Eric Adams debuts his first curbside composting initiative

The Queens-based initiative comes after years of fits and starts with other composting pilot programs.

Mayor Eric Adams, at the podium, and Sanitation Commissioner Jessica Tisch unveiled a new Queens composting program.

Mayor Eric Adams, at the podium, and Sanitation Commissioner Jessica Tisch unveiled a new Queens composting program. Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office

New York City will begin its first borough-wide curbside composting program in Queens starting in October, officials said Monday, marking the Adams administration’s first attempt at a program other mayors have struggled for nearly a decade to successfully implement.

The Department of Sanitation for years has tried and reversed course on a number of composting programs, starting in the 90s, when the city started a seasonal yard waste collection program, and later opened a series of food scrap dropoff sites. There are currently hundreds located throughout the city. In 2013, it debuted its first curbside composting collection program in seven of 59 community districts across the city, but the program was suspended for a year starting in 2020 due to pandemic budget cuts, despite campaign promises from former Mayor Bill de Blasio to send zero waste to landfills by 2030. Adams also made universal composting a key component of his environmental action plan on the campaign trail in 2021.

“We designed this program to be the last composting program we roll out in New York City. This is by far the cheapest, the most efficient, the easiest for New Yorkers to use, and this program takes all of the learnings from the previous decade of programs and addresses any and every issue we saw,” Department of Sanitation Commissioner Jessica Tisch said Monday while announcing the program alongside Adams in Queens, adding that the current voluntary composting initiative has a participation rate of less than 10% of all residential buildings in the communities where it is available. According to the Independent Budget Office, around 46% of what goes into the city’s refuse stream is compostable, and the city has managed to divert just 1.4% of waste from landfills to organics collection.

The Queens program is expected to cost about $2 million from the city’s $32 million organics collection budget. Over the coming months, the city will deliver designated composting bins to all residential buildings in Queens with 10 or more units and conduct weekly pickups. The borough was chosen, in part, because it is home to 41% of the city’s street trees and produces a significant amount of yard waste, which can also be composted, along with food scraps and used paper products. Unlike with previous composting programs, sign-ups are not required and pick-ups will happen automatically on specific days to be announced by the Department of Sanitation. Landlords are not required to set out the bins, because “it would be an undue burden on building managers in Queens,” Tisch said. Residents who live in buildings with less than 10 households can order bins via a city portal up until Oct. 1 or order a decal to place on their own bin.

The program, which will run through December and restart in March, is aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions, along with the amount of organic waste pile-up on sidewalks that often attracts rats and oozes garbage liquid onto streets, Tisch said.

“The program is designed to take the organic material out of the black bags and instead set it out in rat-proof bins. Gone will be the nightly rat feast,” Tisch said. “But there's more. Instead of decomposing in a landfill and creating toxic greenhouse gasses, the material will be composted and turned into soil or processed or through an anaerobic digester and turned into renewable energy.”

In addition, the Department of Sanitation said a total of 275 composting bins will be placed on city sidewalks by the end of the year. The “Smart Compost” bins, which were first installed in Astoria and Lower Manhattan in 2021, are available 24/7 and accessible via keycards that can be ordered online. New bins will be installed in northern Manhattan, the South Bronx, central Brooklyn and Staten Island in the coming months, Tisch said.

Separately, a bill that currently has veto-proof support from the City Council with 41 of 51 members as backers would mandate a citywide curbside composting program by next year, though it has not officially been voted on. Council Member and Sanitation Committee Chair Sandy Nurse, the co-sponsor of the bill along with Council Member Shahana Hanif, did not attend the press conference. She told City & State she was on vacation. Nurse has advocated for a legislative route to require composting, as opposed to an opt-in program. Tisch, meanwhile, has said she believes composting should be voluntary “before we contemplate mandatory programs,” she said at a council hearing in June, according to the Gotham Gazette.

Eric Goldstein, a senior attorney and the New York City Environment Director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the Queens program was a step in the right direction, but would not be effective without consistency and citywide implementation. The winter hiatus could create confusion and decrease participation, he said. 

“It’s great to see the Adams administration taking this step, but it’s no substitute for a permanent, citywide curbside collection program,” Goldstein said. “The stops and the starts discourage participation and send a confusing message to the public. If you’ve got a really important program, you want to keep it going with consistency.”