Being a progressive city that has already felt the wrath of global climate change, it’s still surprisingly easy for New York to ignore the recent definitive warning bells that sea levels will rise 3 to 9 feet and Earth will warm 6 to 8 degrees Fahrenheit within the century. Cities are the source of 70 percent of greenhouse gas emissions and also most vulnerable to their effects. But the overwhelming numbers leave us wondering- what is next for us in New York City?
The challenges of climate change need to be taken in a multifaceted approach, with local and national policy changes and community engagement inspiring personal behavioral changes. We cannot tolerate a state of paralysis and inaction waiting for the UN (despite our former mayor’s leadership in the UN Sustainable Cities initiative), our dysfunctional Congress or a gridlocked state government to tell us how to solve our woes. The problems are just too big, entrenched and complex to defer.
An immediate next step for us to mitigate our emissions lies within revisiting our current solution to a 400-year-old struggle with trash. Our current landfill strategy causes both air and water pollution, and the 40 million miles driven in transport produce more tailpipe emissions. The city spent $320 million in 2011 on disposal fees alone, and we only managed to recycle about 15 percent of our waste, with negligible composting. Our waste system provides low-hanging (albeit rotting) fruit that can be fixed with existing infrastructure. The same cannot be said for many of the city’s other emitting factors such as buildings’ energy consumption, vehicular fuel sources, generation sources, etc.
Comparatively, about 80 percent of San Francisco’s waste is recycled or composted with Seattle and Oakland striving for similar targets. If we ever hope to eliminate the New York City waste stream we need to implement a robust, mandatory, citywide composting program. In doing so we would shift 30 to 50 percent of our garbage to organic composting facilities that truly upcycle our scraps. Such a program can save the city some big money, become a potential cash-positive operation and contribute to a worldwide platform for the transfer of urban best practices.
Community engagement will help inspire this New York City garbage revolution. This is where Queens can shine, since we are home to the world’s most diverse and can-do residents! The borough has a notable history of taking the lead in program initiatives that demonstrate the ease of composting, debunk concerns and spread practical tips — often spearheaded by entities such as the Queens Botanical Garden or Build it Green!Compost. Let’s keep playing to our strengths on the community frontier.
Besides our city’s residents, what existing infrastructure does New York have that can help get us to become a zero-waste city? It may seem almost too obvious but Sanitation workers are the real unsung heroes and heroines who deserve our highest levels of recognition, respect, cooperation and consideration in achieving a zero-waste dream.
Per City Council law, the Department of Sanitation tested a collection system of organic waste for composting under the NYC Organics Collection program that is proving to be quite successful. Some challenges may lie ahead in scaling up the program, from logistics to investments in compost sites, but the DSNY is up to many of these challenges, and an expanded city law would surely inspire enterprising, private tri-state businesses to codevelop efficient systems. The science, methods and speed behind composting are tried and true — though the same cannot be said for our political willpower.
Let’s work together as New Yorkers and constructively support DSNY and its new commissioner, Kathryn Garcia, to finish the job and institutionalize a citywide mandatory composting initiative. You can start participating now by learning more about composting via BIG!Compost, saving food scraps for a dropoff, volunteering on compost work days or even training to be a master composter. Better yet, verbalize your willingness to our mayor, your City Council member and your neighbor.
Let’s show the world how to really manage Gotham’s garbage and take the first step to becoming a zero-waste city and eventually a zero-emission city.
Matthew McEnerney and Jonathan Carbajal are graduate students in sustainability management at Columbia University’s Earth Institute and residents of Astoria.