What solution to trash does Brooklyn, Brookhaven and New Haven share? Community composting
Climate advocates are opposed to a proposed trash-to-energy facility in Yaphank on Long Island, which is being considered alongside a draft scoping plan for the New York State Climate Action Council to carry out the state’s ambitious climate laws, the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act.
Instead, advocates point to greener efforts already underway, including composting, to reduce this major trash contributor to climate change.
“We need to meet the goals of CLCPA in the most rapid and equitable way possible for the health and safety of our island,” Ryan Madden, the sustainability organizer at Long Island Progressive Coalition, said earlier this month at a public hearing on the state task force’s draft proposal in Brookhaven.
“We cannot afford to fail. First and foremost, we must rapidly and completely move away from burning fuel to creating energy,” he said in support of clean energy infrastructure in new buildings in the state.
Advocates criticize the draft for a waste management plan that they say is inequitable in mitigating climate change. They said the proposed trash-to-energy facility -- which would burn organic waste to make energy -- emits dangerous greenhouse gasses too close to low-income and communities of color.
“These aren’t just statistics. These are people,” said Laura McKellar, a nurse and coalition member.
“Take any so-called solutions that burn fuel to make energy off the table.”
At the neighborhood level in Brooklyn and Brookhaven, New York, and New Haven, Connecticut, organizations are tossing emissions-intensive trash management plans for composting in an effort to take a community-sized bite out of this major contribution to climate change.
Climate change already impacts communities in New York City and its suburbs. Earlier this month, the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change called on corporations and governments to prioritize the elimination of global greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 — or face irreparable harm from extreme weather and sea level rise over the next few decades.
Additional studies show the Northeast is heating faster than most regions of North America. The U.S. government has found waste management systems, like landfills and incinerators, are especially vulnerable to sea level rise and coastal flooding.
Local community groups have called for policy changes that reduce the amount of organic waste that ends up in landfills or incinerators, resulting in harmful greenhouse gas emissions. When they have found government action to be slow or unresponsive, several neighborhoods have come together to find grassroots solutions to increase employment and fight for environmental justice.
“People have power when they choose to work together,” said Nora Tjossem, co-director of BK ROT, New York City’s first fossil fuel-free composting service in Brooklyn.
These organizations rely on teamwork with their neighbors -- and other groups that have already started to rethink their communities. In a collaborative effort, the Brookhaven Landfill Action and Remediation Group (BLARG) visited BK ROT, whose members haul away food waste on bikes to community composting facilities, in summer 2021 to apply compost education takeaways to its own community on Long Island.
What they learned was that composting can create at least twice as many jobs as landfills, and the zero-waste effort creates 10 times more jobs than trash collections. According to BK ROT, the Brooklyn composting effort has generated $210,000 in income for its local young adult staff. Employment opportunities were needed among the younger population in Bushwick, Tjossem said.
Waste inequity and NIMBYism, or “not in my backyard,” campaigns by wealthy communities and corporations are just two of the many environmental injustices, Tjossem said. For communities of color, undocumented people and low-income residents, there is a disparity of access to elected officials and policymakers to promote change. She also said gentrification has slowed progress that communities make because of new neighbors who have more resources and privileges.
To Tjossem, it is an attitude of: “Sure, we’ll throw out our garbage, but it can’t be on our street. We have to take it somewhere, get it out of the way.”
On Long Island, “out of the way” is North Bellport, a predominantly Black and Latino hamlet that has the lowest regional life expectancy, according to a 2020 analysis by the U.S. Centers of Disease Control and Prevention. BLARG argues that the lives of its 12,000 residents are being cut short — about 20 years less than the longest lived communities in the predominantly white Long Island — because of its proximity to the Brookhaven Landfill.
Abena Asare, a Brookhaven resident and associate professor of modern African affairs and history at Stony Brook University, said her community of color bears the brunt of the landfill’s acrid smell and potentially toxic fumes.
“Everybody should be asking themselves the question: Why was the landfill placed here and not there? Why are burn sites placed in one community and not another?” Asare said. The discrimination present in waste management is costing people their lives, health and education, Asare said.
Nearly 80% U.S. landfills and incinerators are located in low-income and communities of color, including several in the New York City metro area.
About 35% of New York households live in environmentally “disadvantaged communities,” according to the state’s Climate Action Council. These include neighborhoods with a history of being affected by pollution and natural disasters in addition to communities with high poverty rates, residents of color or people with underlying health issues.
The state task force is weighing how methods of shifting to green energy should be distributed, including reducing the burning of trash for power. The state’s climate action plan is due by the end of the year.
In Connecticut, one of four waste-to-energy incinerators in the state is going offline by the end of 2022 — nearly 50 local governments need to figure out what to do with its trash.
A solution may involve “communalism [which is] kind of a dirty word in the U.S.,” said Donovan Finn, assistant professor of environmental design, policy and planning in the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences at Stony Brook University. “I think maybe social engineering shouldn’t be thought of as such a bad thing. Social engineering means we’re trying to protect everyone.”
It is a way to focus attention on high-quality schools, storm protection and prioritize protecting those with the least ability to protect themselves, he said.
Finn frames a fictitious example with a plumber and a Wall Street banker. The banker owns a secondary residence. Though they both are at risk from a given amount of sea level rise, the banker most likely has the means to pay for a seawall, elevate their home or purchase a new home. The less money a person makes, Finn said, the harder it is to bounce back from a disaster.
“The challenge,” Finn told WSHU’s podcast Higher Ground, is “finding a way to maintain people’s individual quality of life, but raising our collective quality of life.”
By working together as a community, grassroots groups see composting as a way to tackle climate change, the economy and environmental justice. But they also want the government to help, and even take the lead. Domingo Medina, owner and director of operations at Peels & Wheels Composting, in New Haven, Connecticut, said composting should be municipalized.
“The same as we pay for telephone, gas, electricity — we should pay for composting,” Medina said. That’s a part of being responsible for the waste we generate.”
The New Haven composters are a fee-based operation that runs on bikes, bins and trailers to collect food waste from residents, schools and small businesses. Once the compost is processed, it goes to New Haven Farm sites for their soil enrichment or back to participating households. Peels & Wheels Composting also creates local, green jobs in New Haven, Medina said.
Some sort of shift in perspective of waste management is necessary for the future of the planet, Tjossem said.
She points to Queen Cleopatra in ancient Egypt who deemed worms sacred for their role in vermicomposting, using earthworms to digest organic waste. Tjossem said the history of composting needs to be a part of the education of young people, which will work to clean up the perception that composting is “silly or optional.”
“The idea of waste is a construct,” she said.
Composting has not yet been normalized — and this may stem from a lack of composting policies enforced by the government. In February, New York City Mayor Eric Adams halted a planned expansion of the city’s curbside recycling program. By suspending the “symbolic program,” Adams said the city would save approximately $27.5 million.
The City Council opposed these cuts by calling on his administration to restore funding, and include an allocation of $18.2 million to invest in the composting pilot. Nearly one third of the waste New Yorkers produce is organic material, according to New York League of Conservation Voters.
New York City was committed to cutting waste by 90% by 2030 — but at only eight years from the deadline, the city diverts less than 20% of its residential waste from landfills.
Tjossem said the problem they are confronted with by policymakers is the perception that composting lacks “tangible effects.”
On Long Island, much of central Suffolk County's waste — produced by over 1 million people — goes to the Brookhaven Landfill, which is scheduled to close in 2024. Proposals to haul hundreds of thousands of tons of garbage off Long Island and burn organic waste at a new facility in Yaphank — just down the road from North Bellport — are being considered as possible solutions.
Adrienne Esposito, executive director of Citizens Campaign for the Environment, said the Yaphank facility is cause for celebration with Long Island poised to be home to the largest anaerobic digester on the East Coast. American Organic Energy, the company in charge of the project, will break ground for Earth Week.
When construction is complete, she said the facility is a solution that will prevent 180,000 tons of food waste as well as 30,000 tons of fats, oils, and grease and 10,000 tons of grass clippings from going to landfills. Instead, the organic material will be burned and prodce 6-megawatts of renewable energy.
"Food that is currently going to landfills and pollutes communities will now be aiding Long Island’s transition to clean energy," Esposito said.
Community groups, like BLARG, say composting organic waste can reduce more than 50% of carbon emissions, as opposed to landfilling. In Connecticut, all trash is incinerated, which produces more pollution than landfilling.
For every 100 tons of trash burned, 30 tons become toxic ash that is landfilled and 70 tons result in air pollution. According to the state Department of Environmental Conservation, eliminating food waste across the state would remove 120,000 tons of carbon emissions from the atmosphere per year. That’s the equivalent of taking over 25,000 cars off the road.
When used properly, compost can improve air and soil quality for community gardens and agriculture. Yet waste management revolves around figuring out how to deal with waste, as opposed to how organic waste can be used as a resource, Medina said.
Americans produce 292.4 million tons of municipal solid waste in 2020, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. That translates to 4.9 pounds of waste per person. Landfills are the third-largest source of methane emissions in the U.S.
As states weigh trash-to-energy facilities, neighborhoods in Long Island and Brooklyn, New York, have learned from each other to fight for environmental justice with solutions to a growing organic waste management problem. The strategy in New Haven, Connecticut, is reducing trash that already ends up in landfills and incinerators.
The option of dropping off organic waste at a food scrap drop off, or finding an organization that hauls the waste with zero or low emissions has activated communities of color to build a more equitable, environmentally conscious neighborhood, Tjossem said.
“It’s not just white people at the farmer’s market. It really isn’t. And you don’t need a backyard to do it,” she said.