The three R’s of sustainability: reduce, reuse, and recycle. These practices are essential for a green future, but more often than not, composting is forgotten in the mix.
Compost is organic material that can be added to soil to aid the growth of plants. It is composed of water; “browns” such as dead leaves, branches, and twigs; and “greens” such as grass clippings, vegetable waste, and fruit scraps. While promoting plant growth, composting also helps to reduce the amount of garbage in landfills and incinerators, create local green jobs, and sequester carbon by storing it in the soil, as opposed to having it released into the atmosphere.
In a city as large as New York City, with residents producing an average of 12,000 tons of waste per day, it is essential to ensure as much waste as possible is disposed of sustainably. With food scraps and yard waste making up 22 percent of the city’s total waste, efforts to increase composting stand to make an immense impact on the amount of waste that goes into the city’s landfills—most of which are located out of state and sit at full capacity.
However, composting’s presence in the New York City community has been directly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.
On May 4, the New York City Department of Sanitation temporarily suspended its curbside composting program, with food scraps and yard waste to instead be collected as trash. This decision came at the heels of increased economic hardships for the city brought on by the pandemic, eventually resulting in DSNY’s budget being cut by $106 million. To combat this, many nonessential sanitation operations, like composting through the city’s Curbside Organics Collection Program, were suspended. Overall, the DSNY’s Fiscal 2021 Executive Plan projects that the one-year suspension of the program will save the city $21.2 million.
In addition, significant budget reductions were made to GrowNYC’s recycling programs and NYC Compost Project host sites, which encompass seven non-profit organizations dependent on city funding to provide public composting services to New York City communities. Overall, the suspension of subsidies to providers in these community composting programs is projected to save the city an additional $3.5 million.
“These are painful cuts to make, and we do not take these changes lightly. The city is facing an unprecedented crisis, and these service reductions will allow the city to maintain emergency services and its core municipal services,” Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia said. “We look forward to a day when we can restore our full suite of composting and electronics collection programs for city residents, and we thank all New Yorkers for their patience and cooperation as we implement these changes.”
The halting of DSNY’s organics composting program created huge setbacks for the University’s waste removal programming, which began working with this program to collect back-of-house food scraps in 2014. Since 2008, Columbia Dining has used compostable paper plates, bowls, cups, and plastic cutlery, with a full transition to compostable paper straws and plant-based plastic cups for to-go beverages in 2018.
Prior to the pandemic, John Jay Dining Hall produced 3,000 pounds of compostable material a week that was collected through DSNY. Columbia Dining has also partnered with a private carting company since the fall of 2018 with Ferris Booth Commons, before expanding to John Jay in 2019. This partnership was specifically made for compostable post-consumer serving items, such as plates, bowls, flatware, and front-of-house organic waste. Most recently, over 37,000 pounds of food waste was collected in January and February 2020 alone.
These operations have drastically changed since the start of the pandemic. In accordance with New York State law, meals are no longer self-service and must instead be fully to-go. Columbia Dining has mostly continued to use recyclable and compostable materials as it previously did. However, as all utensils must now be individually wrapped, the dining halls have moved back to plastic, non-compostable cutlery as companies producing compostable utensils were unable to get their lines ready in time for the academic year.
In the end, these compostable takeout materials are being processed as trash without the city’s composting program coming to campus. Furthermore, the DSNY’s program has stopped their composting operations for the time being, while the University’s private company has since resumed operations.
“[Action Carting] is a commercial hauler so their business is commercial business,” Vicki Dunn, assistant vice president of Columbia Dining, said. “They are Madison Square Garden. They are Shea Stadium. They are Bank of America. ...They are restaurants like McDonald’s, Junzi, and [Sweetgreen]. So without that stock, they shut down as well. Essentially they were focusing on what little waste and recycling there was to pick up but as far as composting, they stopped because there was nothing to pick up when the city shut down.”
As city businesses return to full operation, the hope is that Columbia Dining will resume its private composting operations and participation in the city’s program this June. In the meantime, there are other avenues for interested individuals to compost their waste in the Harlem and Morningside Heights area. This is due to $2.9 million being allocated by City Council to the NYC Compost Program, which allows residents to drop off compostables at sites across the city, though many remain closed or open at limited capacity due to COVID-19. Some of the closest to campus that have remained operational include the 97th Street Greenmarket, open Fridays from 8 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., and the 77th/79th Street Greenmarket, open Sundays from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Although composting may no longer be as easy to do as in previous semesters, we can all take steps to continue making sustainable choices. Reducing our consumption of meat, taking smaller portion sizes to avoid food waste, recycling when possible, and moving back to reusable containers when it is safe to do so are just some of the many things we can do for our planet.
“The value in promoting sustainability is the planet and the people on the planet, [for both] current and future generations,” Sally Green, SEAS ’21, co-leader of EcoReps’ Dining Committee, said.