Thinking Beyond Waste Management: Hope in Degrowth, Systems Connections, Compost, and (Dare I say it) Rats?

Megan Diebboll

Compost Bin on the Corner of Classon & Franklin, credit: Megan Diebboll

When Covid hit in 2020, municipal budgets faced several cuts, one being curbside composting programs. The budget cut heavily impacted the city’s climate mitigation goals (Peevey & Cohen, 2020). When Mayor Adams ran he pledged to expand the current residential composting programs. However, for the 2022 fiscal budget, the city only saw increased funding for other composting services, and there was a continued halt in the expansion of residential curbside composting programs (Khurshid & Valenza, 2022). 

In the Spring of 2023, NYC is now rolling out the nation’s largest compost collection program. Currently, there are a total of 250 compost bins citywide. The curbside composting program will expand to all five boroughs while the service is free and year-round. NYC’s goal is to have the expansion of smart compost bins completed by 2024 making it NYC’S first-ever compost plan to reach 100% citywide.

In the interview that follows, Lily Baum-Pollans discusses how to curb composting can be an effective form of waste management and speaks on how the program can be successful, equitable, and increases urban sustainability. In 2021, Pollans wrote “Resisting Gabarage: The Politics of Waste Management in Cities,” which presents a new way to understand practices of waste removal and recycling in American Cities today. In her current research, Pollans examines urban food systems and food waste and explores the consequences of urban food provision systems. 

Interview is edited for length and clarity. 

M: Is curbside compost programs a form of waste management? How could we improve what we are doing to reach those sustainable goals to where we are focused on climate change and urban sustainability? 

L: I have a few thoughts. First about rats, something Samantha McBride mentioned to me the other day. She was in DSNY when they started the initial compost rollout largely based on her research and advocacy. She mentioned that the main concern about the initial compost program was that it would attract rats. So, initially, when the city was considering separating organics, everyone was opposed to it because they thought it would bring more rats. Now, organics collection is being positioned as part of the solution. We are putting the smelly food scraps that the rats are attracted to into containers, as opposed to plastic bags. She pointed out how it’s interesting that discourse has shifted over the pandemic. In some ways, rats are our allies in a city-wide composting program. 

In terms of what the city could be doing to be more transformative instead of managing the problem that it itself has created: you brought this up earlier, but nothing a city does will be transformative by any measure unless it starts thinking beyond itself. That means thinking upstream, and about consumption, and production. That means thinking beyond its borders, and what is happening with disposal. 

The composting program does the second part. Separating organics and diverting them from landfills is complicated, and I don’t know if the city has perfect plans for organics treatment and disposal. But even a great compost program still does not address the upstream questions like what is happening with production and consumption. Some cities are figuring out how to do that. Seattle is one of them. I just was on the phone with the current director of solid waste there a couple of days ago and she was talking about their most recent 2023 solid waste management plan which is entirely upstream-focused. 

M: How do we get everyone on board, and how do we do that community education piece? Something I have noticed with the compost bins is you have to have an app to unlock the bin. In my mind, that would limit users and impact user ability.

L: This gets to the part of the question: do you have a voluntary system or a required one? New York has not considered a required one for the very reason that they don’t have the capacity. And when I say they don’t have the capacity, I mean they are unwilling to invest in the capacity for enforcement. Enforcement isn’t just fining people who make mistakes or willfully ignore the rules. It means investing in a huge program of communication, outreach, and education. That is not something that the city has ever done. So there are ways DSNY communicates. They have their Instagram feed which is pretty delightful.

M: I love it, honestly.

L: It is great! But it is not enough. In a place like New York with so much turnover, people are constantly moving in and out. It would require an extremely thoughtful, committed, and probably expensive campaign that would be ongoing forever. It’s not a six-month thing. This is a permanent part of the programming to do that training. The city’s just not willing to do it, or maybe can’t imagine how. That leaves them in this position to do a voluntary system. So you police it in a different way. To some extent, I think this makes sense because contamination will very quickly ruin the program. You can’t do anything with contaminated organic waste, it’s just garbage. 

A place like Seattle started with a voluntary program and then allowed it to exist and grow slowly over time. Then after it became a part of the landscape for a decade they made it required. So the learning curve was smaller because it already had been diffused for a long time and many people already understood it. I don’t think this is a bad first step. These things can be really complicated. I don’t think this particular configuration of DSNY, the mayor, etc., is going to take it beyond what it is right now. They are creating a foundation that someone could subsequently build on in a really good way. Building the pathways for disposal, doing the work with sanitation collection crews—all of that is a critical foundation. It is important to acknowledge the progress, while also acknowledging the limitations, and what it would really take to make it a citywide program that actually diverts all the city’s organics. It’s a big leap, and they are never going to get there with locked bins.

M: How does this impact communities? 

L: I think ideally one of the things composting does is that it brings people closer to the systems of production and wasting. That is a really important kind of foundation for us to be aware of for behavior change. No matter what, Max Liboiron argues, there is always waste and there are always by-products in every system. Are we aware and accountable to all of those particular discards? I don’t think we are there yet in any way. I think the investment in organics and infrastructure is superior to what was happening previously. But how are we going to be accountable to the greenhouse gasses that are produced from the anaerobic digestion which is currently how food scraps are being processed in the city’s program? I think we could be, but we really aren’t yet. We have to ask the questions.

M: When the rat czar was announced there was a lot of humor in it. People bonding over how silly it was, and talking more and more about trash. Those little moments, while small, add a sense of community knowing this isn’t working. So sometimes saying “Oh, this isn’t working” is hopeful in a way. Because we are still talking about it regardless and people who aren’t normally talking about it. My sister, who lives in North Carolina, called me to talk about rats and then started talking about compost. She was then like “ I should get a compost bin,” and did. It went from rats to compost to what trash looks like in North Carolina. 

L: I really love that observation. I think you are absolutely right. I actually don’t even think it is that small. In some ways I think something brilliant that DSNY is doing right now is this kinda humorous approach which is really inviting. It creates something we can talk and laugh about. I think one reason why waste management is so neglected as a public policy matter is because it is gross and boring. A public discourse that is funny is also inviting. Rats are so small and they are an easy enemy, but I think being able to name a problem and gather in some way to talk about the solution is honestly really significant in our political climate. 

M: What is missing for this program to be successful? 

L: I think the thing that is still missing is the connection between the pieces. What is the connection between individual behavior and that system? We spent so long saying individual behavior can’t solve the problems that we forgot that individual cooperation is still essential to make the system work. 

I guess one other positive thing is that there are already a lot of tons of organic waste that are not being sent out of state for disposal. 

Community Connection, credit: Megan Diebboll

M: I am hopeful in the way compost can bring communities together. My apartment composting was started by one resident who lived in the complex for years. He takes trash and creates this magical sort of landscape. So now we have public seating back there. He also started a compost pile and taught all of us how to compost. Then two other residents, now that we have compost, built a garden on our roof. So for me that is where the hope and beauty from learning from each other. I think this is how we get to more of the community vision of waste management more on a medium scale. 

Backyard residential compost site with Stoop finds, credit: Megan Diebboll

L: What you just described reminds me of a degrowth approach to waste management. It is a little bit decentralized. People are building new skills, communication, and community around the management of materials through their lifecycles and not relying on large infrastructures or corporatized technical management systems. To me, that is more of a degrowth vision: less institutionalized and more community-based. It still is plugged into bigger systems, of course. You compost food you buy, but then do something different with it. I really see that as one of the through lines of degrowth logic.

From Backyard to Roof, credit: Megan Diebboll

But in New York, you can’t count on those relationships. Not everyone has a backyard or a rooftop they have access to. So you could think: what are the ways that the city could support more community-based initiatives? Are there other ways community-based, or neighborhood-based initiatives could be supported and nurtured? So, you have a collective community that has grown in your building: can we imagine how to nurture those tiny collectives as part of our bigger collective? 

Rooftop Residential Community Garden, credit: Megan Diebboll

M: Right, our property owner allowed us to do that. Most people would say no.

L: Most people would super say no.

But why would they say no? This gets into the roots of so many problems. Most people move a lot because landlords are constantly raising rents and displacing people. So there are connections between what we are able to do in our own spaces and how we are able to invest in our own communities and the larger failure of our housing market. That is why I see it as a deeper matter. This isn’t just waste management, but a deeper structural set of questions that would need to be reformed. 

Hope in Degrowth, credit: Megan Diebboll.

Megan Diebboll is an urban planner and social worker working to create liberating environments in NYC. She currently works as Program and Operations Manager for the Horticultural Society where she focuses on creating green spaces that build social and physical infrastructures.

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