Compost pile

Psst, Mayor Bloomberg: You’re going to want to update your webpage on composting. Right now, New York City is rolling out a common sense composting plan, and every politician in sight is enthusiastically supportive. But the city’s own website hasn’t gotten the memo.

Until recently city leaders were sadly shaking their heads and declaring that composting was simply impossible in New York. This 180 happened so recently that the government website (updated as recently as 2011) still explains that composting, essentially, can’t and won’t work.

nyc compost website

Basically, the city explains, composting would cost too much because only a few hard-core eco-freaks would do it:

In order for it to be even faintly efficient from a cost or traffic impact standpoint, most everybody would have to be participating fully to source separate organics, not just a few diehards. This is highly unlikely …

The ultimate reason composting is so unlikely, this Ghost of Bloomberg Past says, is that New York is just too darn dense:

New York City is ten times as dense as the next densest city in the U.S., San Francisco. Buildings with ten, fifty, hundreds, or thousands of apartments are not the exception here, they are the norm. Imagine separating food scraps, yard trimmings, and compostable paper wastes in such a situation.

I started to imagine — but it was just too horrible to continue! Let’s just read on instead.

Apartment dwellers would have to separate and save things like vegetable and meat scraps, dirty paper towels, plant wastes, and the like; take them to a central area and dump them into a communal bucket; and this bucket of organic materials would then be collected once or twice a week at curbside.

Gah! Will the horrors never end? You mean they would have to … compost? In communal buckets?

Problems of odor, vermin, mess, and above all contamination with non-organic wastes would be practically guaranteed under such a scenario, even with the best education programs in place.

Granted. But what do you have right now in New York City if not problems of odor, vermin, mess, and contamination with non-organic wastes? As I noted before, these problems aren’t a function of composting.

This is why many multi-unit apartment buildings in Seattle and San Francisco opt out of organics separation, and also why this practice is not carried out in even the “greenest” of European cities like Amsterdam in dense areas of the city.

OK, this is just wrong. In San Francisco composting is the law. It’s simply not true that many apartment buildings opt out. I don’t know about Amsterdam. (Can any Europeans help me out?)

In any case, it’s nice to see that New York has come to its senses on this issue. It would be even nicer if politicians would admit that what can and can’t be done usually has a lot more to do with political will than technical feasibility.