At a rally in August on the steps of New York City Hall, rats were in the crosshairs. “No to rats,” read one poster. “Hunger a rat,” read another. In a third, a crowned pink rodent lolled on a throne of black garbage bags.
The demonstration was not a generalized expression of anti-rat zealotry. It was a gathering of sustainable waste activists. They had a suggestion: composting could solve an escalating rodent problem that’s spreading across the city. “Our streets and sidewalks will be cleaner,” said New York City Councilwoman Carlina Rivera, “they will smell better and provide less food for rats, which is a public health crisis right now.”
Rats have long been a scourge of New York City, but the pandemic has made them the number one public nuisance. An increase in outdoor dining and deliveries, coupled with reduced litter services, created unusually favorable conditions for them. “The rat population has exploded,” says Ushma Pandya Mehta, zero waste activist and co-founder of Think Zero, a waste management consultancy. The total number of rat complaints since the pandemic began is nearly 45,000. In a few months, the city will receive 60% more calls about rodents than before 2020.
In response, New York City has launched a rodent crusade and unleashed an arsenal of anti-rat measures. It has expanded the availability of rat-proof litter bins and proposed new rules that limit how soon trash can reach the curb before collection – reducing the time rats have to tear into the ubiquitous black plastic trash bags.
Now, the city’s rat problem could hasten a revolutionary change in waste management that proponents and city council members have been trying to push through for years. Organic waste advocates are using the power of New Yorkers’ rat-abhorrence to advance a series of bills known as the Zero Waste Legislative Package that would expand composting services across the five boroughs.
“It will create the most tangible and actionable path to achieving a very significant benchmark,” says Sandy Nurse, one of the three councilors behind the suite of bills: “Capture a third of the waste stream and divert it from landfill or incineration.”
Almost 40% of the city’s trash is organic – theoretically compostable. City compost advocates say placing these materials, including food waste, in rat-proof compost bins would keep methane-producing waste both out of landfills and out of rat’s paws.
In addition to creating drop-off points for organic produce throughout the city and requiring the Department of Sanitation to go zero waste in landfills by 2030, the bills would introduce curbside compost pickup citywide — a complement to existing services for general use waste and recycling. If passed, Nurse says the package would create “the largest, most robust bio-diversion operations in the country.”
At the same time, the New York City Department of Health and Human Services (DSNY) reinvigorated enforcement of pre-pandemic regulations related to commercial composting. It is also preparing to launch a county-wide pilot composting program for Queens, which will begin this October. “Rat reduction is a factor we consider in every policy decision,” DSNY spokesman Vincent Gragnani wrote in an email.
The bills would fulfill long-held ambitions of zero-waste advocates. “In the activist network, I think we’ve always dreamed of getting there,” says Christine Datz-Romero, executive director of the Lower East Side Ecology Center. Some of the bills are reintroductions. Rat proof containers were introduced years ago. And environmentalists say composting has long been touted as an anti-rat measure.
But it wasn’t until Nurse was appointed chair of the council’s sanitation and waste management committee earlier this year, amid the explosion in rodent populations, that the anti-rat strategy took center stage. Her conversations with colleagues revealed the magnitude of the rat problem and the opportunities it presented.
Nurse claims the package currently has enough support to override the mayor if he opposes it. But without public participation, such an ambitious plan could fail. “When done right, you get a valuable product when you recycle,” says Oliver Wright, chair of the Brooklyn Solid Waste Advisory Board (Swab).
This product can be used to offset the cost of waste collection in the form of saved landfill costs. In 2021, the city’s independent Budget Office estimated that recycling 35% of organic matter would make processing prices comparable to the cost of processing general waste. Big investments in composting infrastructure, seen in cities like San Francisco, could even bring costs below those of garbage collection.
Here’s the catch: a large proportion of residents would have to participate in composting for the program to pay for itself what is collected. Otherwise, it becomes more of a budgetary burden than a cost-saving measure.
However, previous attempts do not inspire confidence. Pandemic-related budget cuts suspended many of the city’s existing composting operations, including an opt-in system that covered much of the city. Gragnani admits that participation rates were far from ideal even before the cuts. In 2018, less than 2% of New York City’s trash was composted.
But the DSNY has streamlined the approach. In contrast to pre-pandemic efforts, the city is automatically serving an entire section of the city rather than implementing a sign-up process. All Queens residents who wish to enroll simply need to leave a designated compost bin on the street, and the city is also giving out brown rat-resistant capsules free of charge. According to Gragnani, rats also appear in the marketing strategy.
“It’s a great opportunity to get people interested in hygiene issues who wouldn’t normally be interested,” says Wright, chairman of the Brooklyn Swab. “People who don’t give a fuck about recycling honestly don’t care about rats on their streets either.”