Dior St. Hillaire, founder of GreenFeen
Dior St. Hillaire, founder of GreenFeen
Dior St. Hillaire, founder of GreenFeen (Photo: Christian Rodriguez)

Inside the Battle to Save Compost in New York City

Earth-loving New Yorkers are drawing from an unlikely arsenal of activism, hip-hop, marathon city-council Zoom meetings, and one sassy pug to hold the city to its zero-waste commitments. If they succeed, the environmental benefits could be huge.

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A pandemic was not going to deter Lou E. Reyes from composting. Even at the height of New York City’s early wave of COVID infections, Reyes masked up and dutifully lugged his bag of food scraps to his neighborhood’s collection site in Astoria, Queens. In late March 2020, however, Reyes arrived to find a sign stating that the sanitation department had indefinitely suspended all composting services. Organic scraps would now be sent to landfills rather than converted into compost. “I had a moment of panic,” Reyes says. “I saw a garbage can there, full of food scraps, and I was like, I cannot.”

He biked his scraps back to his apartment.

Reyes had always taken composting for granted. It was something he did as a kid with his eco-conscious mother in California, and he stuck with it after moving to New York City to work in casting and production in the fashion industry. His girlfriend, Caren Tedesco, grew up in a composting household in Brazil. The couple sees composting as one of the few tangible things they can do to help curtail climate change, because keeping organic scraps out of landfills cuts down on the emission of methane, a significantly more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. “Composting is not a lifestyle choice or some cool or strange thing that a few people do—it’s crucial,” Tedesco says. “It’s key to solving a lot of our community issues.”

For Tedesco and Reyes, New York City’s abrupt shuttering of its organics collection program was a shortsighted step backwards. They weren’t alone: the city’s suspension of compost services “unleashed the wrath of New Yorkers,” says Antonio Reynoso, Brooklyn’s borough president. “What this did is create a ton of new advocates.”

In spring 2020, the collective frustration of over 20,000 compost-loving New Yorkers culminated in the creation of Save Our Compost, one of the most energetic and diverse garbage-driven campaigns the city has seen in years. The group is seeking nothing short of a complete revamp of New York City’s approach to compost. Its ideal program is one both universal and mandatory, with accompanying educational outreach and a strong emphasis on local processing. “This is literally the bare minimum any government at a local level has to do today,” Tedesco says. “New York City must have a universal composting program, and this has to be implemented as fast as possible.”

Compost bucket
Keeping organic scraps out of landfills cuts down on the emission of methane, a significantly more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. (Christian Rodriguez)
Pile of compost
(Christian Rodriguez)

The Brooklyn-based hip-hop duo Nate and Hila have produced perhaps the world’s catchiest explanation for why we should all care about composting, which they regularly perform for perplexed passersby around the city—while dressed as a giant banana peel and apple core.

In the landfill, it doesn’t get oxygen,
’Cause nonorganic trash is piled on top of it:
So as it decomposes, it releases methane,
A gas that’s bad for noses and increases climate change.

As the song elucidates, compost offers a way to turn organic waste “into something you can use again and scatter” into soil that then nourishes insects, microbes, and plants “so that their fruit grows even fatter.” The circular economy of dirt is something that even toddlers can grasp, as exemplified during a recent performance at east Williamsburg’s Cooper Park, where a dozen exuberant three- and four-year-olds danced like wiggly earthworms as Nate and Hila chanted, “Save your scraps, save your scraps! Don’t put them in the trash!”

But New Yorkers need more and better options for responsibly disposing those scraps. As such, Save Our Compost’s demands extend well beyond restoring the program that existed prior to the pandemic. Years before the COVID-related shutdown, many compost connoisseurs were already criticizing New York City’s program as poorly managed and biased toward wealthy neighborhoods. Compost collection services were never made available to all New Yorkers, and participation was voluntary, so costs to the city remained high while the benefits were low.

Nate and Hila perform their composting song
Nate and Hila perform their composting song at east Williamsburg’s Cooper Park. (Photo: Rachel Nuwer)

There’s more on the line than just garbage—and if Save Our Compost’s push succeeds, the potential positive impacts would extend far beyond the city’s borders. As the country’s largest metropolis, it currently exports its waste out of state to landfills and incinerators, which produce pollution that contributes to disproportionately higher cases of asthma, various cancers, and other maladies in nearby communities, causing a stinking trail of pollution and environmental-justice issues as far away as Virginia. Local composting initiatives would significantly alleviate the burden for U.S. communities forced to contend with New York City’s garbage. “We’re encouraging local processing, so the rest of the world doesn’t receive our trash,” says Dior St. Hillaire, founder of GreenFeen, a sustainability consulting firm, and GreenFeen OrganiX, a compost cooperative in the Bronx. “Exporting waste should not be the standard, it should literally be the last thing we go to.”

New York City’s contribution to climate change, of course, also impacts people well outside of the five boroughs. The city’s sheer size means that any actions taken—or not—to curb greenhouse-gas emissions have an outsize effect. According to 2020 census data, New York City’s population has surged to 8.8 million, adding almost 630,000 residents over the past decade. That’s a population increase nearly equivalent to the entire city of Boston, says Justin Wood, director of policy at New York Lawyers for the Public Interest. “Boston’s great, and I want Boston to have composting, but in New York City, if you can just get 10 percent of the population to compost, you’re already talking about a bigger impact.”

As the largest urban center in the U.S. and an international leader for culture, policy, and social justice, New York also leads by example. “Policy initiatives here often spread to other parts of the country,” says Eric Goldstein, a senior attorney and the New York City environment director at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). When New York City made recycling mandatory in 1989, other American cities quickly followed suit. If New York City can figure out composting, it could kick off a domino effect across the country, with dramatic environmental benefits.

Dior at one of the composting locations
“When we think about this being a ‘volunteer’ effort as opposed to a green job that needs to be paid, that’s an equity issue,” says Dior St. Hillaire (right), founder of the sustainability consulting firm GreenFeen. (Christian Rodriguez)

When it comes to composting, the West Coast trumps the East Coast. Seattle launched the country’s first major city-sponsored yard-debris recycling program back in 1989, when “composting was still a dirty word” in New York, says Christine Datz-Romero, founder of the Lower East Side Ecology Center, a nonprofit group that pioneered composting in New York City. “It was fringe, it was this hippy-dippy thing.”

Over the past 25 years, Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, and other cities have shown that recycling organics is not only possible, it’s profitable. Compost in the Seattle area creates more jobs than garbage, and it’s significantly cheaper than trash disposal. As of 2019, Seattle was shelling out $131 per ton of landfill waste, compared to $123 per ton of organics. That $8 may not seem like much, but it generates an annual $1.5 million in savings for the city. “The whole program is paying for itself by avoiding those garbage costs,” says Jeffrey Morris, owner of Sound Resource Management Group, a zero-waste research and consulting firm.

Neighborhoods near polluting facilities like garbage-collection stations, incinerators, and landfills tend to be lower income, so compost can also be a significant boon for public health and social justice. “More affluent people have the political clout to block proposals for environmentally undesirable facilities in their communities, as well as the resources and the mobility to move to greener pastures,” says the NRDC’s Goldstein.

The process of collecting garbage brings a host of other problems. In New York City, over 75 percent of the commercial-waste-industry infrastructure is clustered in the predominantly Black and brown neighborhoods of southeast Queens, north Brooklyn, and the south Bronx. One study found that 304 commercial garbage trucks pass by per hour in heavily trafficked areas of the south Bronx, and that concentrations of asthma-inducing pollutants are up to seven times higher in these parts of the neighborhood. People living near garbage-transfer stations also contend with constant noise, road damage, dust, and leachate, a putrid liquid that seeps out of rotting garbage. In the summer, the odors can be so bad that residents must keep their windows closed, says Tok Michelle Oyewole, the policy and communications organizer for the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance.

Composting solves many of these issues, not only because it significantly reduces the need to rely on incinerators and landfills, but also because much of the process can take place locally. Microhaulers, who collect compost on bikes, can gather scraps to bring to community gardens and parks, slashing emissions and pollution from trucks. Advocates are also pushing for a larger, industrial-scale compost processing facility to be built within the five boroughs, with electric trucks collecting and delivering scraps along highly efficient routes.

Brys Peralta, a 17-year-old student who picks up organics scraps for BK ROT—a community-supported composting service—on weekends and in the summer in Bed Stuy
Brys Peralta, a teenage student who picks up organics scraps for BK Rot—a community-supported composting service (Photo: Christian Rodriguez)

When former mayor Mike Bloomberg first launched New York City’s compost curbside collection program in 2013, he envisioned a volunteer initiative fully rolled out by 2016 and made mandatory shortly thereafter. As The New York Times reported in 2013, scraps from residents, schools, and businesses would be transformed into “black gold” and clean biogas (a type of renewable energy that can be captured from decomposing organic matter), moving New York City toward its climate-change goals and potentially saving taxpayers $100 million annually. Bill de Blasio, then running for mayor, called the program “crucially important to the environment and the city’s fiscal health.”

From the start of de Blasio’s mayoral term, he set a bold, widely celebrated pledge: New York City would send zero waste to landfills by 2030. De Blasio also included the recycling of organics in his plan to turn New York City into a global leader in the fight against climate change, committing the city to slashing 80 percent of greenhouse-gas emissions by 2050.

But as the years passed during his time in office, it became apparent that de Blasio’s actions did not match his rhetoric, Goldstein says. (The de Blasio administration did not respond to interview requests for this story.) At times the mayor skirted around the compost issue like a pile of rancid sidewalk garbage on a hot summer afternoon: as recently as Earth Day 2019, de Blasio was talking about making composting mandatory across the city. Yet in 2018, his administration had quietly suspended the curbside program’s expansion and cut back on the number of collection days per week for neighborhoods that had it.

Within a few years of its launch, the compost program came under fire from critics as piecemeal and even racist for failing to serve low-income neighborhoods. The paucity of public education and the voluntary nature of the program, combined with infrequent collection services, also contributed to its lack of success. In neighborhoods with brown bins for the curbside collection of organics, only 10 percent of residents used them. “How do you get your neighbors and, most importantly, your landlord, to get on board with doing this thing if you don’t have a law saying you have to do it?” says Wood of New York Lawyers for the Public Interest.

Despite its flaws, though, the compost program was better than nothing. In 2019, it diverted 50,000 tons of waste from landfills, including scraps collected from 950 schools and around 100 community drop-off sites. But then, virtually overnight, it was gone.

Chickens help break down food scraps at the Green Acres Community Garden.
Chickens help break down food scraps at the Green Acres Community Garden. (Christian Rodriguez)
Chickens help break down food scraps at the Green Acres Community Garden.
(Christian Rodriguez)

After the incident at the collection site in Astoria, Reyes and Tedesco began hoarding scraps in their freezer and fridge. When they ran out of space, they filled planters outside. Eventually, they found a community garden that would accept organics. Reyes wondered whether some of their neighbors were in the same predicament. He posted a message on Instagram, using the account of his pug, Rocky (@astoriapug), offering to collect people’s scraps. He picked up 500 pounds that week. “There’s a level of environmental compassion that we had not imagined,” he says. Reyes wound up scaling back his fashion work and now dedicates 40 hours a week to Big Reuse, a community-scale composting facility, on top of his volunteerism with the operation he and Tedesco call Astoria Pug. “I took a huge pay cut, but for the first time, I feel like I’m not doing something harmful to the environment,” he says.

Astoria Pug now collects over 4,000 pounds of food waste a week at six free community drop-off sites. “People want to do two things—drop off their food scraps and get a photo with Rocky,” Reyes says. “We get a lot of complaints if Rocky’s not there.”

Astoria Pug hasn’t been the only private organics pickup group to see participation grow since the city shut down its services. Some drop-off programs (including Astoria Pug) run entirely on donations, while others offer at-home pickup for a fee. BK Rot, for example, is a subscription-based nonprofit in Brooklyn that employs youth microhaulers. After the city’s compost closure, BK Rot saw its membership nearly triple. The group doubled its team and partnered with gardens to add sites for transforming scraps into compost.

One spring morning, I joined Brys Peralta, a 17-year-old wearing neon pink eye shadow, as he made his weekly rounds to collect scraps for BK Rot in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood. Peralta was riding a rickety old bike—and had the added burden of hauling a giant tub of compost on wheels behind him—but I struggled to keep up. He jumped curbs, zipped down sidewalks, and made sudden, screeching stops to empty the scraps from purple buckets dotting porches and steps along his route. Back at the Green Acres Community Garden, we were joined by several human volunteers and four enthusiastic chickens, who helped Peralta break down the scraps. One volunteer named Carmen Mondesire, a petite woman who’s lived in the neighborhood for 37 years, told me cheerfully that the reason she composts is to “recycle back to Mother Nature!”

The demand for services like BK Rot’s still far outstrips availability, especially when it comes to processing space. With key facilities closed by the city program’s shutdown, many collection groups were forced to pay a farm an hour and a half north to take their scraps.

A volunteer at GreenFeen
A volunteer at GreenFeen (Photo: Christian Rodriguez)

In April 2020, a diverse group of around 30 elected officials, lawyers, social-justice experts, waste-reduction specialists, and other composters—many of whom are people of color in their twenties and thirties—launched Save Our Compost. To them, the city program’s closure wasn’t an unmitigated disaster but a chance to rally community support around compost and create something better. “The problems we face are opportunities,” says Meredith Danberg-Ficarelli, director of Common Ground Compost, a zero-waste consulting group. “We have to break the things in the system that are holding us back right now.”

Immediately, Save Our Compost garnered a groundswell of interest, collecting more than 20,000 signatures on a petition sent to the mayor’s office to retain a budget for composting. In May 2020, the group’s first Zoom town hall drew 1,200 attendees. That June, their efforts paid off with a small but important victory: the restoration of $2.86 million for composting in the city’s 2021 budget. This was just 10 percent of the compost program’s previous funds, but it was enough to reopen 100 of the former 170 community drop-off sites and, in September, to resume operations at seven nonprofits that the city partners with to process scraps.

The modest budgetary celebration was short-lived. Shortly after, the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation determined that community composting should no longer take place on park land, and moved to evict the city’s two largest compost partners, Big Reuse and the Lower East Side Ecology Center. The evictions were originally set for the end of 2020 but were postponed until June 2021 after parks officials were subjected to five hours of public pushback in a December city-council meeting. The dozens of testifiers did not mince words. “I just wanna say, this is really climate stupid,” one commenter said. Another described the evictions as “a crime against humanity.”

Come June 2021, the campaigners’ demands were answered. The parks department called off the Ecology Center’s eviction and gave Big Reuse a one-year extension, with a handshake agreement that the facility can relocate to Greenpoint, Brooklyn, after June 2022. “The push from the coalition was huge and made this happen,” Wood says. “The goal now is to get a bill introduced and passed that would put a timeline on mandatory composting.”

Brys Peralta
In the summer of 2020, BK ROT launched a youth-leaders program for its composters and microhaulers, all of whom are young people of color. (Christian Rodriguez)

I’ve been schlepping my scraps to various neighborhood drop-off points in Brooklyn for a decade now, but before working on this story, I’d never really thought about what happens to my bags of coffee grounds and kale stems after I dump them into a collection bin. To find out, on a warm spring afternoon, I joined Dior St. Hillaire at Synergi Urban Garden in the Bronx.

St. Hillaire handed me a mini pitchfork to tackle my first job: transferring 187 gallons of newly minted compost from a plastic digester to a windrow—basically a glorified pile—where it could air out. St. Hillaire played some hip-hop on her phone and I began to shovel. Forty minutes later, with blisters on both palms, I moved on to the next task: preparing fresh food scraps for processing. This entailed picking through buckets for non-compostable waste—like twist ties and those “hella annoying” fruit stickers, as St. Hillaire put it—and then chopping up the larger bits to speed along their breakdown. Finally, I mixed the scraps with carbon-rich yard waste donated by landscapers.

St. Hillaire normally processes all her compost herself, save for the occasional help she gets from volunteers. Two days later, my arms and shoulders were still sore. “When we think about this being a ‘volunteer’ effort as opposed to a green job that needs to be paid, that’s an equity issue,” she says. “We place lower value on the work that happens on the land, and there’s a very delicate and controversial history that’s attached to that.”

Even the question of who gets to compost is its own equity issue, St. Hillaire says. Being able to care about compost is a privilege. St. Hillaire addresses common barriers to entry by making it easy and time-efficient to participate through her pickup service. She also educates her community about the importance of compost through hip-hop performances at parks, neighborhood events, festivals, and farmers’ markets. “The issue around sustainability is that it’s very Eurocentric,” she says. “It’s very much ‘Save the polar bears’ and places sustainability as this thing that’s outside of us as opposed to this thing within us that we have to interact with for our survival.”

These individual efforts mirror the broader pushes that Save Our Compost is undertaking across the city. The idea is to keep composting as community oriented as possible and for the city to fairly compensate those involved. The plan also includes a pilot program that would test various solutions for collecting scraps from bigger buildings, including public housing; a proposal for an expert-led study to determine how to more effectively accommodate brown bins on New York City’s limited sidewalk space; and an educational outreach strategy. These moves would set the stage for eventual mandatory food-scrap collection and a new, industrial-scale processing facility within city limits. “If we make composting mandatory, companies would be fighting with each other to come to New York to handle the processing,” says Brooklyn borough president Reynoso.

De Blasio’s City Hall did not embrace these plans, as evidenced by a surprise announcement the former mayor made in a press conference on Earth Day 2021: “Now, thankfully, we have the resources to bring curbside composting back!” de Blasio declared. To an outsider not steeped in the world of waste, this probably sounded like a happy resolution to the compost story. But de Blasio’s fix didn’t address any of the systemic problems that originally plagued New York City’s pre-pandemic program.

“I really feel like he just smacked us in the face,” Domingo Morales, a master composter (essentially a compost PhD, earned through a mix of hands-on training and volunteer hours) told me the day after the announcement. “He took away the program that Bloomberg started back in 2013 and then just reinstated the same program on Earth Day 2021.”

Astoria Pug’s Reyes with Rocky
“People want to do two things—drop off their food scraps and get a photo with Rocky,” Astoria Pug’s Reyes says. “We get a lot of complaints if Rocky’s not there.” (Photo: Rachel Nuwer)

Save Our Compost is looking to the new mayor, Eric Adams, to take the lead on zero waste. “Given that Eric Adams is vegan, we are hopeful that he’ll be receptive to what the NYC compost projects mean to the city,” Reyes said shortly after Adams was elected in November 2021. “However, as of now, his campaign has yet to make a meaningful environmental pitch.”

The Adams administration declined an interview request for this story. But in late February, the mayor’s office announced planned budget cuts that included suspending the compost program’s reintroduction and expansion—a line item that represents just 0.02 percent of the city’s overall budget. Adams told The New York Times that the program was “broken,” because participation was too low.

As Wood points out, this only highlights what Save Our Compost has been saying all along. “There are major problems with the fact that the composting program is not mandatory,” he says. “It’s just not going to collect enough material, because landlords cannot be compelled to listen to their tenants.”

Save Our Compost immediately called an emergency meeting, and city-council members plan to push back on the mayor’s preliminary budget. Sandy Nurse, a city-council member and sanitation chair, warned on Twitter that cutting the compost program will only lead to “more rats ripping open our trash bags” and “lower quality of life for our city’s most disadvantaged communities.” In March, Nurse organized a rally on the steps of Brooklyn Borough Hall, complete with people in rat costumes, to protest the budgetary cuts.

As the curbside pickup program continues to be hashed out in city hall, members of the coalition are pressing ahead. Reynoso and a city-council member have proposed two bills that would mandate zero waste by 2030 and lay out plans for getting there. With the sudden surge of public interest in trash, composting could very well soon become a legal obligation.

New grassroots programs have also firmly taken root. Last October, Morales won the $200,000 David Prize, awarded to New Yorkers with big ideas. He used the funds to build ten new processing sites in underserved New York neighborhoods. “If we want to make sure our zero-waste initiatives can survive a pandemic or a budget cut, they have to be rooted in the community,” Morales says. “I want to see a more united composting culture in New York City, where everybody is in on it, everyone is equally important.”

Key to success is converting all New Yorkers to the cause. As with recycling in the 1980s, normalizing composting and ingraining it into the culture of New York City and beyond will take time. One way to expedite the process is to reach young people: St. Hillaire and her five-year-old daughter recently published a children’s book on composting, and in the summer of 2020, BK Rot launched a youth-leaders program for its composters and microhaulers, all of whom are young people of color.

But those more set in their landfill-leaning ways can be won over, too. To get her mom, Lisa Mosely, excited about compost, St. Hillaire recently showed her Nate and Hila’s music video, in which she makes a cameo as a hungry, rapping worm. The humor was initially lost on Mosley, who asked St. Hillaire why she was “taking a chomp out of that girl’s head.” St. Hillaire patiently explained the message behind the video.

St. Hillaire says she’s still trying to “support my mom’s learning curve.” And every now and then, Mosley gives her a little baggie of frozen scraps.