As Mayor Eric Adams deems the city’s composting program unviable, advocates and elected officials announce pushback
Last month, Mayor Eric Adams released his preliminary budget, announcing plans to slash the city’s sanitation budget by $47.8 million. The most significant cut involves the Curbside Composting program, a project that Adams promised during his campaign to expand to every New York City neighborhood.
While the mayor goes back on his campaign promise, elected officials and community leaders have decided to put up a fight. “I wrote a letter with my West Side colleagues in January, asking the mayor to increase the budget, restore the pre-pandemic basket service levels,” said Erik Bottcher, council member for District 3, during a rally on the steps of Brooklyn Borough Hall against the rollback last Thursday. “What did we see in the preliminary budget? A cut.”
The meeting, organized by District 37 council member and chair of the sanitation and solid waste management committee Sandy Nurse, was called to rally elected officials and the New York community against Mayor Adams’ decision.
Advocates argue the cuts will worsen the city’s rat infestation and ultimately leave low-income neighborhoods worse off. “Sanitation is not a luxury. All New Yorkers deserve clean neighborhoods and a healthy environment,” said Bernadette Kelly, from Teamster Joint Council 16, a union representing 120,000 working families in the New York metropolitan area. “It’s unacceptable to balance the budget on the backs of communities of color.”
During the budget announcement, Mayor Adams had argued that “low participation does not justify the expense.” According to the sanitation department, in the 44 eligible districts, just over 5% of residents have expressed interest in receiving the composting service.
However, Nurse said one of the ways in which the program’s inefficiency can be addressed is by making the signing up mandatory. “When we make it mandatory, it means that people who are landlords or building managers cannot stop tenants from participating in the program,” she said.
Community participation is also contingent on the city raising awareness about the importance of recycling food waste. “People are hungry to learn about composting, to participate and volunteer,” said Chelsea Encababian, compost project manager at the Queens Botanical Garden, one of the organizations partnered with the sanitation department and the NYC Compost Project. “We have a lot of participation,” she said, referring to events organized by the garden.
According to New York City Comptroller Brad Lander, the city’s sanitation programs are not the problem. It is how the money is spent. “We need to restore core funding, but we need to be smarter about how we’re spending it too,” he said. ”New Yorkers are tired of how dirty their neighborhoods are. It’s also a big equity issue and a big sustainability issue.”
Started in 1993, the NYC Compost Project is a collaboration between sanitation officials and seven partner organizations that creates food scrap drop-off sites where organic waste is collected and then composted for soil rebuilding. In 2020, the program was slowed down under the de Blasio administration due to safety concerns arising from the pandemic.
Some residents interested in protecting the environment and cleaning up New York’s streets had decided at that time to take matters into their own hands, creating alternative options to replace the lost services. Catie Savage is one such New Yorker. “I started my community cleanup group, the Hell’s Kitchen Litter Legion, in June of 2020 because the amount of trash we saw was just outrageous,” she said. Savage said the city went from collecting the corner baskets three times a day, seven days a week, in pre-pandemic times to collecting them once a day, every two to three days. “So we went out, and we did our part to really help.”
Efforts have come not only from local initiatives but also from elected officials. “Earlier this year, I allocated $120,000 of my discretionary budget for increased litter basket pickup,” said District 5 Council member Julie Menin who is also chair of the Committee on Small Business. “We have to restore these cuts. It’s a public health issue, it’s a safety issue, it’s an equity issue, and we’re really united in fighting for this.”
Last Friday, community leaders testified against the budget cuts at a New York City Council hearing, emphasizing the importance of expanding the program. “This is really the beginning of our collective actions and collective push,” Nurse said, at the hearing. “Investing in our sanitation services is what is going to help us recover from the last two years.”