By Talia Winiarsky
The Upper West Side, Community District 7, is one of just two districts in Manhattan and seven in all of New York City that is eligible for the Department of Sanitation’s (DSNY) curbside composting service.
Before May 2020, when former Mayor Bill de Blasio paused it “to address budget strains at the start of the coronavirus pandemic,” the service reached over one-third of New York City residents. In 2021, de Blasio announced that it would be brought back to neighborhoods that previously had it, and rolled out further. But, in February 2022, Mayor Eric Adams paused the process of reintroducing the program “for the foreseeable future,” he said, citing budgetary constraints.
Composting was supposed to help the city reach its goal of sending no waste to landfills by 2030. Food scraps, food-soiled paper, and yard waste — all of which comprise compost — add up to a third of the waste New Yorkers throw away, according to the DSNY. That’s a significant amount, since we produce 12,000 tons of waste a day.
Separating organic waste from trash diverts it from landfills, where it is especially harmful. Because organic waste is not exposed to oxygen in landfills, it produces methane, a greenhouse gas that warms the Earth with about 30 times more power than carbon dioxide. Composting organic waste greatly reduces or even can eliminate this methane production.
Anyone who lives on the Upper West Side is eligible for the DSNY’s composting program, only now it’s not automatic; buildings must opt in. For those who live in a building with fewer than 10 units, they can visit nyc.gov/curbsidecomposting, or call 311 to sign up for the service. For larger buildings, building management must sign up for residents to participate.
Neighborhood resident Donna Checkan told WSR that, of the 20 households in her building, about 15 want to participate in the curbside composting program. Still, a year and a half after their request, the building’s management company has not agreed.
Agreement alone doesn’t ensure participation. Before the pandemic, just 10 percent of households with the service available to them participated. It is possible that percentage will rise as temperatures do across the nation.
Once signed up, the DSNY provides an odor-resistant brown bin to collect food scraps in, and the city will pick up the scraps to turn them into finished compost. The bins have locks on them to prevent rodents, which are especially prevalent in the neighborhood in the summer, from gaining access.
Residents in buildings without a brown bin who would like to compost can keep a small container in their freezer and drop off their scraps at a GrowNYC collection center. On the Upper West Side, these options include the Tucker Square Greenmarket on Thursdays, 79th Street Greenmarket on Sundays, or 97th Street Greenmarket on Fridays.
Composting is not just about diverting organic waste, but reusing it. It turns the waste into a mulch-like mixture that acts as a plant fertilizer.
Recently, some Upper West Siders received free finished compost for their gardens, courtesy of the nonprofit organization Big Reuse in collaboration with the DSNY.
The giveaway was at the West 104th Street Community Garden. As members of the garden worked, people from the neighborhood came to pick up the 40-pound bags that they would use to bolster their soil’s health.
The large compost sacks are filled with rich, dark dirt that provides benefits to plants that regular soil does not. “Compost suppresses diseases, provides vital aeration to plant roots, and is a source of minerals and nutrients that are essential to plant growth and health,” according to the NYC Compost Project.
Moira, a neighborhood resident who grows a variety of vegetables, picked up a few bags of compost with a friend to use in their garden. She began planting in the beginning of the pandemic. “I love being able to pick the hot peppers and make Thai curries all the way into the fall,” she said.
Composting also limits waste because it makes a person conscious of how much they throw out, Checkan said. “If someone cooks with celery, they may not think about the fact that they are throwing out the tops. Composting can encourage people to use all parts of their produce, perhaps making a soup broth with celery tops that would have otherwise been thrown out,” she said.
Checkan understands that “composting can be a hassle, especially if it requires a walk to a Greenmarket.” But this inconvenience shouldn’t deter people, she said. “If you really care about the Earth, it’s the responsible thing to do.”