New York City residents will be required to set out yard waste for collection if a proposed rule is signed into law, which would also allow for food scraps and food-soiled paper to be separated and set at curbside on a voluntary basis or be commingled with yard waste.
Currently, organics make up 34 percent of what goes to the city’s solid waste landfills and are responsible for about 4 percent of the municipality’s greenhouse gases. Rotting garbage is also the source of a persistent problem with stench, rats, and vermin. These realities have been driving forces behind the city’s long-time efforts to ramp up collection of compostable waste—efforts that have endured stops and starts due to budget cuts, low participation rates, and COVID. Advocates have continued to push and say that curbside collections must be mandatory for diversion efforts to be economically sustainable and have real environmental impact.
The objective of the draft policy, proposed by New York City’s Department of Sanitation (DSNY), is to not only preserve landfills and clean up communities, but see that these streams are converted to soil additive via composting, or renewable energy via anaerobic digestion.
“For every successful organic waste diversion program in the United States, mandatory yard waste diversion has been the first required step and necessary prerequisite,” Madelynn Liguori, senior counsel in the Bureau of Legal Affairs for DSNY said at a public hearing April 27.
Yard waste is generated separately from recyclable and non-recyclable waste generated in the home and is often already put into separate containers or bags. So, the process is straightforward; residents would simply need to set it out for scheduled pickups, she said, punctuating that diverting this waste from landfills is “an essential part” of the city’s efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by 2050. If residents add food scraps or food-soiled paper, it brings all the more energy-dense nutrients into the compost mix.
New York took a giant step not long ago with a program in Queens that diverted nearly 13 million pounds of organic waste in 12 weeks, equaling threefold more per district than an earlier opt-in program, and at one-third the cost of previous curbside compost collection programs.
The city has since laid out a timeline to provide curbside service to all New York City residents, with an anticipated full rollout by Oct. 7, 2024. Mandatory yard waste separation requirements will phase in along a similar timeline, culminating in Manhattan Oct. 7, 2024, with diversion requirements in place from March 1 to July 31 and from Sept. 1 to Nov. 30 each year.
DSNY intends to allow for a three-month education and “warning” period following the effective date should the rule become law.
It would establish procedures, including specifications for containers and bags, for both yard waste and commingled yard and food scraps and food-soiled materials. And it would require building owners and managers of dwellings with four or more units to designate storage space and containers for yard waste.
Kendall Christiansen of the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce, among hearing attendees providing testimony, called for clarity on multiple parameters, including in the description of the “nature and character” by type, size, or “generally what is requested and subject to enforcement;” clarification on what constitutes organic waste (pet waste, diapers, etc.); and clarification on what is considered contamination.
Christiansen also suggested discouraging promotion of leaving yard waste on the lawn as a preferred alternative and recommended requiring that waste generated by commercial yard and lawn services be managed by those services.
Alia Soomro, deputy director for New York City Policy New York League of Conservation Voters, touted the rule as an important opportunity to achieve climate goals while prioritizing other values.
“In addition to helping us achieve our city’s zero waste goals, composting would address environmental inequities. Neighborhoods near polluting facilities like waste transfer stations and incinerators, most often low income and communities of color, are the ones whose health could most benefit by recycling organic waste … We have already grown accustomed to recycling plastic and paper, and this is the next step—recycling food scraps and yard waste instead of sending it to landfills,” Soomro stated.
Residents chimed in too, with comments such as that allowing for the commingling of yard and food waste will make it easier for them to participate in sustainable waste management practices.
“Separating different types of waste can be confusing and time-consuming for many residents and may discourage them from participating ... allowing for the commingling can promote more widespread adoption … education and awareness sessions before the implementation will help residents to understand the rule and segregation of their waste,” wrote in a New Yorker and grad student of sustainable environmental systems.
Among other public feedback was that plastic bags should not be used for collection or distribution, and comment from residents who welcome the prospect of having an option in addition to once-weekly farmers markets where they now compost.
“We are advocating for our building to participate in curbside composting but have faced resistance from our co-op board of directors. We hope that mandating yard waste for curbside pickup can be implemented and that it would create the opportunity for us to mix in our food waste too. We have enough food waste that it would be helpful not having to wait until Sunday to use the composting bins at the farmer's market,” a couple wrote.
New York residents put out 24 million pounds of trash and recycling daily; about a third of it is compostable. The municipality already has the largest composting program in the U.S. and with the expansion to all Burroughs (with or without a mandate), it should nearly quadruple in size.