Rats, fines and red tape? Landlords brace for food waste mandate

Bill requiring separation of organics awaits mayor’s approval

(left) SPONY’s Ann Korchak, (right) Department of Sanitation's Jessica Tisch, (middle) City Councilmember Shahana Hanif (NYC.gov, Linkedin, New York City Council)
(left) SPONY’s Ann Korchak, (right) Department of Sanitation's Jessica Tisch, (middle) City Councilmember Shahana Hanif (NYC.gov, Linkedin, New York City Council)

For New York landlords, going green can mean handing over more greenbacks.

Legislation passed last week by the City Council will require residential buildings to separate food waste and yard scraps from regular trash.

The bill, which awaits the mayor’s signature, is part of a “zero waste” legislative package that aims to keep biodegradables out of landfills.

But multifamily owners say the new rule is yet another twist in a labyrinth of regulation that triggers costs for them to comply and fines if they don’t.

Mandatory composting follows a voluntary pilot program in Queens that residents and the city’s Department of Sanitation called a success. In just three months, it diverted 13 million pounds of organic material that would have decomposed in landfills.

The trouble was uptake, particularly in apartment buildings.

“Our experience with the current program illustrates why a mandatory, rather than voluntary system, is necessary,” said Brooklyn Council member Shahana Hanif, who sponsored the measure.

Under the bill, after a grace period, owners who fail to comply will face fines like those for recycling violations, said Eric Goldstein of the National Resources Defense Council, which backed the bill.

Recycling fines range from $25 to $100 for multiple offenses in buildings with fewer than nine units. In larger properties, fines top out at $400.

Landlords grappling with rising expenses and the 2019 rent stabilization law fear violations will be unavoidable.

The problem with mandatory waste sorting is that owners must rely on tenants to separate their trash.

Some renters fail to sort recyclables, which doesn’t bode well for their isolating food scraps. Superintendents often find themselves plucking dog-poop bags from recycling bins, owners say.

“This bill would put one more burden on small property owners and the supers that work for us,” said Ann Korchak, head of landlord group the Small Property Owners of New York.

At a legislative hearing last year, Department of Sanitation Commissioner Jessica Tisch advised against a mandate, referencing the 36,000 recycling fines disseminated in 2021.

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“That number, if this becomes mandatory, will be so much higher for organics, just because in the early years … [compliance] takes time,” Tisch said. But a positive comment by a spokesperson for Mayor Eric Adams after the bill passed was a sign that he will not veto it.

The mandate would be phased in over 20 months, Goldstein said. Owners wouldn’t be fined until May 2025. Before then, the city would issue warnings.

Besides the penalties, landlords worry about the critters food waste attracts.

During last year’s hearing, Brooklyn resident Ella Ryan said her landlord was “reluctant for tenants to participate” in optional curbside composting, “believing it to attract rats.”

New York’s rat population ballooned during the pandemic after the de Blasio administration cut the sanitation budget. Last year, city inspectors reported twice as many rat sightings as in 2021. In April, Adams appointed the city’s first rat czar.

Backers of the composting mandate say it will reduce the rat population because rodent-proof bins would be distributed. But some landlords remain skeptical that food waste stored outside won’t invite rodents or roaches.

“It’s going to be difficult in many buildings, if not impossible, to comply with this mandate without having some unintended consequences: an uptick in rodents, an uptick in insects,” said Frank Ricci, an executive at landlord group the Rent Stabilization Association.

More rats could drive 311 complaints from tenants and eventually, city violations if the rodents follow the scent of food waste into buildings.

A compromise, owners say, could be more frequent trash pickups, although the extra truck trips required for food-waste collection offsets the carbon benefit of composting.

The bill doesn’t outline a collection schedule for food waste. As it stands, the city collects trash two or three times a week on most blocks. Recycling is picked up once a week, as is food waste under the voluntary version.

“Composting might be more workable if waste was being picked up with greater frequency,” Korchak said.

The mayor’s office declined to comment on whether Adams would sign the legislation, NY1 reported. But Adams’ comments earlier this year foreshadow a green light.

“By the end of 2024, every New York City resident will have access to clean, convenient, curbside compost pickup from the Department of Sanitation,” Adams said at a February press conference.

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