A towering waste problem. Local ideas spearhead change in Brooklyn

A towering waste problem. Local ideas spearhead change in Brooklyn

Waste is a huge problem. By the day. Here are some community-led ideas bred in Brooklyn which are a successful approach for radical change in waste reduction.

New Yorkers produce so much waste that it could fill up the Empire State Building every ten days. However, the huge problem of waste has resonated with people when the city of New York cut trash collections last year and complaints about dirty sidewalks spread to the finest postcodes. Pandemic restrictions have made bins overflow. Suddenly the problem became visible and frustrated citizens began picking up trash from the streets. Where politicians and corporations have failed, ordinary New Yorkers are turning to community-led movements looking for concrete solutions. In Brooklyn change is brewing up to radically reduce waste.

Already in 2016 Nicole De Santis started getting trash out of the streets with volunteers to address the rampant litter problem in the neighbourhood. Nowadays De Santis, together with Kristen Tadrous, both long time residents of Bushwick, manage the Clean Bushwick Initiative which has hosted numerous street and park clean ups and has gained the support of local businesses, community groups, city entities and a critical mass of volunteers. 

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Nicole De Santis (right) and Kristen Tadrous (left) / Photo by Jeremy Cohen

One volunteer of the Clean Bushwick initiative is Michael Cyr. Inspired after a long stay in Europe, Cyr brought to New York an idea he saw at a Zero Waste party in Belgium. He has founded the initiative cup zero to reduce single use plastic, one cup at a time, initially at events and with current plans to expand up to 40 coffee shops by June in Bushwick and the Lower East Side. Customers can borrow for free a reusable cup from a coffee shop of the Cup Zero network and return it within 14 days free of charge.

I used to work for a recycling company and soon realized that it was not the solution when you follow the process down the drain, explains Cyr.

New York is not progressive enough to address the waste problem

Then recycling isn’t working in New York City, wrote The New York Times. Here are seven of the reasons. ‘New York recycles only about a fifth of its trash, lagging behind other major cities and slowing its quest to reduce waste’.

A popular image of busy New Yorkers is having coffee with huge takeaway cups while walking around to save time. In addition, few have ever turned their ovens on and love ordering takeout. Alone the manufacturing, shipping, and disposing of cups and takeout —used once and for mere seconds— contribute to greenhouse gas emissions, a major factor in climate change. And then the waste problem just sits in landfills as far as 400 miles away from New York. Other containers may have a different luck. According to a study commissioned by the World Economic Forum in 2016, 32 percent of plastic packaging worldwide is neither dumped nor incinerated, but leaves the system in an uncontrolled manner.

New York, I love you, but we’re making a mess…reads the manifesto of DeliverZero, a platform to order food in reusable containers. Its three co-founders—Adam Farbiarz, Byron Sorrells, and Lauren Sweeney, started with a network of eight restaurants in the Park Slope to educate on the problem of waste in New York and reduce their impact.

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Co-founder of DeliverZero Adam Farbiarz with restaurant owner / Photo courtesy of deliverZero

From a small community project they expanded to more mom-and-pop restaurants in other neighborhoods and currently DeliverZero covers most of Brooklyn, all of Manhattan, and parts of Queens.

Why community-led ideas are a successful approach for change

‘Mostly I see a grassroot green movement happening in Brooklyn because many community-led groups are savvy in bringing people together. Organizations like Bushwick Clean Initiative are sparking real conversations on the environment and climate change while keeping their communities healthy and vibrant’, explains Lauren Sweeney.

Well-known by its coolest display of street art, Bushwick in Brooklyn is a very vulnerable neighbourhood with low-income residents and one of the lowest rates of healthcare. Here environmental racism is real. After five years De Santis has seen the impacts of waste first hand.

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Photo courtesy of Clean Bushwick Initiative

Bushwick was never clean. We work with the community to bring about radical change towards street litter and illegal dumping on the grounds of the cascading effects for our health and the environment, says de Santis.

‘More damaging than trash in our streets is the pollution when we don’t collect and treat waste but instead it is left in landfills — emphasizing already existing health problems like disparities in asthma rates in our neighbourhood. I am trying to connect all these things.’

Same happens with the methane gas of organic waste that is left in landfills to decompose. BK ROT is New York City’s first community-supported, bike-powered, fossil fuel free food waste hauling and composting service in Bushwick. The project is staffed by young people of color who haul organic waste from small businesses, households, and other community groups and transform it into high quality compost.

A comeback of local fights to tackle environmental problems

This week is Earth Day and last Sunday at Maria Hernandez Park in Bushwick the rhythm of jazz was in the air thanks to the Greenbird initiative by Gotham Yardbird Sanctuary, which revives the jazz community and local businesses that are devoted to solving environmental issues and promote green urban living in local communities. Clean Bushwick Initiative organized the Earth Day event to bring all the local efforts together and raise public consciousness on waste  – especially among the most affected by the climate crisis who have to deal with other social issues.

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Nicole de Santis (left) with cup zero founder Michael Cyr (right) / Photo by Rie Yamaguchi-Borden

Other grassroot movements in Bushwick like Sane Energy Project and Nonbkpipeline have joined efforts to oppose fossil fuel expansion  – the first of several fracked gas pipelines entering New York  –  because it mainly threatens the safety and health of the people living in the evacuation zone. Their collective action is defying the fracking industry in Pennsylvania.

The environmental crisis is a global crisis but efforts against climate change will mostly occur at the grassroots level because it requires a radical transformation of society, away from the middle-class stereotype of environmental activism we are accustomed to. If the city is not serious about the solid waste problem, New Yorkers are. Brooklyn is on the way to a decisive change.

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