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Eric Adams Cuts Composting Programs to Save Chump Change

The elimination of City funding for community drop-off sites will save around $3 million a year—0.04 percent of a $7 billion budget gap.

3:37 PM EST on December 12, 2023

Compost bins in New York City.
(Hell Gate)

Despite the rain, the large green bins at Cortelyou Greenmarket in Flatbush were filling up this past Sunday with piles of egg shells, coffee grounds, and the odds and ends of various vegetables. Neighbors with their hoods pulled up and umbrellas in hand talked with compost workers while emptying containers of food scraps into the bins. 

Although there were some questions for the GrowNYC workers and volunteers staffing the bins that might be expected at any food scrap drop-off site—Can I compost this tea bag? What about this plastic bag that says it’s compostable?—the conversations largely centered on a single fact: this coming Sunday, December 17, will be their final day collecting scraps. 

Last month, Mayor Adams announced a slate of budget cuts that includes the complete elimination of funding for community composting programs which cost about $3 million annually—or 10 percent of the City’s overall composting budget, and just 0.04 percent of the $7 billion deficit the Adams administration says it's trying to close. The Mayor’s Office claims the budget cuts are necessary because of spending to accommodate the influx of asylum seekers. 

A notice posted by GrowNYC. (Hell Gate)

A spokesperson for the Department of Sanitation said that the move to curbside and smart bin collection makes it easier for New Yorkers to put their 4,000 tons of daily organic waste to reuse. DSNY also composts some 60,000 tons every year at a facility on Staten Island, with promises to increase that amount.

But most of the food scraps collected by Sanitation every year in curbside containers or smart bins don't become compost—they become slurry, which becomes methane, or natural gas. The gas is supposed to be fed back into the grid to heat homes, but this new system has been unreliable, and there are still periods where excess natural gas is being burned, emitting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and maintaining our perilous reliance on fossil fuels. 

In contrast, the organizations that contract with the NYC Compost Project collect food scraps and operate local composting sites throughout the city where they process more than 4,000 tons of organic waste a year into actual compost, a nutrient-rich product that aids soil health. These organizations—GrowNYC, Earth Matter, Big Reuse, the Lower East Side Ecology Center and four botanical gardens, then provide finished compost to community gardens, street tree care projects, and park programs. The composting program also supported educational programming like Master Composter Training and volunteering.

At Queens Botanical Garden, the compost cuts will hurt the garden's ability to serve the community. In years past, they gave away compost for free on top of supplying for the needs of their on-site organic farm. This coming year, without City funding, the garden will no longer have the capacity to process as much organic waste. They've calculated that it will cost them an additional $40,000 to buy compost instead. 

"To cut this very cost-effective, very popular program that actually is doing what composting is supposed to do, I think it's just baffling," Evie Hantzopoulos, the executive director of Queens Botanical Garden, told Hell Gate.

A bin of compost at GrowNYC's Cortelyou Greenmarket. (Hell Gate)

"It's a system with a lot of benefits, which I think makes it hard for people that are strictly looking at budget numbers to put a value to all these benefits," said Justin Green, the executive director of Big Reuse.

In addition to losing composting programs, 115 people could lose their jobs by the end of December, almost half of them members of the recently organized GrowNYC Workers Collective. 

Courtney Scheffler, a member of GrowNYC Workers Collective, said the dissolution of community composting represents the combined loss of a job that she’s passionate about where she earns half her current income, and something more intangible.  

"It's such a loss to the community. The knowledge that workers in compost have, we share that together. We also get to learn from the communities we're in and let that inform how we approach our sites," Scheffler said. "Yeah, it's devastating."

Scheffler added, "I think it's disgraceful to pit programming against asylum seekers. I don't think that's a fair way to approach the situation. And I think that's not what the workers want."

Neighbors doing their thing at the Cortelyou Greenmarket drop-off. (Hell Gate)

At a composting event at the Brooklyn Heights Library last Friday, Brooklyn Councilmember Lincoln Restler suggested that the Adams administration was cutting popular social programs like libraries and composting to gain political leverage. "I think the mayor was trying to get everybody alarmed, impose the most draconian and disastrous cuts that he can, so that we all put pressure on Albany and Washington to give more money to New York City," Restler told the attendees. "And I think it's a pretty terrible way to approach our communities." (The Mayor's Office did not respond to our questions about this critique, and pointed to DSNY's composting efforts.)

Some of the composting organizations we spoke to said they would try to keep operating, even without City funding. Queens Botanical Garden is hopeful that they will be able to retain two of the four members of their team. The Lower East Side Ecology Center is closing down 16 of its drop-off sites, but said it would try to continue running their Union Square and Tompkins Square locations, as well as two locations on the Lower East Side, though this is contingent on whether or not LESEC can come to an agreement with the City to continue using City-owned equipment. As for Big Reuse, they are completely shutting down their Queensbridge and Gowanus sites. Their last site, a partnership with Red Hook Farms, will continue to take food scraps, but without the support of Big Reuse. 

“We're trying to figure out how to keep whatever we can going. But with a month's notice, it's hard to figure out where any other funding will come from,” Green, Big Reuse's executive director, said.

In two weeks, some New Yorkers might be left with a pile of food scraps in their freezer with nowhere to bring them. The orange smart bins don’t extend all over the city, and some landlords have been resistant to the curbside program. Katie Herman, who was dropping her food scraps off at the Cortelyou Greenmarket on Sunday, lives in one of those buildings. 

"The only way we have to compost is to drop off at sites like this," she said. "My husband and I have been discussing that we're just going to have to stop composting, because there's literally going to be nowhere for us to drop it off."

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