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Recycling Food Waste

by Sam Williams, Sep 10, 2004
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New York City recycling has rallied in the last two years. Glass and plastic are back. Paper never left. Even local sewage, once decontaminated, is finding a productive use as organic fertilizer -- albeit with lingering odor and safety issues .

The next obvious target is food waste. New York leads the nation in wasting food. Up to 40 percent of the city's garbage every day are old bones and bologna sandwiches. One reason is the vast number of restaurants here - almost 18,000. But even the percentage of residential waste that are old food scraps is higher here than the national average (almost 13 percent here compared to 10 percent nationally). Residents of other cities stick their food waste in their backyard, creating nutrient-rich composting; too much of New York doesn't have such backyards. Food scraps that would be ground down kitchen sinks in Los Angeles or San Francisco end up at the curbside in Brooklyn or Manhattan.

Attempting to recycle more organic waste - food scraps and yard material -- would fit in with what is reportedly a new tilt in the city's waste management strategy. The New York City Department of Sanitation is scheduled this fall to present to the New York City Council its latest Comprehensive Solid Waste Management Plan, outlining what should be done over the next 20 years to handle the city's garbage. There are some clues that the city is looking to lessen its dumping bill by recycling more waste.

This fall the Department of Sanitation will resume passive yard waste collection at three facilities: Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island, Spring Creek in Brooklyn and Soundview in the Bronx. In the case of food waste, however, the only current recycling options for most residents and businesses are the local community garden programs that offer limited scale composting.

Barriers to expanding such voluntary programs are sizable. Christine Datz-Romero is a co-founder of the Lower East Side Ecology Center, a neighborhood program that currently recycles more than 60 tons a year of food waste. The program sells 10 tons of compost a year to local garden supply shops. The center hopes to expand -- it is currently exploring a plan to provide curbside pickup for the area encompassing the entire local community board - but Datz-Romero says that it won't be easy, given the need for permits, funding, and so forth. "If you started the process today, you would open the door on your facility in between three and four years -- if you're lucky."

Some are hoping the city will reconsider another alternative: food waste disposers. More commonly known as grinders or garbage disposals, and placed in kitchen sinks, these food waste disposers have been legal citywide since 1997. Most people don't know this, however, thus limiting their use.

Kendall Christiansen, spokesman for In Sink-Erator, the nation's largest manufacturer of food waste disposers, points to a late-1990s study by the Department of Environmental Protection, the agency responsible for overseeing the city's sewer and sewage treatment systems. According to the study, some 30,000 new disposers could be installed each year without overloading the city's sewage system. So far, city sales are far below that rate.

"We just did an informal survey this summer that found not quite half of building developers were installing them in new buildings under construction," says Christiansen. "When I get into conversations with landlords and developers what they routinely tell me is, 'Hey, we get free garbage collection. Why should I spend an extra hundred bucks to put in a food disposer?'"

Making food waste disposers mandatory in these new apartments would technically fall under the umbrella of recycling, since a sizable portion of city sewage is converted into organic fertilizer for commercial use.

But even the Department of Environmental Protection seems resistant; even after giving food waste disposers the green light, it still has not endorsed any law that would make their use mandatory. When the City Council's Sanitation and Solid Waste Management Committee held hearings on such a proposal this spring, department representatives argued that the plan would force them to double the city's sewer maintenance budget to $100 million.

Composter Datz-Romero is also leery of relying too heavily on these kitchen grinders . She notes that they require water to liquefy food waste. "We should be saving our water for drinking, in case we have another drought," she says.

Composting advocate Tom Outerbridge, on the other hand, sees nothing wrong with a Solid Waste Plan that encourages both options -- commercial composting and mandatory food waste disposer use. Architect of the Rikers Island composting program that currently recycles 20 tons of prison food scraps annually, Outerbridge sees the economic playing field shifting in favor of food waste recycling. He points to the Business Integrity Commission's recent decision to up the limit on carting charges for private trash-haulers from $25 per ton to $160 per ton. While hard on local restaurants, such an increase removes the penalty on carters who specialize in heavier, water-laden food waste. As such, it should free them to invest more in the local facilities that can make composting a more viable option. In the meantime, food waste disposers can take a sizable portion of the trash burden off the top.

"Assuming the city is able to divert its biosolids to some kind of beneficial application and assuming that the sewer system has the capacity. I think food waste disposal and the sewage system are a very efficient way to get food waste back into some beneficial use," he says.

And, says Outerbridge, if the city were to finance the construction of large scale composting facilities locally -- just as it did for residential paper recycling -- the economic playing field could tilt even further in the favor of food waste recycling.

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