Justin Wood, director of organizing and strategic research at New York Lawyers for the Public Interest spent his November battling the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation. It’s all an effort to save two drop-off composting sites
in the city: One on Long Island City and one in the Lower East Side, both of which he says the department is planning to pull permits on.
It’s Wood’s way of salvaging what little is left of a once robust municipal composting program in the city that included both drop-off sites and curbside pickup in brown bins. The budget for composting – which kicked off as a pilot program in 2013 – was $24.5-million before March, 2020, but was quickly stripped at the start of COVID-19 as a cost-saving measure. Though a small portion of it was resurrected in July, the program’s budget is now a mere $2.8-million, and includes just a handful of drop-off locations, including the two Wood is working to save. Curbside and farmer’s market pickup aren’t expected to return until next summer, at the earliest.
Wood, like many environmental advocates in the city, says composting is an essential part of green urban planning, and a willingness to gut it from high-up is a sign of political failure to recognize the threat of climate change. “It's just very frustrating that there's such a lack of coordination and common commitment to climate change and climate justice from [the city],” Wood says.
Among other environmental benefits, composting diverts food waste from landfills. This reduces emissions of methane – a greenhouse gas known to be 26 times more potent than carbon dioxide – that would normally come from the anaerobic decomposition process (one in which oxygen is not present) that occurs in landfills. Composting, on the other hand, involves the aerobic (or, oxygenated) breakdown of organic matter, in which methane is not produced. Critics like Wood fear that reducing composting could lead to an increase in New York’s methane emissions. The two sites Wood is striving to save are part of a wider concerning trend that could have long-term consequences for the city's contribution to global heating.
An analysis of landfill methane emissions using ten years of data from the Environmental Protection Agency’s Greenhouse Gas Reporting Program (GHGRP) shows this concern is well-founded. I sampled a decade's worth of emissions levels from 17 landfills in 11 counties that implemented municipal composting programs in or after 2010. 71 per cent of landfills saw meaningful declines in methane emissions from the year at which municipal composting was implemented until 2019, with St John Landfill in Portland, Oregon, and Sunset Farms Landfill in Austin, Texas showing the highest drops in emissions (98 and 88 per cent, respectively).
Despite fluctuations, composting is, generally speaking, a net good in a time when global methane emissions are increasing and the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates that there is only a decade left until
On average, methane emissions at the 18 landfills where composting programs were enacted declined by nearly 7 per cent in the years since said programs were piloted – with some programs seeing methane emissions reductions of nearly 100 per
cent in 10 years. By comparison, the average U.S. landfill saw methane increases by 1.88 per
in the last ten years, an analysis of 1,093 U.S. landfills represented in the GHGRP shows.
"Getting rid of methane is a great way to to lessen the impact of climate change very quickly," said Dr. Sally Brown, research professor in the University of Washington department of Environmental and Forest Sciences.
Compared to other greenhouse gases, like carbon dioxide, methane is "short-lived in the atmosphere," Brown says. But its potency, she notes, makes it particularly dangerous in the short-term. "On a 100-year timeframe, it's about 23 times as potent as CO2."
The average increase in methane emissions across 1,093 U.S. landfills between 2010 to 2019, an analysis of EPA GHGRP data shows.
Methane emissions are on the rise worldwide, and landfills are one part of this trend.
The average decline in methane emissions across landfills where composting programs were present between the year that they were rolled out and 2019. Landfills in Hennepin County, Minnesota; Multnomah County, Oregon; and Travis County, Texas saw methane emissions declines of 83.64 per cent, 97.97 per cent and 87.96 per cent, respectively, in the years since local composting programs began.
The per cent of total human-related methane emissions in the U.S. that landfills are responsible for, according to the EPA. They’re the third-largest source of methane in the country, falling only behind natural gas and petroleum-powered systems and enteric fermentation (the digestive process in ruminant animals such as cattle, sheep, goats, and buffalo.)
Teresa Pesek, community outreach team member with the New York City Save Our Compost Coalition says methane reduction is a central goal in fighting to salvage the city's drop-off and curbside collection sites. She estimates that the city's composting program had a 20 per cent diversion rate prior to its scaleback in March. But she has faith that a well-run composting program could divert up to 65 per cent of the New York's waste away from landfills.
"Imagine what that would do for the landfill and the ecosystem around it," Pesek said. She notes that composted organic material turns into nutrient-rich soil, a win-win for the city.
Reaching diversion levels of this kind would help offset national landfill-based methane emissions rates, which range from less than one-third of a metric ton per capita in some parts of the country to over 100 metric tons per capita in others.
An analysis of 1,197 U.S. landfills finds each emitted on average 1.25. metric tons of methane per capita (51,113 metric tons in total) in 2019. But landfills like the Waste Management Disposal Services of Oregon in Gilliam County, or the WI Taylor County Landfill in Georgia saw emissions at significantly higher rates (138 and 56 metric tons per capita, respectively) in the same year. Both are also located in counties where the median household income falls below the national average.
Investment in composting programs will be central to reversing this trend, advocates like Pesek, Brown and Wood argue. In the meantime, Wood continues to fight for what he can save of the city's remaining organics recycling services.
"It's urgent," he said. "These licenses expire at the end of December. And so, we are going to be fighting really hard.
"We can't give up ... a compost site that's creating jobs and diverting waste from landfills."
The graphics and data analysis in this story were created and performed using national emissions source data from 2010 to 2019, available via the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) Greenhouse
Gas Reporting Program (GHGRP).
This was linked to U.S. census
data on median household income per county from Social Explorer and 2020 U.S. census data on county population.
This dataset was analyzed for descriptive statistics (proportions and percentages), patterns and changes over time, and geographic distributions of per-capita methane emissions and per-landfill plant reductions per year.
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