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Composting Has Been Scrapped. These New Yorkers Picked Up the Slack.

In the months since New York City scrapped the bulk of its voluntary composting program, Vivian Lin has reoriented her life.

In May, when budget cuts caused by the coronavirus pandemic led to the suspension of the program, Ms. Lin created a private composting service almost overnight. Her idea was simple: For a small fee, New Yorkers could give her their kitchen scraps and yard waste to recycle. Additionally, for a few extra dollars she would provide them with produce from local farmers.

The first few weeks of the program were hectic, as she filled friends’ cars with pungent buckets of rotting food. Eventually, she swapped the cars for U-Haul vans, but still could barely keep up with demand. Two months in, Ms. Lin, 25, quit her job at an architecture firm to pursue the project, called Groundcycle, full time.

Offering fresh produce is a way to get people interested in recycling organic matter, she said on a recent Sunday, the smell of compost wafting through the vans.

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Credit…Stephanie Keith for The New York Times

New York’s organics collection was once hailed as a triumph in a city looking to declare itself a climate leader. Just days before the coronavirus shuttered the city, the Council speaker, Corey Johnson, had proposed a mandatory expansion of the brown bin program, even as several critics raised concerns about the cost.

But in a post-outbreak effort to shore up the already-wheezing budget, the city’s Department of Sanitation weathered a $106 million cut, $24.5 million of which funded organics recycling. After pressure from climate advocates, officials provided the department with $2.86 million to reinstate some composting services. But residential pickup and collection at GrowNYC farmers markets remain paused until at least next summer.

“It’s purely a budgetary consideration,” said Bridget Anderson, the Sanitation Department’s deputy commissioner for recycling and sustainability. “Sanitation’s budget has been restricted to the core, core services of what we provide.”

A small army of community-based composters have stepped up to fill the void. In Astoria, Queens, and Greenpoint, Brooklyn, for example, residents are volunteering time at homespun drop-off sites.

Credit…Stephanie Keith for The New York Times

Some small-scale collectors, known as “microhaulers,” like Ms. Lin, take compost to Fred Wolf, an educator and ecological designer. Each Sunday, he parks his pickup truck outside of Nature Based, his nursery and design company in Brooklyn’s Gowanus neighborhood. Then on Mondays, he spends the day driving upstate and back, to deliver the compost to McEnroe Organic Farm.

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Mr. Wolf said that while he believed in the importance of his work, he was still not able to cover his travel expenses, much less make a profit.

“This is not what I want to be doing on a Monday,” Mr. Wolf said, standing on top of a mound of compost as Ms. Lin passed buckets up to him at the end of her Sunday route. “I want the city to be doing this.”

Ms. Lin, though, might have hit upon a financially stable solution. She is offering her clients fresh produce from local farms. Compost collection alone is $12 a week. If she is also bringing produce, she charges a $15 fee and the cost of the produce — either $30 for a small selection or $50 for a large amount.

Credit…Stephanie Keith for The New York Times

A native New Yorker accustomed to using public transportation, she does not have a driver’s license and relies on friends to ferry her across Brooklyn. At each address, she weighs buckets of compost with a hand-held luggage scale. Then, she emails her clients information on how many metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions they saved, translating that amount into car miles.

In the United States, food waste generates the same amount of greenhouse gas emissions as 37 million cars, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council. That accounts for both the energy used in agriculture to grow unused food, as well as the methane that is released when the food rots in landfills.

“It’s a more tangible way to fight the climate crisis,” Ms. Lin said about composting.

Still, Groundcycle is not a citywide solution. Composting habits are hard won, and many climate experts worry that a yearlong gap in organics collection could do yearslong damage to the environment.

The recycling program was significantly reduced in 2002, as part of citywide budget cuts following the September 11, 2001 attacks. The program did not fully return until 2004. It took years for participation levels to rebound.

“It’s more than losing momentum,” said Michael B. Gerrard, a law professor and the director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University. “It’s moving backward. It makes it much harder to start the car again.”

In New York City, organic waste accounts for about 34 percent of refuse, and food waste is the largest portion of the municipal waste stream, according to the city’s 2017 Waste Characterization Study.

Credit…Stephanie Keith for The New York Times

Before the pandemic, Kathryn Garcia, the sanitation commissioner, estimated that the city sent up to 4,000 tons a day of organic waste to landfills and other disposal sites — much of which could have been composted. That number is now significantly lower.

“Composting should not be thought of like the after-school clarinet program,” said Eric Goldstein, New York City environment director of the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Composting needs to be seen as an essential sanitation service, just like collecting the rubbish, sweeping the streets or removing the snow.”

But even before the pandemic, the program had stalled, despite Mayor Bill de Blasio’s “Zero Waste” initiative, which aimed for a 90 percent reduction in landfill use by 2030.

Advocates pointed to the program’s limited scope to explain why compost pickup was not considered part of the Sanitation Department’s core services when officials made budget cuts. Before the pandemic, less than half of city residents had the option to request the program’s brown bins. In the neighborhoods where bins were available, just 5 to 30 percent of residents used them.

The program had yet to reach much of South Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx. (Ms. Lin, who lives in Brooklyn’s Midwood neighborhood, has never had the option to request curbside organics pick-up.)

Composting was only offered to certain areas, which “left out a lot of Black and brown communities,” said Ceci Pineda, 30, the executive director of BK ROT, a bike-powered food-waste collection and composting service based in Bushwick, Brooklyn.

Skeptics say that mandatory composting could be prohibitively pricey. A 2016 report by the Citizens Budget Commission, a nonpartisan, nonprofit group, concluded that separate collection of organics would cost New York between $177 million and $251 million annually.

“We may make some revenue off of compost in the future, but there are still costs to collection and processing,” said Ms. Garcia, the sanitation commissioner. “It’s not free. It doesn’t mean it’s not the right thing to do, but it’s not free.”

Before the pandemic, some of the city’s organic waste was processed in community gardens, at a large facility in Staten Island and at a wastewater treatment plant in Brooklyn. But much of it of was driven to facilities in the surrounding region, which might cancel out climate gains.

Enthusiasts say that if the city had mandatory composting, like what exists in Seattle and San Francisco, it would make sense to make composting local, which would save money on transit costs. The compost could be used for school and community gardens, or to fertilize city trees. Ms. Garcia said that before the pandemic upended the city budget, she had expected a similar plan to be phased in.

Ms. Lin, with her fresh produce exchange, said she was just barely breaking even. But Groundcycle now has a compost drop-off site at Brooklyn’s Vinegar Hill Community Garden. (Unlike the door-to-door service, that site, and Mr. Wolf’s, run on a pay-what-you-can model.) She was also planning to enlist someone to run deliveries on days other than Sunday.

“Everyone who eats should and could compost,” she said. “It’s not an exclusive thing, and it shouldn’t be.”