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Food Waste Site Shutdowns in New York Risk Higher Methane Levels

Nov. 27, 2020, 11:01 AM

Two of New York City’s biggest community composters say the city isn’t letting them stay in the locations they’ve called home for years, raising the prospect of rising methane emissions throughout the city.

Together, composting sites run by nonprofit groups Big Reuse and the Lower East Side Ecology Center, or LESEC, process more than 2 million pounds of food waste each year that would otherwise be trucked to landfills, where they release methane, a greenhouse gas many times more potent than carbon dioxide. The groups said the two sites process at least half of New York City’s community food composting.

The city declined to renew the sites’ permits, according to the groups, and neither of them know where they’ll go afterwards. The conflict comes on top of a dramatic cut to the city’s composting budget earlier this year, largely due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“These sites were the biggest things we have left, and we’re fighting to save them,” said Justin Wood, director of organizing and strategic research at New York Lawyers for the Public Interest. “We’re very worried that if they go, the city has no plan to continue composting.”

Climate Values

To the city government, all of this was foreseeable.

Parks and Recreation Department spokesperson Crystal Howard said Big Reuse “has always known that they would have to find a permanent home after their temporary use agreement expired” at the end of December.

The other site is getting uprooted from the East River Park due to a long-planned climate-related flood protection project.

Nevertheless, Wood said, New York City’s refusal thus far to renew the licenses cuts against the city’s broader climate emissions goals, including reaching zero waste by 2030.

“It just seems contrary to our values for the city to evict two longstanding community compost sites,” Wood said.

Holiday Food Waste

Landfills are the third-largest source of human-related methane emissions in the U.S., accounting for 15.1% of all methane emissions in 2018, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Food is also the largest category of waste in municipal landfills.

The composting process doesn’t produce methane because methane is only created when there’s no oxygen, as when food is sealed inside landfills.

Ahead of the Thanksgiving holiday on Thursday, the EPA urged Americans to reduce food waste during the holiday season, and cited methane emissions.

New York residents generate about 3 million tons of waste per year, about one-third of which is food scraps. But the city was composting only 1% of its total waste stream even before it cut the budget of its curbside composting and community composting programs in April, according to Wood.

By comparison, Seattle composts about a fifth of its organic waste. If New York could reach that level, it would reduce the equivalent of 135,000 tons of carbon dioxide emissions per year—or roughly the same as taking 29,000 passenger vehicles off the road, Wood said.

The composting budget fell from more than $25 million to $2.9 million, according to Justin Green, executive director of Big Reuse, one of the composting sites. And the curbside pickup program is suspended until June 2022, said Belinda Mager, a spokeswoman for the city’s Sanitation Department.

She said the cuts were “painful” but driven in part by the pandemic. Residents can still drop off food scraps at composting sites.

“Budgets are a statement of values,” said Kathryn Garcia, New York’s former sanitation commissioner and a strong supporter of the community composting program who resigned in early September.

“Cutting this was a statement that other things were more important than climate change.”

‘Ardent Supporter’

Parks and Recreation Department Commissioner Mitchell Silver told Bloomberg Law in an email that he is “an ardent supporter of composting to support the sustainable management of parks across our system.”

Howard, the spokesperson, also defended the city’s moves. She said Big Reuse willingly signed a contract granting use of the space under the Queensboro Bridge in Queens “as a temporary measure.” The arrangement was based on an understanding the nonprofit would find a permanent location elsewhere in time for the contract’s expiration, she said.

Meanwhile, the Lower East Side Ecology Center has been given free space by the Parks Department for more than 30 years, Howard said.

But it has to move because parts of the East River Park, where the center sits, will soon become active construction sites for the East Side Coastal Resiliency Project, a $1.45 billion flood protection and park improvement project meant to safeguard the city against threats posed by climate change.

Howard said the city is working to find a new compositing site for LESEC, whose license expired in early November, according to Christine Datz-Romero, the group’s executive director. The site has been allowed by the city to stay put through December, Datz-Romero said.

Other composting sites are still up and running throughout New York City, including one in Soundview Park in the Bronx. Another facility in Red Hook Park in Brooklyn is being relicensed, Howard said.

No New Homes

Green and Datz-Romero say they don’t have new locations nailed down, and have no idea where they’ll end up once they’re forced to leave their current sites.

Even if they do find new homes, groups like LESEC are deeply embedded in their communities and can’t be as effective if they’re uprooted, according to Datz-Romero.

“This is an easy win for the city, and an easy step towards meeting its climate goals,” Green said. “Keeping composting active is only a small sliver of what the city needs to do, but it’s a great system. I think it’s very short-sighted for the city not to allow us to stay.”

“It should be like sewage—they don’t cut your sewage collection when there’s a budget cut,” he said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Stephen Lee in Washington at stephenlee@bloombergindustry.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Anna Yukhananov at ayukhananov@bloombergindustry.com

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