Many of the small composters that had stepped in to provide New Yorkers options during the pandemic are pivoting to collecting commercial organic waste.
Asar John and Samantha Maldonado, The City
The city’s pause in collecting food scraps at the onset of the pandemic meant New Yorkers who wanted to compost had to find alternatives. Neighborhood-level services filled the gap and residents flocked to them.
But over three years later, the composting landscape is different than it was at the onset of the pandemic, with more options available for food waste recycling thanks to a network of “Smart Bins” and a citywide expansion of curbside pick-up on the horizon.
Now, the local businesses are pivoting to make up for the loss of residential customers who are composting for free using city services.
In north and central Brooklyn, the nonprofit waste-hauling and composting service BK ROT grew its base of paying residential customers from 75 pre-pandemic to 350 last spring. But now BK ROT is down to about 200 residential customers.
“With the Smart Bin rollout, we immediately began seeing a noteworthy exodus of people saying, ‘Thanks so much, we loved this service but a bin popped up on my corner so I’m gonna use that,’” said Nora Tjossen, co-director of BK ROT. “We haven’t even fully seen the impact of curbside yet.”
The bicycle-powered service joins others that are trying to switch gears, with a focus on drumming up business from commercial customers, such as offices and cafes.
“This is our greatest hope: that we can onboard enough commercial customers to offset the loss of residential customers,” Tjossen said.
Small Compost Businesses
The Department of Sanitation (DSNY), which last year began offering residential organics pickup throughout Queens, introduced smart bins throughout the boroughs at the start of this year for residents to drop off food scraps.
DSNY is already distributing brown bins in Brooklyn to prepare for the beginning of residential organics pickup in October. The service will expand to The Bronx and Staten Island by March 2024, with Manhattan slated for October 2024.
“We’re really focused on delivering a universal service that all New Yorkers can use easily. Previous programs were geared towards true believers, but this program is intended to be mass market,” said DSNY spokesperson Joshua Goodman. “Of course there’s always a role for community composters.”
These services are the kind that were lacking in early 2020 when Vivian Lin founded her business, Groundcycle, to keep food waste out of landfills. Lin offered city residents a service to have their organics picked up and composted. For an additional fee, customers would get local produce, too. Lin eventually left her architecture job to focus on running the business.
Lin reported a decline in the number of residential customers since DSNY began scaling up its offerings. Like BK ROT, Lin started making more serious efforts to work with other producers of organic waste: floral studios, small restaurants, catered events like book launches, and street fairs and offices.
“The offices program started with some of our members who were returning back into the workplace, so they proposed it to their office,” Lin said. “So we started a compost program there to divert any scraps that people were eating from lunches.”
Reasons to Stay
The small composters all said they were happy about the city’s steps to make it easier for New Yorkers to do something other than toss their food waste into the garbage, but maintained they still had an important role to play locally.
“Organizations like ours really connect people to the process,” said Dior St. Hillaire, co-director of BK ROT.
A Brooklyn resident who declined to be named quit paying for BK ROT’s service because he said it no longer made sense for him financially, with the ease of Smart Bins. But he said he often finds the bins are full and will not open to accept his food scraps, so “I wind up throwing them in the trash bin next to the compost bin.”
He said he only recently learned that the food scraps in the Smart Bins (and what’s picked up curbside by DSNY) get anaerobically digested and turned into biogas, which is used for energy. Only on Staten Island does food waste get composted, a process that transforms the scraps into nutrient-rich soil.
That’s one of the main reasons why Brooklynite Clarissa Libertelli said she plans to continue paying for BK ROT to pick up her food waste. The service costs from $17.50 to $45 monthly for weekly collection, or between $10 to $22.50 a month for biweekly collection.
“Right now that’s the only way I can be one hundred percent sure that they’ll actually be composted,” Libertelli wrote in an email. “I also know that with BK ROT my food scraps will be improving local soils, spreading environmental awareness and creating jobs.”
DSNY has indicated that as it increases organics collection, how the food scraps are processed will change.
Allison Chen, a Groundcycle customer, has held onto her membership despite the city’s free options. The service costs between $12 and $21 per week depending on frequency of pickup. Chen said she appreciates getting produce delivered as part of the service and finds the service convenient.
“I think the community aspect of it is really special and a big part of why I’m staying,” she said.
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