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TESTIMONY OF THE QUEENS SOLID WASTE ADVISORY BOARD ORGANIZING COMMITTEE
Hearing on Intros. 1942 and 1943, the CORE Act, to be held on June 15, 2020, 1 p.m.
Good afternoon Chairman Reynoso and members of the Sanitation and Solid Waste Management Committee. My name is Wylie Goodman and I am the Chair of the Queens Solid Waste Advisory Board Organizing Committee (QSWAB). I am here today to testify on behalf of our organization regarding the #SaveOurCompost campaign and Intros. 1942-2020 and 1943-2020 proposed, respectively, by CM Powers and CM Reynoso.
It is in this spirit that we advocate for the immediate restoration of FY21 funding for the New York City Compost Project (which impacts Queens Botanical Garden and Big ReUse), GrowNYC’s organics and textile drop-offs (impacting four farmers’ markets, eight commuter drop-offs, and one NYCHA drop-off site in Queens), and DSNY-led e-waste collection events as well as passage of the CORE Act to guarantee every Queens community district has equal opportunity to put residential organic material (food scraps, yard waste, and food-soiled paper) to productive use to benefit their green spaces and safely recover textiles, which represent 6% of New York City’s waste stream, rather than sending both to landfill (62%) or incineration (21%), where they harm our environment by increasing greenhouse gas emissions.
We understand that the proposed cuts were made as a result of the nearly $9 billion budget gap predicated by COVID-19. While we recognize the enormity of the pandemic on the City’s economy, we feel strongly that austerity measures that suspend the community composting subsidy and reduce funding for recycling outreach; eliminate entirely funding for GrowNYC’s Zero Waste Programs and the NYC Compost Project — which affects eight nonprofits that provide public composting and recycling services and education to New Yorkers citywide, 170 Food Scrap drop-off sites across five boroughs, six community composting facilities, compost distribution for urban agriculture and stewardship, and Zero Waste education and outreach — will only further exacerbate health and quality of life disparities linked to race and income and is thus the wrong response to this crisis.
However, to take the argument at its face, we will use our time to challenge the fiscal rationale for these cuts by showing that purported savings will be offset or outweighed by negative economic and environmental costs in parallel. We will conclude our time by contending that, even if the current programs are spared, funding a robust and clearly articulated CORE Act is still necessary to expand recycling benefits equitably across the city.
The programs now at risk cost New York City approximately $7 million per year. This represents one half of one percent of the NYC Department of Sanitation’s entire $1.75 billion budget and one tenth of one percent of the City’s budget. Once cut, however, this money will not simply be recouped. That is because nearly 100 New Yorkers employed by these programs will lose their jobs. New York City recently applied for a $4 billion federal loan to cover the ballooning cost of unemployment benefits. In other words, expenses to support furloughed workers, along with lost tax revenue, and dampened economic multiplier effects across businesses these organizations and workers purchase from must also be included in the City’s cost-benefit analyses to justify these program suspensions. There will also be additional costs around waste export. In 2019, the City spent $411 million disposing of nearly 2.5 million tons of residential, school, and governmental trash to landfills — just over $164 per ton. That same year, the programs collected nearly 16,680 tons of textiles at drop-offs; diverted 2,300 tons of organics from landfills; and gathered 1,056 tons of material at e-waste events. Transporting these materials to landfills in the new scenario will cost approximately $3.34 million, thus reducing the $7 million savings by nearly half. It should also be noted that export costs are projected to increase to $421 million by 2021.
We also need to look at sunk capital and related costs highlighted in DSNY’s 2019 Strategic Plan. These include construction at the Staten Island Compost Facility to increase local and regional processing of food and yard waste and contract procurement to install an aerated static pile compost system; a three-year study examining energy production from food waste by the Department of Environmental Protection, Waste Management, and National Grid that, if implemented, would support up to 250 tons per day of food waste co-digestion at the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant; and a community composting facility in Gowanus ready to accept three tons of material per week and serve as a community education and engagement center. This costly infrastructure and costs to bring it online, left dormant for a year, will require that much more personnel and other-than-personnel expenditures to be reactivated after a long delay.
There are also soft costs (marketing, supplies, personnel) that were expended on DSNY’s Make Compost, Not Trash campaign, which last year reached communities such as Queens Districts 5 and 13. These programs aimed to increase participation in the curbside organic brown bin program — another program lost, although not the focus of this testimony. Among the successes of that initiative: in two months the program recruited 50 volunteers to canvas more than 1,200 households; hosted six community meetings and five special events; enrolled 38 buildings for organics service; and engaged thousands of residents. Last year, DSNY also held 532 Zero Waste education events, distributed 2,000 tons of compost, and enrolled 3,012 buildings in organics collection participation, and expanded the food scrap drop-off program to 165 sites, up from 113 the year before. Those successes? They will be lost to the trash heap of history if a year passes without community engagement which will lead, again, to more money needing to be spent on renewed education when programs come online in FY 2022.
Finally, tangible and measurable social and environmental benefits will fall to the wayside with these programmatic cuts. Among them no composting of 2,650 tons of food scraps and garden waste each year; nor distribution of 500 tons of finished compost to 12,000 residents; nor care of 500 street trees with finished compost; nor engagement of 7,200 volunteers providing over 30,000 hours of volunteer community service. Again, costs that have not fully been considered in the City’s simple number-crunching calculations.
Harder to measure, but even more important, is the cost of organic and inorganic material re-entering our waste stream on that most critical of indicators: climate change. Once sent to landfills or incinerated, the methane gas released by this material is 28 times more powerful than carbon dioxide. The environmental and economic cost to our City for years to come will be astronomical.
There is another option. Rather than resort to short-term panic selling of community composting, textile collections, and e-waste diversion in light of CVID-19, we need to reinvest in the Mayor’s 2015 OneNYC goal to “become the most resilient, equitable, and sustainable city in the world and send at least 90 percent less waste to landfills by the year 2030.”
That means making organics collection mandatory, as Council Speaker Johnson recommended before the pandemic, which would not only save money long-term, as it already does in Seoul, South Korea, a city of 10 million, but make New York an environmental leader rather than laggard.
The majority of NYC’s private waste transfer stations are concentrated in three New York City neighborhoods, including one in Queens: Jamaica. Two zip codes in Jamaica rank 10th and 11th, respectively, in terms of Citywide positive COVID19 test rates at 66.7% each. These predominantly low-income communities of color are already overburdened by trucks collecting and driving garbage, resulting in odor, leachate, and particulate matter with compromised air and health in parallel. If wealthier communities start to pay to have their organics taken away by these private carters with the goal of their material being virtuously composted, it is neighborhoods like Jamaica that will be hurt. Although not all health disparities co-occurring with waste inequity will be eliminated by #SavingOurCompost, Intros. 1942 and 1943 will help ensure more expansive and equal opportunities for every community district to understand and participate in meaningful waste recovery to their own benefit so long as finished materials are used to benefit neighborhood green spaces. This will significantly improve on the current system which, even when active, left huge swaths of our borough unserved.
In truth, we will soon have no choice but to adopt innovative strategies around waste generation and disposal. China no longer wants our recyclables and U.S. cities no longer want our putrescibles. If we do not solve reduce, reuse, and recycle soon, we are looking at far higher costs down the road, which the City has said it can ill afford.
In closing, cutting GrowNYC food scrap drop-offs, Compost Learning Centers, and e-waste events saves little of consequence in terms of the City’s budget. In contrast, restoring funding brings a host of social, environmental, and economic benefits that have been minimized in a rush to appear fiscally stringent. Likewise, waiting a year to restart a complex operational and logistical recycling infrastructure doesn’t flatten rising costs, it only makes them more expensive when the calendar moves another year closer to 2030 and even farther from our zero-waste goal. Pausing environmental progress and exacerbating waste inequity cannot be how we respond to this pandemic. We must do better.
Thank you Chairperson Reynoso and members of this Committee for your consideration of our testimony and thank you to the Queens Council Members who have thus farsigned onto the CORE Act — Constantinides, Grodenchik, Vallone, Van Bramer, and, as we learned before this hearing, Richards.
The Queens Solid Waste Advisory Board Organizing Committee:
Wylie Goodman, Chair
Amy Marpman, Vice-Chair
Active Members: Mary Arnold, Rachel Boeglin, Janet Kalish, Jon Klar, Susan Latham, Robert Lee, Mortimer Lawrence, Perry Leung, Gil Lopez, Jennifer McDonnell, Adam Mitchell, Kara Napolitano, Mary Parisien, Andrea Scarborough