For Lia Lucero, caring about the soil and all the things that enrich it is in her blood. Lucero, who is of Andean ancestry, says her family’s ties to agriculture were her first connection to the composting cause.
“But it wasn’t until I discovered the community composting network in New York City that I became more aware about composting, and that it’s not just in a rural place but also can happen in urban spaces … and that it works,” Lucero told Epicenter.
Lucero was among dozens of concerned residents and climate advocates who gathered at City Hall Park on Thursday to protest the Department of Sanitation’s proposal to eliminate the only city-funded composting programs that ensure all scraps collected become compost.
As other local news outlets like THE CITY have pointed out, under the curbside pick-up program and other programs run by the sanitation department, leaf and yard waste, food scraps and food-soiled paper ultimately become biogas and landfill. The scraps get slurried, added to wastewater and digested at a Brooklyn sewage plant, or digested further from home, in Western Massachusetts, or ends up in landfills. The digestion process begets biogas, mostly methane, which is burned off into the atmosphere. And methane has shown to be 80 times more harmful than carbon dioxide, trapping more heat per molecule for 20 years after it’s released into the atmosphere.
In other words, Mayor Eric Adam’s proposed budget cuts slated for Fiscal Year 2024 and beyond would shutter operations where scraps are fully composted — while keeping sanitation programs where much processing of scraps contributes to climate change. By next year, community compost organizations GrowNYC, the Lower East Side Ecology Center, BIG Reuse and Earth Matter would need to close their composting programs alongside those of botanical gardens in Brooklyn, Queens, Manhattan and Staten Island. The slash in funding would also result in the loss of 115 jobs across the programs.
A staffer with the initiative Zero Waste Island and participant of Earth Matter NY’s Green Thumb gardener and compost apprenticeship programs, Sandra Watanabe had the sense that changes to composting programs were on the horizon. She had noticed differences in incoming materials and staffing throughout the season due to budget cuts or restrictions.
Adams had also been warning residents about looming budget cuts, in large part blaming migrants, for a while. The singular scapegoating happened even as the city announced plans to fund costly projects like a $500-million plan to keep NYPD radio communications away from public ears, as Epicenter’s Felipe De la Hoz has reported. There are also plans for improving the Heliport in downtown Manhattan, Watanabe added, “and other things that seem to be benefiting a few whereas this benefits all or most or anybody who wishes to practice [composting].”
“But the fact that they were gonna eliminate these programs entirely was, I think, a surprise for everybody,” said Watanabe, who is also a master composter and a board member at the Brooklyn Queens Land Trust. The 115 jobs in danger of elimination are just a sliver of the community composting ecosystem made up of mostly volunteers, she noted.
“They’re not living on Madison Avenue, not making lots of money,” she said. “A lot of effort has been put into making living wages for people. It’s a real slap in the face for everyday people making everyday salaries.”
She and other advocates are working to make this the future that never was. An online petition to save community composting was close to its goal of 40,000 signatures by the time of this publication. Volunteers participated in a phone banking “bananza” from home on Saturday. And another rally and press conference are scheduled for City Hall Park this Wednesday, Dec. 6.
Meanwhile, for Watanabe and fellow Green Thumb gardener Nadege Alexis, the founder and executive director of the Regiven Environmental Project, grassroots demonstration and education efforts help fuel hope. That includes hope that the mayor will have a “mind change,” even on such practical grounds as recognizing that restarting a community composting system, once suspended, costs the city that much more, Alexis told Epicenter. And for “the word to spread about the misinformation that is put out there, as in [the deception that] when you’re doing the composting, that it’s actually staying in New York City,” Alexis said.
Other rally attendees agreed that many of their neighbors might not know that most scraps collected by the Department of Sanitation in orange street corner bins and brown curbside containers never become compost.
“I would like New Yorkers who are new to composting to be able to ask where food scraps are being sent to,” Lucero, the neighbor of Andean ancestry, told Epicenter. “There are certain compost infrastructures that exist right now in the city that are misleading people. Especially for someone new to the space, it can seem confusing, but they should know to question where their food scraps go and what happens.”
This post has been updated.