TThe food waste problem in New York went viral a few years ago when a rodent was caught on video dragging a slice of margherita pizza down the steps of a subway station. This is how the world got to know Pizza Rat. Since then, Avocado Rat and Pretzel Rat have joined his ranks.
But now, in at least a large part of the city, rat rats are becoming increasingly rare. America’s largest city is launching an equally large organic waste composting program that will turn food and plant waste from 2.2 million residents into soil for city parks and community gardens and an energy source called biogas.
The Queens project marks the first time an entire county will automatically receive service without the need for registration. Sanitation Commissioner Jessica Tisch called the potential contents of these bins the “biggest untapped opportunity for the city [diverting waste]’ from the landfill.
According to Tisch, of the 24 million pounds of trash and recycling collected from New York City homes each day, organic waste makes up a third. And she estimates that less than 1% of this organic waste escapes landfill.
Earlier this week, Department of Sanitation (DSNY) trucks rolled through Queens to empty hundreds of thousands of new brown bins of their (sometimes smelly) contents.
Barbara Alafogianis, a longtime Astoria resident and landlord of a two-family home there, says the program is “long overdue.” She started composting a few years ago when she first noticed trash cans in her neighborhood. “I just think it’s wonderful to be able to get rid of this in a way that doesn’t add extra burden to our landfill,” she says.
Currently, optional curbside composting is only available at a handful of community boards in Manhattan, Brooklyn and the Bronx — and the addition of new neighborhoods has been suspended “until further notice,” according to the city’s website on the service.
“We are working with the new city government to evaluate the program and determine the best service model to help New Yorkers divert food waste from landfills,” reads a page on the city’s website.
New York City Mayor Eric Adams, who was elected last year, initially advocated citywide composting but then halted its expansion on the grounds that not enough people took part to justify the cost.
But conditions seemed just right in Queens. For one, residents in parts of western Queens like Astoria have been pushing hard for an organic waste program.
During the pandemic, Astoria resident Lou Reyes created an Instagram account with his partner Caren Tedesco after the city suspended its food waste pickup program. Her account, under the name @astoriapug for the couple’s older dog-turned-effort mascot, posts information about food waste collection and works with local farms to donate it.
Reyes says this is the first time he’s seen a robust plan by the city to divert leftover food from landfills. Previous curbside composting programs were much more difficult to activate and required landlord approval.
“You don’t have to fill out any forms. You don’t have to apply,” he adds. “So that in itself is easier. And when it’s easier, it’s a lot more attractive to people.”
Meanwhile, Eastern Queens’ many trees and yards made it an ideal place to start collecting leaves, grass and twigs, says Tisch. And this new program cuts costs by optimizing routes, adjusting workforces to reduce overtime pay, and using more trucks with two separate bins — one for garbage and one for organic waste — so they both collect in a single shift be able.
The city has attempted to raise awareness of the program in a variety of ways. The city says it sent a mailing to every Queens resident, sent uniformed sanitation workers to knock on the doors of all one- to nine-unit buildings, and “purchased extensive publicity in community and ethnic media” while wearing the program’s mascot, Scrappy, debuted social media. This fall, the city is also adding 250 new compost bins on streets across the five boroughs that can be opened via a smartphone app or key card and are available 24/7.
Curbside composting in Queens will pause from late December through March, when there will be little to no yard waste. The hope is that by next winter people will have developed the “muscle memory” for separating food waste and there will be enough of it to power the program itself.
Reyes hopes New York City will eventually implement a mandatory universal curbside program, as is already in place for recycling. City council member Shahana Hanif, who sponsored a bill this year that would do just that, says the city currently lacks the sanitation infrastructure and manpower to process organic waste in all five counties, but she hopes the legislation will can change.
“Curtainside composting is one of the easiest ways New Yorkers can reduce their carbon footprint,” she says. “Being able to move your leftovers from your kitchen to your brown bin can help neighborhoods significantly reduce their waste and environmental impact.”