One of the main environmental challenges for the new administration of Mayor Eric Adams and a mostly new city council led by President Adrienne Adams is to establish a sensible collection and sustainable disposal program for household organic waste. – food scraps, yard waste and food soiled paper. These materials represent a third of the waste generated by New Yorkers, or about 4,000 tons of putrescible waste every day.
New York City’s current organic waste disposal system is beset with problems, unhealthy for the environment, and costly for city taxpayers.
The overwhelming majority of food scraps and garden waste in the city are sent to landfills or incinerators. But when buried in landfills, these organic materials decompose and release methane, a very powerful gas for global warming. (Landfills are the third-largest source of methane emissions in the country, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.) And in incinerators, the high moisture content of food scraps and yard waste disrupts the combustion process, resulting in increased localized emissions of air contaminants. .
Worse, these landfills and incinerators are too often located in low-income neighborhoods outside of New York and contribute to disproportionate environmental burdens in these communities. (For example, about 1,000 tons a day of Manhattan trash, including organics, has been sent for years to Covanta’s struggling incinerator in Newark, New Jersey.)
There is another problem associated with the current system of combining food waste with other waste that New Yorkers place curbside for collection by the sanitation service: the black bags containing this putrescible mixed waste provide access easy to food for the city’s increasingly cheeky rat population.
On the other hand, composting organic waste offers many advantages. This is a natural process that helps food scraps, yard waste and food-soiled paper break down and results in finished compost that is nutrient-rich and looks like fertile garden soil. The finished compost is used as a soil supplement that reduces the need for chemical fertilizers, prevents erosion, helps retain moisture, and aids in the growth of crops, street trees, and houseplants.
And composting operations create twice as many jobs as landfills (and four times as many as incinerators) per ton of waste disposed.
Well-designed compost collection programs also help homeowners place their curbside organics in resealable, vermin- and animal-proof containers, rather than in black plastic bags. This reform alone would remove an easily accessible source of free food for millions of New York rats.
Another option, also preferable to landfilling or incineration, is to send collected food scraps and yard waste to anaerobic digesters. Like composting, anaerobic digestion is a natural process that uses bacteria to break down organic matter. But unlike composting, anaerobic digestion takes place in an airtight tank; the decomposition of organic matter in this context produces “biogas”, mainly methane, which can be captured and used to replace natural gas generated by fossil fuels. This makes more sense on farms and wastewater treatment plants (some of which already have digesters to handle their existing waste loads, as well as the ability to use methane captured on-site to power their operations).
Officials have long known that organic waste can and should be handled in a more sustainable way than the current practice in New York today.
- As early as 2013, then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg called food waste “the last frontier of recycling in New York.” He noted that turning food waste into compost or energy can save taxpayers money (compared to landfilling and incineration) and sought to facilitate the collection of food waste nationwide. city.
- In 2014, then-Mayor Bill de Blasio and his new Sanitation Commissioner, Kathryn Garcia, proposed rolling out composting collections throughout the city over the next five years. In 2015, de Blasio’s first sustainability plan included, as the number one solid waste goal, the goal of expanding the city’s nascent compost collection program “to serve all New Yorkers in here the end of 2018”.
- Nearly a decade ago, the New York City Council first passed legislation to revive food waste composting collection for residents and businesses. And in 2020, then-Speaker Corey Johnson released a comprehensive City Council plan to address climate change. This plan recognized that a “key strategy” for the city was to “compel the separation and collection of curbside organics across the city.”
Despite these commitments, city policy has sailed in the opposite direction. The Sanitation Service’s voluntary curbside residential compost collection program, which began in 2013, was abruptly halted by City Hall during the Covid-related budget cuts of 2020. It has returned in a somewhat revamped form last summer. But its voluntary nature, combined with other challenges, has resulted in a program that has limited public participation, collects only a tiny fraction of potentially available organic material, and remains expensive to operate.
Meanwhile, the city’s vibrant community food waste collection sites – which then-Mayor de Blasio’s budget team also proposed defunding in 2020 – managed to hang on only thanks to an emergency loan from the city council that year and the determination of dedicated neighborhood nonprofit groups that manage operations. Today, the Sanitation Service supports approximately 200 of these voluntary food drop-off sites, many of them at GrowNYC’s green markets.
But at the same time, the Parks Department sought to evict two of the most successful and beloved community composting nonprofits, the Lower East Side Ecology Center and Big Reuse, from their operations on Parks properties. . Under the former mayor, department heads inexplicably insisted that neighborhood composting activities had no place in city parks. They did so even as the Ministry continued to ship large quantities of compostable leaves and yard waste generated in the parks themselves to methane-generating landfills.
Around the world, across the country and right here in New York, the impacts of extreme weather are already being felt. The climate crisis is upon us. And that justifies a rapid counter-attack on several fronts.
If New York City wants to be a national environmental leader of the century, it must put adopting a mandatory curbside compost collection program for all residents at the top of its to-do list. to do for 2021.
In Part II of this blog, we will outline the specific provisions that should be incorporated into a universal New York City food waste collection and composting law.