The Big Apple takes on composting

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How one teenager and New Yorkers across the city are fighting for the environment within their homes


  • Composting bins at the Union Square Greenmarket. Photo: Nao Okawa, via flickr

  • New Yorkers across the city are collecting food waste in their homes as part of the city’s effort to achieve zero waste by 2030. Many receive curbside collection services from the Department of Sanitation, while others bring their waste to drop-off sites in all five boroughs. Photo: Ariana Giulia Reichler

  • Emma Venarde prevailed on most residents in her Upper West Side building to participate in one of hte city’s recent pushes towards sustainability. Photo courtesy of Emma Venarde

At six years of age, Emma Venarde was nicknamed “nature girl” by her kindergarten classmates. At 12, she emailed her property manager requesting that her 60-unit Upper West Side high-rise begin composting. At 15, she presented a proposal for an organics waste collection program to her building’s board. Now 16, Venarde is responsible for convincing her neighbors to participate in one of New York City’s recent pushes towards sustainability.

This spring, after months of back-and-forth with the property manager, superintendent and board, brown bins and composting instructions were delivered to Venarde’s building on 85th Street, signaling its participation in the city’s organic curbside collection program. Venarde and her neighbors constitute only a fraction of the 3.5 million New Yorkers for whom the service is now available.

Along with the materials provided by the city, residents in her building received a letter from Venarde, who explained the importance of composting and invited questions.

“Since then, I’ve gotten some really sweet emails about cat food and really specific Zabar’s products, asking if they’re compostable,” Venarde said, laughing. “But it’s good that people are paying attention.”

Venarde had initially hoped for one out of the four units on each floor to participate in the program. So, when the superintendent told her that two or three families per floor had joined, they had to order more bins.

This willingness of New Yorkers to start composting is something that former Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s administration pointed to when the city first introduced the curbside initiative in 2013, even though officials had long hesitated to implement a composting program due to New York’s size and vertical density.

The city piloted the program in Westerleigh, Staten Island, with 3,500 households in the spring of 2013. Within a year, nearly 100,000 households throughout the city had joined. After another year, that number was well on its way to 200,000.


New York City spends about $400 million every year shipping roughly 14 million tons of waste out of the city. The composting program has the potential to significantly reduce both the amount of landfill produced by the city and the cost of handling it. During the 2018 fiscal year, the city’s Department of Sanitation collected more than 45,900 tons of organic waste.

Data collected by the Department of Sanitation indicate that 34 percent of residential trash is compostable. Estimates suggest that successful diversion could save New York around $100 million annually. Instead of shipping organic waste to landfill as far as South Carolina, Pennsylvania and Ohio, the city can send it to facilities in the city, like Fresh Kills in Staten Island, or nearby ones, most of which are under 150 miles away.

For the time being, participation in the composting program is entirely voluntary and there are no fines for refusing to partake or for making mistakes. All five boroughs have service available in some parts, though only 24 community boards, including all 12 in Manhattan, have full service in all neighborhoods.

When compared to cities like San Francisco, Seattle and Portland, where composting is mandated by law, New York lags behind in its sustainability efforts. For instance, within three years of the passage of a law mandating composting, San Francisco’s diversion rate hit 80 percent, higher than any other major U.S. city.

But New York, with a population nearly four times that of those three cities combined, has challenges of its own, notably the city’s vertical density. Still, even with its voluntary status, New York’s is the largest composting program of its kind in the country.

Sanitation Department officials introduced the program with hopes that it would be available to — and possibly even mandatory for — all New York City residents by 2016. In 2017, that date was pushed to the end of 2018.

But this spring, the department’s commissioner, Kathryn Garcia, announced that expansion would be suspended temporarily.

Before expanding the program, the Department wants to “streamline the service and increase the overall number of people who are participating in the existing districts,” said Andrew Hoyles, the Sanitation Department’s program manager of organics outreach. “The city is trying to look at each district that has the program to make sure that when the service is offered, it will be streamlined service.”

Although anyone who is already eligible will be able to continue participating, some neighborhoods have experienced decreases in collection frequency.

While the Department has yet to set another deadline for citywide expansion, it plans to have a new schedule in the coming months.


The ultimate goal is a lofty one: zero waste by 2030. Through organics, textiles and electronics recycling programs, the city hopes to cease all contribution to landfills, which Hoyles said is still a realistic target, despite the indefinite interruption.

In addition to residential collection, the city has also developed programs to promote composting in schools and commercial organizations. Around 40 percent of public schools, as well as some private schools, separate their food waste, and certain businesses are required to do so.

An alternative for those currently unable to participate in the curbside program, and the way in which 12-year-old Venarde got started, is to bring compost to drop-off sites throughout the city. In lieu of expanding curbside collection, the city is adding drop-off locations and expects the number of sites to reach 150 by the end of the year, as compared to 113 as of June.

Venarde emphasized the minimal effort required of individuals. “Composting is a really effective and easy way of creating environmental change,” she said. “Instead of landfill decomposing anaerobically, which creates methane, you actually turn it into renewable energy or create fertilizer.... We’re quite literally reversing the climate warming by separating our food scraps into a different bin.”

She suggested that one more reason composting has succeeded is simply because its effects are quickly apparent.

“With any social justice issue, it’s nice to be able to see the change you’re making, and environmentalism doesn’t have that as much because everything adds up to this large scientific thing that is hard to understand,” she said. “But with composting ... it’s very easy to visualize. You can weigh it.”

For Venarde, youth involvement in composting is critical: “Seeing people our age stepping in makes adult realize that this isn’t about them — this is about our futures. So, even if they’re kind of grumpy about one more bin in our stairway, [they know] this is about something larger than that.”

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