With the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic in March of this year, the plumbing budget in New York City (NYC) was unexpectedly cut from $ 7 million to just $ 2.86 million in a city of 8.4 million people left over for recycling food waste. This led to the suspension of the city’s roadside organic waste collection service, a voluntary service that Mayor Bill De Blasio made mandatory city-wide service in his 2013 mayoral campaign and to which the city council pledged $ 21.1 million.
Suddenly, a service that served 3.3 million New Yorkers in certain communities in Queens, the Bronx, Brooklyn, Staten Island and Manhattan was shut down and was previously considered the most ambitious of its kind in the US at least in the summer of 2021. A vacuum opened , which threatened to land all of NYC’s organic waste in a landfill, where powerful and noxious greenhouse gases would be released.
Although the citywide compost collection service was effective, participation and capture rates were low. Sarah Currie-Halpern of consulting firm ThinkZero LLC attributes this to a “lack of education for residents” and the program’s voluntary basis, which resulted in the service being more expensive per pound than garbage collection.
Without a free, city-wide program, New York City citizens risk losing good waste habits that may be difficult to revisit if the city council’s program is ever resumed. Sarah Currie-Halpern believes this is a serious cause for concern: “In 2002, Mayor Bloomberg stopped collecting some recyclables, including plastic and glass, due to budget deficits. Many people agree that NYC’s recycling stake never fully recovered from this.
“According to then-Commissioner Farrell, the recycling rate in NYC in 2001 was about 19.7 percent; today the recycling rate is about 18 percent. The same could apply to the collection of organic produce once it is restored. “
While the city’s organic product collection program was still functioning, participation was already an issue. According to Anna Sacks, a senior associate at ThinkZero who ran an online “Save Our Compost” petition that received over 21,000 signatures, New Yorkers had no understanding of the importance of composting, and the plumbing department’s already limited budget meant that Mass formation was possible was impossible.
She also points out the lack of incentive for New Yorkers to engage in organic waste collection: “Recycling is the law in NYC; A building cannot choose not to recycle. If a building is not recycled or recycled improperly, a fine may be imposed. Since the roadside composting was a voluntary program, there were no ramifications for not taking part, so some people and buildings were not motivated to take part. “
However, she claims that cuts were not the answer: “This budget was fraught with tough choices given the budget gaps in Covid-19. Given the unwillingness to cut other areas of the budget, particularly the New York Police Department, I understand the Brown Bin program is being suspended. The other option – ramping up and creating incentives and disincentives – would save the city money in the long run once it is fully used, but cost more in the short term.
“I think the council should have completely restored funding for the community composting programs, both GrowNYC and the Compost Project. That would have been $ 7 million. Instead, they restored funding for the compost project to $ 2.86 million. This was an important restoration, but without the $ 7 million funding, many of the pre-Covid food waste sites that were in farmers markets and subway stations will not be able to reopen. “
Fill in the void
After the shutdown of the city’s organic collection service left a gaping hole in the city’s plumbing services, a group had to step in: micro-transporters.
New York City’s micro-transporters were originally founded in 2010 and offer a small collection service for commercial and residential waste. They use bicycles and low-emission vehicles to transport organic waste around the city and divert organic waste from landfill to preserve the inherent value of organic waste in local communities, create jobs and develop a green economy.
Microtransporters have been in operation for 10 years but have been in a legal gray area for most of their existence. However, in 2019, following a grassroots campaign, micro-scale waste collection was incorporated into NYC law as part of a major overhaul of the city’s commercial waste system. Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, micro-freight forwarders served companies producing smaller quantities of food that did not qualify for collection by garbage truck. In addition to providing a pick-up service, micro-transporters also reported weight data and helped customers understand the waste they generated, where they would go and the subsequent environmental impact.
When the pandemic broke out, the microtransporters expanded their services beyond commercial waste collection to local residents across the city. For a small weekly fee, the hauliers collect organic waste from individual households and transport it to middlemen who then deliver it to nearby farms.
Given the increasing workload of NYC vans, Sandy Nurse and Renee Peperone, Co-Founders of Just Hauling, Ceci Pineda, Executive Director at BK ROT, and Meredith Danberg-Ficarelli, Director of Common Ground Compost LLC, set up the NYC Micro-Haulers Trade Association (MHTA) with the aim of supporting member activities and growth to protect and expand the microtransportation sector for organic waste in NYC.
MHTA says: “By practicing and shaping local policies, we are working to reduce the carbon footprint of organic waste leaving our communities, improve transparency between waste producers and collectors of organic matter, and develop local and accessible economies and to reduce the impact of waste systems and infrastructure on frontline communities and provide information and advocacy.
“We create the basis for localized, equitable systems for dealing with our waste that give something back to our communities.”
But are the vans up to the task of filling the gap left by the city council? According to NYC MHTA not currently: “We can manage some of it, but not all and not equally. NYC’s waste is immense and constant. Microtransporters are an innovative, nimble and effective on-site solution.
“Once microtransporters are integrated into NYC’s new and more resilient commercial waste system, they can expand the many benefits we offer. If they are included and supported by the urban infrastructure, we can easily adapt to needs in times of crisis. Small workers must be compensated with a living wage to support the workers. “
However, microtransport is only a solution for those who can afford it – although the citywide program did not cover all neighborhoods, it was tax-funded and was therefore free to use. In order to offer their workers a living wage, micro-hauliers have to charge users a fee. Therefore, it is a service that is only given to those who can pay.
A long term solution?
NYC MHTA insists that microtransport should only be a temporary solution: “We believe microtransport can play an essential role in bridging the gap for now until the city can restore funding for residential composting, but we are do not believe that the cost of composting residential buildings should now or forever be borne by residents who have the ability or willingness to pay.
“The city must prioritize organic products by boldly pledging to ensure that all residential buildings are composted. This is no small matter. A uniform, accessible and pragmatic system must be set up and implemented for the collection and processing of organic waste.
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“To make a major change in behavior among NYC residents, the city needs to conduct multilingual, multicultural, and intergenerational education and outreach to build and implement the system. A city-wide program must enable motivated tenants to compost independently of the landlord’s involvement, and support and expand existing neighborhood efforts to create a resilient and accessible system. “
According to Currie-Halpern, if they were to serve the city continuously, micro-transport companies would also face a capacity problem: “The burden of discharging organic materials for residential buildings in NYC from landfills is enormous. According to the plumbing division’s 2017 waste characterization study, NYC residents generate around 1.1 million tons of organic matter annually. Given the relatively small number of microtransporters and the small amount of tonnage that they can collect and manage, it does not seem possible for them to collect these amounts. “
The citywide program is being phased out for now, and many dispensing points will be suspended until next summer. While they can’t carry the full load, micro-haulage companies have undoubtedly demonstrated their ability to move up in times of crisis and there seems to be a way to add them to NYC’s commercial waste collection infrastructure in the future. While unable to service the entire city on their own, microtransporters may be able to partner with tax-funded debt collection services in the future to help New Yorkers continue to understand the path and impact of their organic waste and towards a cleaner, greener city work towards it.