A Look Into Eco-Friendly Initiatives Across Westchester County

The county is fighting to be greener in many ways. Here is how we can all be part of the green movement from energy to transportation.

How green is our county?

Westchester is striving to preserve and protect the environment on multiple fronts. This is positive news, considering the grim tone of recent climate reports, including the latest National Climate Assessment. (This lengthy report states that climate change is accelerating and nationwide efforts to slow it are insufficient.) It helps to be supported by a state government that has enacted legislation aimed at a greener future. New York passed the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (aka the Climate Act) in 2019, establishing environmental goals and methods to achieve them, and New York’s Clean Water, Clean Air, and Green Jobs Environmental Bond Act, passed in 2022, pledged more than $4 billion to the cause.

Westchester is taking advantage of these opportunities not only to pursue sustainability but to improve quality of life in the process. “We must take comprehensive action to prevent and mitigate the negative effects of a changing climate and to seize the positive benefits that flow from these actions — attractive open spaces, healthy downtowns, walkable streets, transportation alternatives,” says Noam Bramson, former mayor of New Rochelle and new executive director of Sustainable Westchester, a nonprofit consortium of local municipalities working to advance green causes. The goals are clear: conserve and protect our natural resources, transition to clean energy, and cut down on waste. Here are some of the highlights of environmental actions taken throughout Westchester County.

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Members of the Sustainable Westchester team toured the new community solar project at the Gedney Recycling Yard in White Plains that serves hundreds of local households.
Members of the Sustainable Westchester team toured the new community solar project at the Gedney Recycling Yard in White Plains that serves hundreds of local households. Photo courtesy of Sustainable Westchester.

Energy Update

Experts agree that climate change is caused by the burning of fossil fuels which emits billions of tons of CO2. This excess greenhouse gas traps heat in the atmosphere leading to a hotter planet, which, in turn, damages ecosystems and unleashes extreme weather events. Reversing or slowing this process begins with lowering carbon emissions by reducing oil and gas consumption. New York’s Climate Act set goals to reduce carbon emissions to 40 percent of 1990 levels by 2030 and to have a completely emissions-free electric grid by 2040. This won’t be easy in a world that needs lots of heat, light, and transportation. Conserving energy and transitioning to alternate sources of power, such as, solar, wind, hydro, and geothermal, may be the best way forward.

Locally, many residents and small businesses are opting for this sort of renewable energy, partly due to Sustainable Westchester and its Westchester Power program. Sustainable Westchester bulk buys green electricity and supplies it via the regular power-grid infrastructure provided by Con Edison and NYSEG. Known as community-choice aggregation, this system helps keep costs low as Sustainable Westchester can apply for grants, access subsidies, and negotiate deals with alternative-energy companies on behalf of all participants (towns, villages, residents, small businesses). Participants can opt out of Westchester Power at any time, but Sustainable Westchester board member, Jim Kuster, says enrollment in the program keeps growing. Currently supplying power (much of it hydropower from Canada) to approximately 145,000 customers, Westchester Power reports its prevented more than 200,000 megatons of carbon from entering the atmosphere. Community Solar is another Sustainable-Westchester-affiliated program helping to increase access to clean power. Through Community Solar, electricity from large-scale solar installations is sent to the local power grid and made available to all customers who want to utilize such energy but perhaps can’t install solar panels of their own.

Adding renewable energy to our grid is only part of the equation; using less power is vital, as well. GridRewards, a free app connected to Con Ed accounts, rewards customers for doing just that. Cash rebates are awarded to customers who lower their power usage during periods of peak demand. NYSEG has a similar program called Smart Savings Rewards.

At Home

There are numerous incentives for Westchester residents in the form of tax cuts, rebates, and subsidies to make homes more environmentally friendly. Bedford residents, through the Bedford 2030 environmental initiative, can meet for free with an energy coach to discuss options and financial incentives for updating energy efficiency. “We talk to them about their goals and aspirations, lower energy bills through better insulation, and the use of alternative energy sources to stop relying on fossil fuels,” says Bedford 2030 energy coach Bob Fischman. “We find that most people express a true desire to have a positive environmental impact, both in their own homes and in the community. Our conversion rate, or people who act based on our recommendations, is about 38 percent.” (The percentage is considered high within the energy industry.)

A similar program, Energy Smart Homes provided by Sustainable Westchester, typically begins with an energy audit providing a full report on green upgrades, along with a list of consultants and contractors who can do the required work. “We try to make it easier for people,” says Kuster of Sustainable Westchester, “We have a long list of partners. The homeowners get the help they need, and companies gain access to potential customers.”

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Heat pumps and geothermal power are viable alternatives to help reduce fossil fuels at home. Heat pumps take heat from the air and use it to heat and cool residences, saving money and lowering emissions. And because of New York State’s new Geothermal Borehole Law, look for ground-source geothermal power to start heating up the renewable-energy sector. The legislation — removing outdated oil- and gas-related regulations that have been a barrier to more widespread use of geothermal power — allows companies to dig deeper to access the heating and cooling potential of the ground.

The use of geothermal energy in commercial structures, including apartment and office buildings, will further help New York reach its environmental goals. Commercial buildings are currently responsible for more than 30 percent of New York State’s greenhouse-gas emissions. “We are trying to help buildings get off gas and oil. Geothermal [and solar] makes sense right now because the tax breaks are so high,” says Kuster, “and it’s a great way to reduce emissions.” (Sustainable Westchester’s efforts toward the decarbonization of buildings resulted in a grant from the United States Energy Department to help non-profit buildings throughout Westchester make energy upgrades.) Property owners in Westchester can consult the GeoPossibilities page provided by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) to see if geothermal power is an option for a particular area or address. This type of energy is not only available to those with “significant means,” says Fischman. Low- and moderate-income households that qualify can enroll in NYSERDA’s EmPower+ program which provides discounted and no-cost energy upgrades, such as improved insulation and heat pumps.

“I firmly believe there are many things individuals, businesses, and governments can do to lower our carbon footprint and be responsible to our planet, not just for ourselves but for generations to come,” Fischman says. “And we can do this affordably while maintaining our standard of living; this actually makes financial sense.”

sustainable living game
Adobe Stock/ Kiddsg

5 Ways to Amp up Your Sustainable-Living Game

An eco-revolution requires large-scale change, but it matters that individuals do their part. “Collective and individual actions are not mutually exclusive. When it’s not just one person acting, but thousands and millions of people, the aggregate effect is meaningful,” says Noam Bramson, Sustainable Westchester executive director (and former New Rochelle mayor). So, how to be as green as possible?

  1. Composting and recycling are a must, but residents should also contact their local municipality to learn of every opportunity to reduce and reuse. For example, Scarsdale has specific methods for residents to sustainably dispose of plastic film, books, batteries, eyeglasses, corks, tennis balls, furniture, cooking oil, paint, and textiles.
  2. Contact local government agencies or environmental advocacy organizations, such as Sustainable Westchester, to find out about financial incentives to living greener and using alternative energy. The clean-energy portal on the Westchester County Association website is another source of info.
  3. Switch to LED lightbulbs, energy-efficient appliances and plumbing fixtures, and become more mindful of energy use, especially during peaks. Turn down the heat. Eat less meat. Shop less.
  4. Electric vehicles cut down on emissions, but efforts to walk, bike, carpool, and utilize public transport help, too. Many towns supply info on how to bike/commute safely, such as the Bike White Plains site.
  5. Plant native plants and trees to restore local biodiversity and pollinators.

Food for Thought

Still throwing food into the garbage? Well, it’s time to get with the program — that is, the food-scrap recycling program that turns food scraps into soil-enriching compost. Some food waste is inevitable (bones, egg shells, vegetable peelings), but a larger source of food waste is good food that doesn’t get eaten — and this adds up. According to the recent Westchester County Food Waste Study, 103,000 tons of food waste is disposed of by commercial sources and more than 85,000 tons is generated by Westchester residents. That accounts for more than 20 percent of our solid-waste stream.

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State and local governments have been working to reduce these numbers. New York State’s 2022 Food Donation and Food Scraps Recycling law requires businesses and institutions producing two tons or more of food waste per week to donate edible food and recycle the rest through composting or whatever system is readily available. In Westchester County, the 2020 Residential Food Scrap Transportation and Disposal Program (RFSTAD) was established to help support individuals who want to divert food waste from the main waste stream.

So far, the RFSTAD initiative has successfully encouraged 26 of the 43 municipalities in Westchester to participate. The established programs, while not mandatory, are user friendly. Residents can use their own receptacle or buy a food-scrap recycling kit ($20 to $30) from their local town hall or sanitation agency; it includes a countertop bin, a larger container for storage and transport, and compostable bags. “We tested all the bins and pails to make sure the entire process is neat, clean, and odor free. The kit makes it easy to get started,” says Ron Schulhof, a member of the Scarsdale Conservation Advisory Council. Food scraps can be dropped off at designated areas for further disposal, free of charge. In Scarsdale, free at-home pick up of food scraps is available. All scraps are sent to a composting facility in Cortlandt Manor. In the spring, many towns sponsor a give-back day, offering free compost. Westchester is also composting two tons of food scraps a week at its CompostED facility in Valhalla, which offers interactive tours.

An added benefit of food-scrap recycling is that people become more mindful of food waste and adjust their behavior. “When people start composting, they realize how much food they are throwing away, and actually change their shopping habits, how they prepare food, and order in restaurants,” says Schulhof. Beyond recycling, feeding good food to hungry people is also important. Feeding Westchester is expanding its efforts in food recovery which involves picking up edible items from farms, manufacturers, and retailers that otherwise might have found its way into the waste stream, and diverting it through local agencies to people in need.

The CompostEd facility in Valhalla is a small-scale food scrap composting demonstration and education site; school groups are welcome to sign up for a tour.
The CompostEd facility in Valhalla is a small-scale food scrap composting demonstration and education site; school groups are welcome to sign up for a tour. Photo courtesy of Westchester County Government.

Transportation Transitions

In New York State, transportation counts for almost a third of total carbon emissions. The New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) has established a Clean Transportation program providing incentives, funding opportunities, and technical assistance, to provide greener options for getting around. For example, money will be made available to help build the charging stations needed for an increasing number of electric vehicles through the Charge New York and Charge Ready programs. Yonkers has expanded its EV commitment, installing 90 charging stations throughout the city, with plans for more in the works. Most of the stations are available to the public, with a few reserved for municipal vehicles. Yonkers Mayor Mike Spano spearheaded this action by signing a 2020 executive order requiring that the city buy only electric or hybrid models for light-use vehicles. The fleet is now up to 85 such vehicles, with a large electric refuse truck on order, according to Jason Baker, deputy commissioner of the department of public works. “The mayor took the lead on transitioning to electric vehicles and adding charging stations, which we hope will incentivize the public to go electric as well,” says Baker. “This is all part of a strategy to lower the number of vehicles on our streets, reduce the heat-island effect [in which urban centers experience higher temperatures than surrounding areas], and reduce our carbon footprint citywide.”

Veo scooters in New Rochelle have a usage area that extends along North Avenue from New Rochelle High School to Pelham Road, including the downtown and Transit Center, as well as several city parks.
Veo scooters in New Rochelle have a usage area that extends along North Avenue from New Rochelle High School to Pelham Road, including the downtown and Transit Center, as well as several city parks. Photo courtesy of Veo.

NYSERDA has also awarded a Clean Transportation prize to several projects within the state, translating into millions of dollars of funding. Project Mover was one such winner, earning $7 million to develop more options for clean micro-mobility in Ossining, as well as in Tarrytown, Dobbs Ferry, and Croton-on-Hudson. The goal is to make a fleet of sharable e-bikes accessible to all residents of the area, including low-income or underserved members of the community. New Rochelle is a micro-mobility leader, currently providing a fleet of sharable electric scooters and bicycles to its residents, along with the Circuit micro-transit system, a complimentary on-demand shuttle service which transports residents and visitors around the downtown area.

In January 2023, Bee-Line added 106 hybrid-electric buses to its fleet, which is now 88-percent hybrid or electric. Six buses that run out of the Valhalla depot are completely electric. Paid for largely by federal funds, the new buses are expected to lower emissions by 50 percent and save on fuel costs.

The Environmental Bond act allocated $500 million to support the transition to electric school buses, setting a goal to ensure that all school buses purchased by 2027 must be zero-emission buses, with the entire fleet to be emissions free by 2035.

App-solutely!

Want to make sure you’re recycling the right way? There’s an app for that. Sustainable Westchester helped developed an app that assists residents in gaining instant access to the latest information on recycling. Recycle Right includes scheduling particulars, as well as how-tos on disposing of specific items (in the app’s Recyclopedia section).

Westchester County also launched a similar free app called Recycle Coach, which offers a what-goes-where search tool complete with image recognition. Users can take a phone picture of an object, and Recycle Coach will provide instructions on how to dispose of it properly. Both apps can be fine-tuned to sync up with specific municipalities.

The Most and Least Green Places in Westchester

Despite Westchester’s unified efforts to reduce carbon emissions, there is still a discrepancy among villages, towns, and cities when it comes to emissions levels. Here are the municipalities with the lowest and highest per-capita baseline greenhouse-gas emissions.

Most Green

  1. Sleepy Hollow
  2. Larchmont
  3. Ossining Village
  4. Scarsdale
  5. Port Chester
  6. New Rochelle
  7. Dobbs Ferry
  8. Pelham
  9. Bronxville
  10. Mount Vernon

Least Green

  1. Buchanan
  2. Tarrytown
  3. Somers
  4. Cortlandt
  5. Yorktown
  6. Elmsford
  7. Mount Kisco
  8. Greenburgh
  9. Pound Ridge
  10. North Castle

Information for this ranking came from the Westchester County Geographic Information Systems (GIS); data courtesy of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation Office of Climate Change.

Gale Ritterhoff, a freelance writer and frequent contributor to Westchester Magazine and 914INC., has written about fashion, food, wine, bridges, books, tennis, tech, music, movies, and more.

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