With all that’s going on at COP28, it’s easy to forget that everyday climate activism is happening all over the world, including in a small community garden in Queens. Our colleague Hiroko Tabuchi has this dispatch.
Last weekend at the Rusty Wheelbarrow Farm in Woodside, Queens, a group of composters were hard at work in the dirt, but the mood was grim. New York City’s mayor, Eric Adams, has proposed cutting funding for the city’s community composting program, which supports programs like this one.
(The group included me: I was at the Rusty Wheelbarrow putting in the volunteer hours required to become a master composter.)
Composting is a climate champion: It diverts food scraps from landfills, where they would break down and emit methane, a potent greenhouse gas that drives global warming. Composting instead relies on naturally occurring aerobic microorganisms that digest food scraps into nutrient-rich fertilizer, storing greenhouse gases in the ground.
The city’s community composting program has been around for decades. Some 200 neighborhood food scrap drop-off locations divert more than 8 million pounds of organic waste from landfills each year, local groups say.
Now, organizations that have supported those community-based programs could lose the city funding they receive — about $3 million a year. That’s about 0.03 percent of Mayor Adam’s announced $106.7 billion budget for the coming fiscal year.
The city has defended those cuts as necessary in the face of mounting challenges, including caring for the waves of migrants flocking to New York. And officials stress that curbside recycling — which brings compost from bins around the city to centralized facilities — will continue to roll out, albeit with delays.
The curbside program has its own issues: Most of the scraps collected aren’t being turned into compost at all — they’re “digested” into biogas and used for heat.
“Gas still has a carbon footprint,” said Willis Elkins, executive director of the Newtown Creek Alliance, a nonprofit that’s been monitoring a troubled biogas plant in Brooklyn. “It’s not composting.”
Advocates say community-based composting, while smaller in scale, is more effective. Food scraps don’t need to be transported by truck, and the scraps are transformed into compost for community gardens and tree beds.
Now community composters at Rusty Wheelbarrow Farm and elsewhere are set to lose the little support they’ve been getting in the form of tools and composting materials.
“If the goal is to become more sustainable, there should be more small-scale composting,” said Benjamin Lucas, founder of the Rusty Wheelbarrow farm where I volunteer. “I think we’ve been having a real positive impact.”