Two years ago, the New York City Department of Sanitation began rolling out a test composting program in certain New York City neighborhoods to help reduce the endless amount of waste that New Yorkers throw out everyday. Composting, as community garden enthusiasts can tell you, is a great way to recycle organic waste. It turns your old banana peels and apple cores into fertilizer, which means that the organic waste that composes thirty-one percent of New York City’s trash burden gets siphoned away from the landfill and into nourishing plants or furthering food production. The neighborhoods that the Sanitation Department chose for the program were ones with a high participating rate in recycling, places where environmental consciousness is already perceived as a local good. Those included Staten Island’s Mariner’s Harbor, the Bronx’s Throg’s Neck, and, in Brooklyn, parts of Park Slope and Windsor Terrace. But according to the Sanitation Department, participation in the composting program has only been “modest.” Why? Because density concerns in New York City make composting a hard sell.
Even before the city program, many New York City residents composted through their local garden or farmer’s market. The trouble is that, as a report from DNA Info makes clear, composting is something that requires both maintenance, time, and knowledge. Oh, and space. The program seems to be mostly helping people who were already composting. Keeping food scraps in the house attract nasty creatures like rats and roaches, and compost bins also have a habit of attracting flies and maggots. In a place where you can keep the bin outside most of the time, that’s less of an issue. If all you have is a galley kitchen, well, composting isn’t as attractive an option.
Of course, there are ways to avoid the organic pests that organic waste sometimes attracts: Keeping bones and meat scraps in the freezer until they go into the collection bin, and spraying the bin with vinegar helps. But the city didn’t distribute much information on the maintenance of the composting bins, or anyway, it didn’t get to the landlords and residents in a way that made composting that attractive. One resident told DNA Info “We never got any messaging on when exactly the program was launching or what or how we should compost, and we never got those personal bins… My excitement and initiative may have waned by the time the program eventually launched.”
The problem with the program as it stands is that it’s designed to help people who are already composting rather than provide incentive for people who haven’t been in the habit. New York City has a serious garbage issue: We literally export tons of our refuse to landfills in other states in order to keep up with the growing public. The city produces an average of 10,000 tons of waste a day. But municipal government hasn’t always prioritized alleviating that burden. (In 2002, Mayor Bloomberg suspended the citywide recycling pick-up program in order to save the city money. It returned two years later.) If we want composting to work, it needs to be better publicized and explained. It’s not an intuitive process, but it’s an important one.