of May — this year, from May 7 – 13 — is International Compost Awareness Week. Composting is a significant tool that municipalities can use to reduce waste sent to landfill and ultimately, to lessen their carbon footprint. Composting for NYC residents is becoming easier than ever, especially since Mayor Eric Adams’s announcement that the city will expand curbside composting services to all residences in the five boroughs by the end of 2024 (along with a proposal to make composting mandatory, like recycling). For those who do not yet have curbside services, worry not! There are more than 100 food scrap drop-off locations in the City, including the new Smart Bins that are accessible 24/7. In case this hasn’t convinced you to begin composting, we have compiled a list of six benefits derived from composting your food scraps and waste rather than tossing it — “Make Compost, Not Trash.”
To learn more about composting in NYC, read our fact sheet here.
1. Composting does not produce methane, a greenhouse gas.
When organic waste is sent to a landfill, it is trapped under piles of other refuse and decomposes anaerobically (i.e., without oxygen). This process emits methane, a powerful greenhouse gas that accounts for as much as 20 percent of the global warming created by all greenhouse gasses.
The key to composting is aerobic decomposition — decomposition with oxygen. Oxygen allows living organisms (such as worms, insects, bacteria, fungi, and others) to feed upon the organic material to break it down. Plus, properly aerated compost emits little to no foul odors (unlike landfills).
2. Compost is used to fertilize soil on farms and in public parks and gardens in NYC.
Compost, which can become usable anywhere from one to six months after the aerobic decomposition process begins, is a valuable tool for gardeners, farmers, and anyone else with interest in helping plants grow. It is nutrient-rich and can hold a great deal of water. Think of compost as a fertilizer. It is a soil additive, not a soil replacement. Thus, increased use of compost in gardens, farms, and other spaces reduces the need for chemical fertilizers that contribute to nutrient pollution.
Finished compost can be applied to soil in parks, at gardens, and in street tree pits. Additionally, individuals can receive finished compost at community “give-back” events that are periodically hosted at community gardens or at public food scrap drop-off sites — a little bit sprinkled to the soil of indoor houseplants or raked into garden beds will go a long way! See the NYC Compost Project’s guide to using compost here. Make sure not to use too much compost on your plants, because it can invite pests and cause plants to rot.
3. Composting helps keep rats out of the trash and off the streets.
Food scraps and waste put in trash bags and left on the street are a huge draw for rats and other vermin. Keeping this waste out of regular household trash, therefore, will make rats less inclined to burrow into the garbage put out on trash day. Furthermore, most vessels for collecting compost, including household brown bins (which are provided by DSNY), DSNY’s Smart Bins, and those used at public food scrap drop-off sites, are sealable and tougher than the average garbage bin. Many are designed specifically to prevent rats from making their way inside.
4. Many smaller-scale composting efforts are led by community groups, and are a great way to meet your neighbors.
Community gardens throughout New York City are often home to composting systems that bring neighbors together to process scraps and waste and distribute finished compost to interested residents. Some of these include the incredibly popular three-bin system, aerated windrows (large piles that are periodically mixed/turned), bokashi (which involves the fermentation of food before composting), and the low-maintenance HotBox system. Many community gardens in the City have open volunteer days for neighbors who are interested in learning more about composting and urban gardening. Additionally, the NYC Department of Sanitation offers a free self-guided Master Composter Certificate Course for people who want to become part of a City-wide network of composting experts, educators, advocates, and gardeners.
5. Composting your food scraps and waste can help shed light on how much waste your household produces.
“Food scraps” and “food waste” are terms that are often used interchangeably, but they are actually different things! Food scraps are the (mostly) unavoidable waste products that come from food preparation: think onion skins, squash stems, orange peels, etc. Food waste, on the other hand, is disposed-of food that was at one point (or still is) usable/edible. Food waste usually comes from over-buying, wasted leftovers, and produce forgotten in the refrigerator.
While there are measures one can take to reduce the amount of food scraps produced, household food waste is completely avoidable. Keeping these scraps separate from other household trash is an easy way to audit the amount of waste your household produces and increase awareness of the items you waste most commonly. If you find yourself tossing out a half-full bag of spring mix every week, it might be time to start purchasing a smaller size — thus doing your part to save both the planet and your wallet!
6. Even if they aren’t composted in a traditional sense, diverted food scraps and waste can be used to make renewable energy.
NYC curbside composting isn’t technically “composting” — rather, brown bin pickups at residential addresses in the City are anaerobically decomposed at special facilities that use the resulting methane to create renewable gas, which is then used to power the facilities themselves as well as some DSNY vehicles, and is also diverted into the local power grid to be used at residences and businesses in the neighborhoods around the facilities. Solid byproduct from this process can also be used as fertilizer, but unfortunately much of it is still being sent to landfill.
The way the process works is that the food waste and scraps that are set out in the brown bins are first taken to Waste Management, a private waste pickup and processing company contracted by the City to use food waste and scraps to create an “organic slurry” that is then delivered to a wastewater treatment facility such as Newtown Creek, in Greenpoint. The slurry is combined with sewage and processed in “digester eggs” to make natural gas in a fashion not dissimilar to the way the human body digests food to make energy.