NYC Parks Department Still Doesn’t Get It on Composting

The New York City Department of Parks and Recreation continues to bungle what should be an easy assignment for the storied 87 year-old agency—understanding the urgency of the climate crisis and embracing composting as a strategy that can help curb emissions and assist the Department in fulfilling its sustainability mission in service to New Yorkers.

As we noted here recently, the Parks Department has inexplicably decided to evict two beloved neighborhood-based non-profit groups that have been operating successful community composting operations on city Parks properties for years.

The Lower East Side Ecology Center has been running a model composting site in East River Park for two decades. Among many benefits, it has attracted nearby residents into the park, offered free public educational programming, introduced young people to nature and processed tons of food scraps, leaves and wood chips into finished compost.

A second non-profit, Big Reuse, has also performed park-consistent public services at its neighborhood composting site under the Queensboro Bridge in Long Island City.  It has composted leaves and woodchips from local parks, as well as residential food scraps collected at community gardens and farmers’ markets, brought in almost 1,000 volunteers to beautify its half-acre site and learn about composting, and distributed finished compost to Queens parks, community gardens and neighborhood street-tree caregivers.

Significantly, such composting operations keep food waste out of landfills and incinerators—thereby cutting climate-altering methane emissions, among other beneficial impacts.

For all these reasons, expanding composting citywide has been an often-stated environmental priority for Mayor Bill De Blasio, highlighted in every one of his Council-mandated sustainability plans.

But all this has hardly seemed to register with the current Parks Department leadership.

At a recent City Council hearing, chaired jointly by Sanitation Committee Chair Antonio Reynoso and Parks Committee Chair Peter Koo, the Parks Department representative, Sam Biederman, did not offer a compelling justification for the Department’s decision to terminate the licenses for these two community composters.

His testimony was the subject of some tough questioning by Councilmember Reynoso, as well as Councilmember Carlina Rivera (whose district includes the Lower East Side) and Councilmember Jimmy Van Bramer (whose district includes Long Island City).

Standing up for their Constituents, Community Composting, and our Environment: Councilmembers Antonio Reynoso, Carlina Rivera, and Jimmy Van Bramer

Concerning the Big Reuse composting site, Mr. Biederman continued to insist that the ½ acre lot was needed for Parks Department parking and storage. The Department agreed only to extend the group's stay until June 2021.

As for the Lower East Side Ecology Center, everyone agrees that the group’s composting operation must temporarily relocate while resiliency-related reconstruction takes place at East River Park.

But Mr. Biederman did not provide assurances that the Department would find a temporary location in Lower Manhattan for the organization’s composting, or that the group would be allowed to return to East River Park when the resiliency project is completed. 

And the Department’s run-away from community composting goes beyond its planned ousting of the LES Ecology Center and Big Reuse.  

Over in Brooklyn, it has signaled to Red Hook Farms that their composting activity must be limited to Parks Department leaves and that the non-profit could no longer accept food scraps from neighborhood residents.

NYC Parks Department says community composting of food scraps here at Red Hook Farms must end—in contravention of DeBlasio Administration’s sustainability plans and common sense.

In sticking with his decision to boot the Lower East Side Ecology Center and Big Reuse from their sites (and end food scrap composting at Red Hook Farms), Parks Commissioner Mitchell Silver is ignoring the Parks Department’s own sustainability plan.

That plan proclaims that it is “essential that we consider the environmental impact of all of our agencies actions and policies.”  “We must,” the plan continues, “operate in a sustainable manner.”

And the Parks Department plan commits the Department to “increase the efficiency of its leaf composting program” and “[i]ncrease capacity for small-scale composting.” (A Plan for Sustainable Practices Within New York City Parks (2011) at 1, 22, 24.)

But the Parks Departments actions are moving in exactly the opposite direction.

What’s the point of having all of these sustainability plans if City Hall officials can simply choose to ignore them at their will?

Mayor DeBlasio has set admirable sustainability goals for his administration to achieve.  And he’s obviously has lots to do as the COVID pandemic continues to occupy center stage.

Still, why can’t the Mayor find a moment to direct his Parks Commissioner to fulfill the Administration’s and the Department’s long-standing commitments to community composting—to the benefit of these unheralded non-profit groups, the neighborhood residents they serve and the city’s parks?

About the Authors

Eric A. Goldstein

Senior Attorney and New York City Environment Director

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