On a Saturdays, John Desmond (27), a Bushwick resident, heads to the nearest community garden to drop off the organic waste that he has accumulated during the past week. “Part of the reason why I set this up is because I’m lazy,” he said, referring to Bushwick Eco Initiatives, the project he founded in August this year to try to bring curbside composting to Bushwick for the first time. “I just know that a lot of people are like me. If I just had a trash bin outside of [my house] where I could put it, then I would totally do it like no problem.”
Curbside composting is a free service provided by the NYC Department of Sanitation. The DSNY distributes brown plastic containers, which residents can place in front of their houses or buildings. Residents can use the bins to dispose of their food scraps and yard waste, and a truck picks it up weekly. The service started in 2015, but due to budget cuts during the COVID-19 pandemic in May 2020, it was suspended citywide.
Composting service resumed in October this year but only in some eligible neighborhoods.
“All neighborhoods that had previously received curbside composting service are eligible to sign up and be considered for service, but not all of these neighborhoods will necessarily receive it immediately,” said Vincent Gragnani, DSNY press secretary.
Neighborhoods like Bushwick, which didn’t have the service before the pandemic, won’t be considered at this initial stage, Gragnani explained. “We still encourage residents to express their interest online for future consideration.”
Desmond is determined to help his neighborhood show that interest. “What they’re telling us to do is to sign up using the online form – which is the same form that, if you live in an area that already has access, you’d be using – but we’re just doing it here to show that we want the service,” he said.
His goal is that in the next fiscal year, when there has to be a decision whether or not to extend the program to Bushwick, enough neighbors will have filled out the interest form.
According to Gragnani, the DSNY doesn’t have an exact number of Bushwick residents who need to fill out the form to get access to curbside composting. Meanwhile, Desmond keeps knocking on doors, setting up tables at parks and attending community events to talk to his neighbors about composting and convince them to fill out the form. So far, he has managed to get about 200 neighbors to do so.
Living in Peru for a year and speaking fluent Spanish has been very important to Desmond’s goal of bringing the composting service to Bushwick, a largely Hispanic neighborhood. Buenas, ¿qué tal? ¿Usted sabe qué es el compostaje? is the first thing he asks his neighbors. He estimates that half of the people he has spoken to are Spanish speakers.
In Brooklyn, almost all community districts that don’t have access to curbside composting are primarily Black or Hispanic. Among them is Community District 4, which includes Bushwick. The first and only Brooklyn community district in which service has been restored so far, in early October, is District 6, which comprises the Red Hook, Carroll Gardens, Park Slope, Gowanus and Cobble Hill. District 6 is one of the whitest districts in the borough.
As we reported in July, when the service had yet to return anywhere, Antonio Reynoso, the incoming Brooklyn borough president and outgoing City Council representative for District 34, said that the program was “the very opposite of environmental justice,” since it unfairly “diverts millions of dollars to the wealthiest communities and reinforces the already existing environmental racism in Black, brown and low-income communities.”
Another criticism of the program is about the new sign-up system. Before the pandemic, neighborhoods didn’t have to use a form to sign up for the service or to show interest. The city automatically enrolled them and provided them with the brown bins. Regarding this change, Gragnani said that “due to budget constraints” the service is being resumed on a rolling basis, “designing smart routes in areas where signups are most concentrated to minimize greenhouse gas emissions.”
A study published last month by the NYC Independent Budget Office showed that collecting and processing organic waste is more than three times as expensive as collecting and processing refuse or recycling. However, the same study specified that the fastest route to improve the viability of the program is to increase the number of residents who use it. This would reduce the cost of the service per ton.
“The reason why curbside composting or composting is important is because you can actually reduce the amount of methane that’s going into the atmosphere,” Desmond said on Saturday when he dropped off his food scraps at the Moffat Street Community Garden. Methane is a greenhouse gas 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the atmosphere, according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency.
Although the service isn’t available yet, Bushwick residents can go to any of the 7 drop-off sites in the neighborhood that receive food scraps and yard waste. Their hours are listed on the DSNY website. But some, like the new one on Moffat Street, may make exceptions for their neighbors.
“If someone’s like ‘Hey, you know, Saturdays, I can’t. Can someone meet me on Sunday?’ Absolutely. That’s the beauty of being that micro-local,” said Cliff Shapiro, one of the garden managers.
Images provided by Natalia Sánchez Loayza
For more news, sign up for Bushwick Daily’s newsletter.
Join the fight to save local journalism by becoming a paid subscriber.