Gotham Gazette

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Recycling Food Scraps Could Transform How NYC Deals With Its Trash


NEW YORK — In the eleventh hour of his administration, Mayor Michael Bloomberg is leaving a transformative mark on a part of city life that is often overlooked — the waste we produce every day.

By pushing for the composting of organic waste — such as food scraps — through a pilot program and supporting other innovative recycling efforts, the mayor is posing a challenge to his successor: Will the person who succeeds him make New York City a truly sustainable city that finally recycles more than it throws away?

No matter who becomes mayor, organic waste recycling has a strong ally: the City Council. The Council passed legislation on Thursday that would mandate continuation of the organi waste pilot project for another two years.

The bill, sponsored by Councilwoman Deborah Rose of Staten Island, also requires the sanitation commissioner to issue a report in October 2015 that includes a “plan for implementing a citywide residential organic collection program and a schedule for expanding the program to additional areas in the city.”

The question of whether — and how — to expand organic waste recycling citywide is a key question facing the next administration. And the next mayor will face other challenges with the trash the city produces — such as how to assert more authority over the city’s massive commercial waste stream, which is not directly controlled by the Department of Sanitation.

In spite of the hurdles, environmentalists and waste policy experts have praised the moves by the mayor and the Council to embrace organic waste recycling.

“This is the opening of what could be a very dramatic change in how we deal with a large portion of our waste,” said Eric Goldstein, New York City environment director at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “On the issue of solid waste and recycling, the administration started slowly but it’s finishing strongly.”

“All eyes are on New York,” said Samantha MacBride, the city’s former deputy director of recycling and now assistant public policy professor at Baruch College. Organic waste recycling, she said, is the “holy grail of sustainable waste management in my view.” But there are substantial barriers and challenges to getting it right, she said. “New York City is so much denser than any other city in the country.”


The introduction of the organic waste recycling program into New York City households this May is part of an effort to double the city’s recycling rate to 30 percent by 2017. According to the city, this follows the “largest expansion of the recycling program in 25 years with the processing of all rigid plastics that began last spring.”

While the city has been criticized for its 15 percent recycling rate relative to cities like San Francisco, MacBride said that New York compares favorably to other post-industrial cities like Chicago and Philadelphia. She also argued that when San Francisco’s recycling rate is calculated in the same manner as New York’s — by looking at residential recycling only — San Francisco currently stands at 30 percent.

The mayor’s office says organic waste (food scraps, paper towels and napkins, yard material, etc.) is a significant part — over 35 percent — of New York City’s residential waste stream. The city has also launched recycling programs for materials (metal, glass, paper, plastic, food waste, textiles and electronics) which account for 80 percent of the total residential waste stream.

To date, only metal, glass, paper and plastic have citywide, curbside pick-up. This, along with the fact that New Yorkers recycle about half of what the city will pick up from their homes, helps to explain the city’s overall 15 percent recycling rate, MacBride said. Expanded recycling of food waste, textiles and electronics recycling could help increase that overall percentage significantly.

“The ultimate vision is to provide New Yorkers with the infrastructure and a convenient way to recycle everything in their home,” Deputy Commissioner for Recycling and Sustainability Ron Gonen said. “We should be able to divert 80 percent of our waste stream. By October, some areas of the city will have the infrastructure and resources to do this.”

In late September and October, the city plans to expand curbside organics collection to ten additional neighborhoods in the Bronx, Brooklyn and Staten Island.

The city is also encouraging apartment buildings with 10 units or more to sign up for on-site collection of electronics, clothing and textiles. The city describes e-cycleNYC, its electronics recycling initiative, as “the most expansive electronics waste recycling collection service in the United States.”

For smaller buildings, the city organizes annual drop-off events in every borough for various types of hazardous waste, including electronics. Starting in 2015, it will be illegal to discard electronics in the trash. Likewise, drop-off sites for clothing and textiles exist at 26 of the city’s Greenmarkets.

Gonen added that it will be equally important to find alternatives for materials sold and used in New York City — like polystyrene foam — that cannot be recycled and must go to a landfill.

A large part of the city’s motivation is economic. Gonen said that landfill costs had become prohibitive. Last year, it cost New York City taxpayers $336 million to deposit their residential waste in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina landfills. Gonen explained that it currently costs $86 per ton to send paper to a landfill, as opposed to $10 per ton to recycle it. Metal, glass and plastic are also cheaper to recycle than bury, he said.

There is also the potential to use organic waste for energy production. The city already turns sewage sludge into methane, or natural gas, at its Newtown Creek wastewater treatment plant in Brooklyn. The same process used at that plant, called anaerobic digestion, could be applied to organic food and yard waste, Gonen said.

“The economic benefits are very obvious. But you have to do it at scale,” he added.

Goldstein said the city was acting now to “get control of future sanitation costs.” But city taxpayers will need to make an upfront investment first.

“In their pilot stages they [the Department of Sanitation] collect tiny amounts that cost a great deal … on a per ton basis,” MacBride noted. She said that the quantity of organic material collected by the city had to be increased so that costs were “comparable for those that are charged for refuse and recycling collections.” Otherwise, she said, “the organics program will never be more than a symbolic little project”.

According to budget documents prepared by the Department of Sanitation, the export of the city’s waste is second only to trash collection and street cleaning as the department’s greatest expense. Export costs were projected to increase by almost $27 million between 2013 and 2014. At the same time, the city allocated $36.7 million for waste prevention, re-use and recycling in fiscal year 2014, which represents 3 percent of the department’s $1.4 billion budget.

Some critics have said that widespread expansion of organics recycling will cost the city in higher labor costs, but the head of the Uniformed Sanitation Men’s Association, Harry Nespoli, said that the city’s need to transport solid waste would drop as organics collection expanded. Nespoli, who represents over 6,000 city sanitation workers, said that, overall, the program “was working very well.”

After starting as a pilot project in 90 public schools, the organic waste recycling program is now being tested in the Westerleigh section of Staten Island, and in two Manhattan high-rise developments, the Helena and Morningside Gardens.

The Department of Sanitation has reported a 50 percent voluntary participation rate in Westerleigh since residents began recycling food waste in May. In Morningside Gardens, a 980-unit complex, the city says the total weight of trash has dropped by 35 percent and households are recycling about one pound of food scraps each day.

By 2014, the program is to have expanded into 19 more neighborhoods — covering 100,000 households — in Brooklyn, the Bronx, Queens and Staten Island.

MacBride said that the real challenge for the program is whether it can be successfully implemented in high-rise buildings. “It’s very hard to get this to work in an apartment building,” she said, adding that the “anonymity of apartment life” had proven to be a deterrence.” She also questioned whether there would be cultural resistance to separating and handling food waste amongst residents.

But at Morningside Gardens, “the general sense of the residents is very supportive,” said Russell Jermyn, the six-building complex’s general manager. He said that an outside area had been set up at the complex where residents could drop off their food waste at any point. Jermyn estimated that 55 to 60 percent of the units were participating and he was hopeful that percentage would increase.

Gonen said that it was too early to think about mandating all New Yorkers separate their organic waste, as is done with glass, metal, paper and plastic, in order to make it cost-effective.

“We need to give the program two years,” he said, adding that, “We also expect the next administration to look at the dollars and cents.” There are, he said, “tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars to be saved, and jobs to be created.” An example of the type of jobs that could be created can be found in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, where anew recycling facility will create 100 permanent jobs, for instance, the city’s Economic Development Corporation said.

Nespoli agreed that requiring New Yorkers recycle organic waste was not the right strategy at present. “You’re going to have real cooperation from certain areas,” he said. “None from other areas.”

And despite the challenges involved, MacBride said that the long-term benefits of expanding organics recycling were too great for the city to ignore. “The more recycling there is, the less the cost. The upfront investment in collection is something that can be moved through. You can’t just go from zero to 10 — you have to be willing to bear the upfront costs,” she said.


If the city is able to significantly reduce the amount of residential waste heading to landfills, can the next mayor push the commercial sector in the same direction? After all, city residents generate 11,000 to 12,000 tons of trash per day; private businesses produce roughly twice that amount.

Put another way, roughly two-thirds (over 20,000 tons daily) of the waste produced in New York City comes from private businesses. Goldstein observed that “historically, the city has had less control and knows less about what is happening” with private sector waste management.

Commercial waste is taken by private carters to waste transfer stations, which are monitored by the city, for eventual shipment to out-of-state landfills. Businesses are required to separate paper, metal and some types of construction waste from their trash, and food service companies are also supposed to separate glass and plastic. Gonen said that the city was completing an analysis of the commercial waste stream this fall, including an estimate of how much of it is recycled.

The last analysis, which was released in 2004, found that the lion’s share of the city’s commercial waste stream was building and construction-related material .

Gonen said that the city was encouraging the commercial sector to follow the lead of the city’s residents as they expand what they recycle. He said that companies like Durst and Whole Foods had already moved ahead in doing so.

Goldstein observed that “it’s been easier to modify the behavior in the residential waste stream. These are hard changes to make because you’re asking everyone to modify for long-term environmental and economic benefit.” But, he added, “There’s no reason why the commercial and business sector shouldn’t be advancing in lock-step with the residential side.”

Mark Jaffe, the CEO of the Greater New York Chamber of Commerce, said that commercial sector organics recycling was not unimaginable. “This seems like something for the future,” he said, adding that, “maybe it’s time to revisit the [existing] commercial recycling law.”

Goldtsein said that the state of Massachusetts would soon be requiring businesses, like restaurants and grocery stores, to separate their organic waste. He said the same could be done in New York, especially now that a growing number of city residents and public school children are participating in the organics pilot.

The environmental justice movement is also taking a harder look at commercial recycling. Eddie Bautista, executive director of the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance, said that now that the city was developing enclosed marine transfer stations that could process residential and commercial waste, local communities would start to press the city to reduce the volume of waste accepted at land-based waste transfer stations.

That capacity reduction would require an ongoing drop in commercial solid waste, he said.

The long-term goal, Bautista said, has been to reduce the impact of waste transfer stations on local communities. Bautista said that the city’s 2006 solid waste management plan anticipates that the commercial sector will start to use the marine transfer stations once a new regulatory and pricing system can be developed.

But Bautista said that an overhaul of the city’s waste management infrastructure was essential before issues like recycling could be tackled. Almost all of the city’s residential recycling waste will eventually be barged from a network of private and public marine transfer stations to a newly constructed “state of the art material recovery facility” in Sunset Park’s South Brooklyn Marine Terminal. The facility will be operated by Sims Metal Management, which processes all of the glass, metal and plastic collected by the city for re-use.

“This is not garbage — they are materials,” said Bautista. “It’s a zero-waste vision.”

MacBride argued that what will ultimately determine how much commercial waste is recycled are the markets for recycled materials. “By and large, it’s market forces that are pushing valuable materials out of the waste stream.” In terms of private sector recycling, she added, “all in all, it looks like the market is doing its job.”

She said that the city’s recent move to recycle rigid plastics was a “worthless, feel good endeavor,” arguing that the markets for these types of plastics was weak, while the markets for paper and metal were consistently strong.

While the city was not available to comment on MacBride’s assertion, a March report by Resource Recyling, Inc., found that “a robust and growing market for mixed rigid plastics had emerged in the past five years.” But the Portland, Ore.-based publisher of recycling industry journals also highlighted concerns about the consistency and stability of end markets for rigid plastics.

Nespoli and Gonen said those who question the future viability of the city’s recycling programs only have to look at the “organized” theft of materials set out for recycling to see the economic potential that exists. Nespoli said that the theft of paper and metal left on the street for city collection was “widespread without a doubt.” “We don’t have enough sanitation police — we see the trucks, we take down plate numbers, and we turn it into the department,” he said.

In response, the City Council has passed legislation that increases the fines for the theft of recyclables.

Bloomberg’s approach to waste appears to have moved beyond financial calculations. The mayor’s suspension of curbside residential recycling in 2002 for city budget reasons was widely criticized at the time. Goldstein said that the city now linked waste disposal to its broader sustainability goals.

“There’s also recognition that the city’s policy of exporting waste to landfills generates a lot of greenhouse gases,” he said. But, perhaps more importantly than ever, he said, “the city is thinking about the mayor’s environmental legacy.”

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