Organics collection (photo: NYC Department of Sanitation)
Among the businesses listed as essential in Governor Cuomo’s PAUSE order are "trash and recycling collection, processing, and disposal" industries. Yet on April 7, Mayor de Blasio followed a different interpretation by announcing that the Department of Sanitation’s organics recycling program would be eliminated on May 4. To do away with this critical environmental program just to save a miniscule percentage of the city’s budget doesn’t make sense, and here’s why:
While it is no secret that the city’s curbside organics collection program doesn’t pay for itself, that’s only half the story. It is true that the program currently generates a small amount of revenue, about $50,000. However, if properly executed, the program has the potential to generate millions of dollars in revenue for the city.
In a February 2019 study, "How Much Potential Revenue are New Yorkers Wasting by Trashing Organics?," the city’s Independent Budget Office calculated that if all of the 1 million tons of food and yard waste generated by New Yorkers annually were recycled into compost, it could produce $12.5 million in revenue. If the same annual tonnage were recycled into biogas and used to generate electricity, the potential revenue could be as much as $22.5 million.
We can only realize the untapped financial potential of the organics program if enough New Yorkers separate their leftover pizza crusts and banana peels from their trash and into the city's brown bins. Cutting the program nixes the opportunity for that to happen and washes away years of gains in a single stroke. What the city should do is pursue an "expand to save" model, accomplishing multiple goals at once.
Realizing the increased revenue from organics recycling is dependent upon expansion. An investment in our organics program now will save money in the long run, all while helping our planet. It’s a win-win.
Furthermore, history suggests that eliminating the program now means it will be that much harder to bounce back if it is ever restored. When the Bloomberg administration suspended plastics and glass recycling in 2002, in the midst of another recession, New Yorkers were recycling at a rate of about 20%. Recycling has never returned to the same level after it was brought back; the latest available data, from fiscal year 2019, shows an 18.1% recycling diversion rate citywide, a decade and a half after. Changing habits is hard.
Loss of New York City’s composting program would also have implications for the cleanliness of our city. This could mean an uptick in rats and other vermin. Currently, buildings that participate in the curbside organics collection program store their food scraps in rat-proof brown bins provided by the Department of Sanitation. Once brown bin collection stops, the same amount of organics will end up in garbage bags stacked on sidewalks, a ready feast for rats. To make matters worse, the mayor has also proposed eliminating fourth-day garbage collection in "Rat Zones."
Ending the curbside collection of organics is short sighted and ill-advised. It’s penny-wise and pound-foolish in a time when we desperately need to be thinking about how to build a resilient city. The health and longevity of our neighborhoods, city, and planet should be paramount, especially in times when tough decisions need to be made about our city’s budget and how the fiscal decisions we make today will impact our future.
The CORE Act, being introduced on Wednesday by City Council Members Keith Powers and Antonio Reynoso (a co-author here), would provide New Yorkers with places to drop off organics, electronics, textile, and other materials for recycling, as an interim measure until we restore and expand curbside collection of these streams to all New Yorkers. We know from recent history that the relatively little we save with a cut like this doesn’t justify the decades it will take to rebuild the good that it does for New Yorkers.
Gale Brewer is the 27th Borough President of Manhattan. City Council Member Antonio Reynoso represents parts of Brooklyn and Queens and chairs the Council’s Committee on Sanitation and Solid Waste Management. On Twitter @galeabrewer & @CMReynoso34.