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Adams scraps expansion of organics recycling, despite campaign promise

Mayor Eric Adams is halting a planned expansion of New York City’s curbside organic recycling program, arguing that low participation does not justify the expense.

In his first spending plan released this week, Adams said the city would generate around $27.5 million in savings by suspending the planned expansion of the organics program – part of an across-the-board $2 billion in savings he pledged for fiscal year 2022 and 2023.

“We won’t use taxpayers’ money just to do a symbolic program,” Adams said of the curbside compost system at a press conference on Thursday.

The comments represent a reversal from the mayor’s promises on the campaign trail, in which he repeatedly touted universal composting as a key tenet of his climate agenda. Food and yard scraps make up about a third of the city’s waste stream and are a potent source of greenhouse gas emissions when left to rot in landfills. And the city was ostensibly committed to cutting waste sent to landfills by 90 percent by 2030 as part of the “Zero Waste” initiative touted under the de Blasio administration — eight years from that deadline, the city barely diverts 20 percent of its residential waste from landfills.

Adams’ plans drew immediate rebuke from environmental advocates as well as Councilmember Sandy Nurse, chair of the Council’s sanitation committee, who vowed to fight the cuts.

“This is a disappointing move from the Mayor, who committed many times to expanding organics collections,” Nurse wrote in an email. “Simply put, we cannot have clean streets or meet our Zero Waste goals if we do not fund this program.”

But Adams described the city’s current composting system as broken, noting that it didn’t make sense to “use diesel trucks to move around the city and pick up those recyclable food products that a minimum amount of people are actually participating in.” He said his administration would look at other countries to see how they had achieved better results. Successful organics recycling programs have been in place in West Coast cities like San Francisco, Seattle and Portland for years.

The lack of participation in New York is partly a function of the city repeatedly cutting back on food and yard waste collection. Adams cut more than $9 million from the program this year, about $18 million next year and more than $21 million in subsequent fiscal years. The effort’s baseline funding is only about $27 million in each fiscal year, according to the Independent Budget Office.

The organics recycling program – which was revived from its pandemic-induced suspension last April, and currently serves just 100,000 households – will continue to do its pick-ups at buildings that have opted to receive the service, according to the sanitation department.

For environmental activists, who’ve repeatedly seen the city’s composting ambitions mothballed to close a deficit, Adams’ comments rang familiar. While Mayor Bill de Blasio had vowed to mandate citywide composting by 2018, he ultimately shelved those plans, citing the high costs and lack of public participation.

“This shouldn’t be treated like the after school clarinet program,” said Eric Goldstein, head of the New York City chapter of the Natural Resources Defense Council. “They should be a fundamental piece of the sanitation department’s budget, just like regular trash pick-ups and snow removal.”

As Adams noted in his campaign’s environmental plan, methane released from organic waste in landfills is among the most harmful sources of human-related emissions. Sustainability experts widely agree that the city’s goal of sending zero waste to landfills by 2030 is not possible without a mandatory citywide organic recycling program.

But New York City’s efforts to stand up such a system have repeatedly faltered.

When de Blasio suspended the city’s already languishing food waste pick-ups at the start of the pandemic, Adams described the decision at the time as a “mistake.”

As part of his own campaign, Adams said he would expand the service citywide by paying private processors to pick up food and yard scraps. A spokesperson for his office did not reply to questions about the status of that effort.

For Goldstein, the solution to the city’s composting woes will involve increasing public awareness, then phasing in a mandatory citywide system that gives New Yorkers no choice but to recycle their food scraps – just as they’re currently required to do with metal, glass, plastic, and cardboard.

“Ultimately if the city wants to have a sustainable solid waste program, take a bite out of the climate crisis and deal with the ever-growing rat problem, it needs to make composting a universal service for every city household,” Goldstein said. “Time will tell if the city’s actions meet the city’s rhetoric.”

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