A change on this scale is not easy to implement, and in order to assist businesses on their food waste journey, the Foundation for New York’s Strongest will host the NYC Food Waste Fair, an expo-style event with workshops, digital content and live demonstrations, on June 27, 2017.
The organizers hope to equip New York City business owners and managers with the knowledge, tools and connections they need to build a food waste prevention plan from scratch, or take existing programs to the next level.
The exhibit hall will showcase dozens of vendors offering food waste prevention, recovery and recycling services. And workshops will provide information from city government officials on how to comply with laws and regulations, as well as tips from experts on how to achieve tangible, cost-effective results.
I know this sounds crazy, but moving to an apartment with curbside organics pickup has changed my life.
In my last apartment, I saved up my food waste throughout the week, storing it in the freezer to reduce smells, and then hauled it to the local greenmarket on Saturdays.
Sounds easy enough, but over time it drove me crazy. My refrigerator was old and small, and one or two bags of compost took up almost all of my freezer space. If I missed a weekend drop-off, things were suddenly out of control and, critically, I had no room in my freezer for actual food ice cream.
It was also just gross — I tried my best to keep things tidy and sealed, but there were leaks and drips, and at least once I had a fruit-fly massacre in my freezer. Yes, it was as bad as it sounds.
But now that I have curbside pick-up, I have reclaimed my freezer (yay, ice cream) and I find myself composting even more because there are no space limitations: into the bin goes paper, bread, dairy, even meat and bones.
My love for the brown bin goes beyond the size of my ice cream stash, though. Read on for five big reasons why I can’t stop composting.
5 Reasons I Love Composting in NYC Right Now
It’s really easy—and getting even easier. Organics collection in NYC just keeps on growing—more than a million residents now have access to the program, and city officials estimate that all residents will have access by 2018. Game changer! Literally all you have to do is collect your food waste and dump it in the bin. Move it to the curb on trash day, and whoosh, your compost disappears, along with your garbage and your recycling. Thank you, DSNY!
I never take out my trash. Well, almost. The DSNY estimates the single largest portion of our trash is organic material—meaning it could be composted. If you’re an avid reduce-reuse-recycler (that’s me waving my hand frantically), then after sorting properly, there’s almost nothing left to throw away. My trash can takes forever to get full, and I estimate that I’ve saved roughly $5 million on trash bags already.
No stinky smells. This is huge, especially in the summer. Because my kitchen trash can isn’t full of decomposing food, my household garbage basically never smells. It’s awesome. I won’t lie, though, the brown bin outside can get pretty stinky. Luckily, biodegradable compost bags or bin liners are sanctioned by DSNY and help cut down on the ick-factor quite a bit.
Pest-free living. Some folks are hesitant to try composting because they fear the bins will attract pests. I’m here to tell you that’s a myth! In fact, the opposite is true: putting food waste on the curb in plastic trash bags is essentially inviting rats, roaches and other critters to have a midnight feast at your expense. Locking all those tasty food scraps inside the city-provide brown bins, however? That actually does keep pests at bay…unless your neighborhood rats have super-human strength and opposable thumbs, in which case we’ve got bigger problems.
One of the best parts about composting is that it requires no special equipment to get started. Anything can be a bin — an old yogurt container, a large tupperware, even a plastic bag in the freezer. As long as you have a place to take your compost regularly, you can get started right now.
That being said, sometimes having the right equipment can make things easier. I’m not a huge proponent of buying more stuff (or kitchen clutter or single-use gadgets or plastic, to be honest) but I recently upgraded my countertop compost bin and I’m not mad about it.
A Better Bin
For many years, I used a classic ceramic jar to collect my scraps (you know the one). When the jar got full, I’d empty the slop into a plastic bag and store it in the freezer. It was fine, but there were occasionally issues — especially when dealing with particularly ripe or *juicy* food waste. Plus I always forgot to replace the charcoal filter.
Now that I have curbside organics pickup, I’ve changed my system a bit. Our building has asked that all residents use biodegradable bags in order to keep things tidy—a compromise I’m happy to make if it keeps people composting—and I decided to get a bin specifically made for these bags.
Enter the Full Circle compost collector. This bin is specifically designed to work with biodegradable bags and even though it has a few little flaws, I really, really love this thing.
Here’s how it works: the bag (I prefer these 3 gallon Biobags) clips in around the top with a stainless steel bar and essentially just hangs down inside the grey shell — this enables air to circulate around the compost. The air flow is key: not only does it evaporate any excess moisture, it also keeps the bag from breaking down too fast and magically eliminates almost all odors. It sounds weird but I find that it actually works. Also? Zero fruit fly infestations.
Once a week, I take the whole thing apart and pop it in the dishwasher.
My only complaint is that the lid, latch, and the bar that holds the bag in place all feel a little flimsy–like, if I get a tad overzealous in my composting, something might snap off. That being said, I’ve been using this container for eight months now and it’s still working just fine, so…maybe I’m just paranoid!
If I have any complaints I’ll be sure to update this post, but for now, I’m smitten with my new bin and find it a completely reasonable investment.
Now, let’s hear from you: how do you store your compost?
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New York City’s slow march towards zero waste has reached yet another milestone: as of July 19, certain large businesses are required by law to separate and recycle organic waste. The law applies to about 350 establishments, including stadiums, hotels, food manufacturers, and wholesalers.
Businesses that must comply are those who meet the following criteria:
All food service establishments in hotels with 150 or more rooms
All food service vendors in arenas and stadiums with seating capacity of at least 15,000 people
Food manufacturers with a floor area of at least 25,000 square feet
Food wholesalers with a floor area of at least 20,000 square feet
These businesses are given the option to arrange for collection by a private carter, transport organic waste themselves, or process the material on site.
If handling the waste themselves, businesses can use a machine called an ORCA, which can “digest” more than a ton of food waste per day. Using continuous motion, a proprietary “natural Microorganism solution” and “recycled plastic Bio Chips,” the ORCA turns food waste into “environmentally safe water” that can be disposed of into the municipal sewage system.
New York City’s organics collection plays a key role in Mayor de Blasio’s ambitious OneNYC plan, which sets forth a goal of “Zero Waste” by 2030.
Organic waste (food scraps, yard waste, and soiled paper not suitable for recycling) comprises nearly one-third of all waste NYC residents discard at the curb—approximately 1.1 million tons per year. In landfills, this organic material decomposes, releasing methane gas, a greenhouse gas six times more potent than carbon dioxide.
If composted, however, this material can be converted into a nutrient-rich natural fertilizer that can replenish our city’s soil. It can also be processed through anaerobic digestion, releasing methane gas that can be captured and used as an alternative to natural gas.
Since the launch of a pilot program in 2013, curbside organics collection has expanded include approximately 50,000 households and 700,000 residents across the city. By the end of 2016, DSNY plans to serve more than a million New Yorkers.
The goal is to make curbside or drop-off programs available to all residents by the end of 2018.
As incredible as the Mayor’s “zero waste” pledge sounds, his sustainability team has been chipping away at the goal — through expanding the use of residential composting, finding ways to turn organic waste into energy, increasing recycling options for electronic waste, etc.
The latest effort, the City’s Zero Waste Challenge, ended last week. Thirty-one private businesses attempted to see how much they could recycle or otherwise re-use their waste between February and June 2016.
The results are intriguing. Two companies were able to divert almost 100 percent of their trash from the waste stream. Half of the companies were able to divert at least 75 percent of their waste; and the other half removed at least fifty percent.
Why Composting Matters
How were these diversion rates achieved? Much of it involved composting organic material.
According to the Mayor’s Office, the participants in the challenge collectively diverted 36,910 tons of trash that would otherwise have been sent to landfills or incinerators. Two-thirds (24,500 tons) of that waste was composted.
Another 322 tons — all food — was donated.
The greatest overall waste diversion rate (across all participants) was achieved by produce distributors D’Arrigo Brothers of New York (95%) and the Durst Organization’s property at 201 East 42nd Street (95%).
Durst also achieved a 90% diversion rate at 205 East 42nd Street.
As part of their effort, D’Arrigo Brothers donated 172 tons of food to local charities and hunger relief organizations.
Getting organic material — food, yard waste, etc. — out of the waste stream has become paramount for the de Blasio administration. An estimated one-third of the city’s trash is actually organic material.
The Mayor’s Office said in a statement that the “best new program inspired by the Zero Waste Challenge” was the Starrett-Lehigh Building’s new organics collection program, which is free to all tenants and administered by RXR Realty.
Participants in the Zero Waste Challenge
Check out the greatest overall waste diversion rate achieved by type of business:
Arenas: Citi Field – 57%
Commercial tenants and building owners: Durst Organization, 201 E. 42nd Street – 95%
Food wholesalers, grocers and caterers: D’Arrigo Bros. of New York – 95%
Hotels: The Peninsula New York (66%) & Hilton Garden Inn Staten Island (66%)
Office tenants: Viacom – 87%
Restaurants/Caterers: Dig Inn Seasonal Market – 88%
TV production: Madam Secretary – 87%
Companies who achieved a 75% or more waste diversion rate:
Dig Inn Seasonal Market, 509 Manida St
Durst Organization, 1 Bryant Park
Durst Organization, 114 W 47th Street
Durst Organization, 733 3rd Avenue
Natural Resource Defense Council
Sweetgreen, Columbia University
Companies who achieved a 50% or more waste diversion rate:
Disney ABC Television Group
Durst Organization, 1133 Avenue of Americas
Durst Organization, 4 Times Square
Durst Organization, 655 3rd Avenue
Hilton Garden Inn New York/Staten Island
Momofuku Milk Bar
Peninsula New York
The Pierre New York
USEPA, Region 2 Office
Whole Foods Market, Upper East Side
Whole Foods Market, Chelsea
In the eternal battle to get kids to eat their greens, the stakes just got a little…lower? Last month, New York City announced a dramatic expansion of its school organics collection program, meaning that what doesn’t feed kids could eventually feed plants instead.
Starting this academic year, 720 schools across the city will be composting food waste, including every public school in Manhattan and Staten Island. That’s an enormous increase from the previous year’s 358 schools, and the Department of Sanitation hopes to have all of the city’s educational facilities on board by 2016-17.
Scooping Up Savings
New York City residents and businesses produce more than 20,000 tons of solid waste every day (that’s 40 million pounds!). A large portion of that is generated by the public school system, which has more than 1,800 buildings spread out through the city.
Forty percent of school waste comes directly from the cafeteria.
While there’s no doubt that having kids actually eat their veggies would be the best possible way to reduce school waste, it has become clear that organics collection and composting are also pretty good options.
“We realized that if we could divert that waste, we could not only save the city money, but we could also make an extraordinary environmental impact and make a statement about recycling.” says John Shea, chief executive officer at the New York City Department of Education.
Depending on where the participating school is located, the organic material is picked up by city sanitation trucks and taken to compost facilities in Staten Island, upstate New York or Delaware. From there, the waste decomposes into nutrient-rich soil that is then sold to farmers and landscapers.
DSNY claims that the cost of composting organics is 40 to 60 percent less than disposing of regular trash, thanks to the resale of the end product. Once the city’s entire school system is participating, administrators expect that they will be able to negotiate even lower costs with the facilities that receive the material.
Color-Coding and Hands-on Training
Implementing a composting system in public school — where kids often have less than 30 minutes just to scarf their sandwich — is not for the faint of heart.
The process begins in the cafeteria, where students sort their food into color-coded bins: one for trash (plastic bags, foam cups and wrappers), another for recyclables (metal, glass, plastic and milk cartons), another for liquids (milk, juice, water) and finally, a bin for food scraps.
Some schools utilize “green teams” of students or parents who don latex gloves and wield plastic grabbers to sort wayward objects.
But as one might imagine, the real key is training. “We have been working closely with the NYC Dept of Education to systematically train the Deputy Directors of Facilities who in turn train their custodians, and similarly SchoolFood managers,” says Mary Post, Public Information & Outreach Specialist at the DSNY. “We also provide regular trainings for Sustainability Coordinators in each school; and we’re working with the unions to present trainings to their members.”
The program that could eventually impact the way more than a million students across New York City eat (and discard) their lunch got its start in a much more modest way. In early 2012, a group of five public school parents launched a completely PTA-funded compost pilot in eight District 3 schools on the Upper West Side.
The parents—each of whom chair their school’s “Green Teams”—worked to implement the program in the school cafeterias by training students and staff on composting basics, including how to separate trash from meat, dairy, and kitchen scraps.
They also kept detailed records on how much compost, garbage, and recycling was generated at each school.
At the end of the program, which lasted for exactly four months, the parents found that they were diverting 450 pounds of food waste from landfill every single day — and reducing the volume of cafeteria garbage by 85 percent. In real terms, this meant decreasing the number of garbage bags used in their cafeterias from 54 to eight.
The following academic year the city took over the program, and has expanded it each year since.
In December 2013, the Sanitation Department was collecting recyclables from New York City residences and institutions at a rate of just over 16 per cent; the percentage is just about the same today. In view of the ambitious intentions of the city’s landmark recycling statute, Local Law 19 of 1989, this percentage is discouraging. But it doesn’t tell the whole story.
For one thing, it underestimates the actual amount of household recycling taking place in the five boroughs. It does that, for example, by having to exclude from its calculations the significant number of bottles and cans that are placed out for recycling by city residents but are plucked from their blue recycling bags and bins by curbside scavengers before these valuable materials are picked up by the Sanitation Department and brought to the city’s recycling contractor. Other residential waste materials that end up in non-city run recycling programs (e.g., clothing drop-offs at non-profit organizations, battery and tire recycling at retail outlets, etc.) are similarly not counted in these official recycling calculations.
In addition, the 2013 recycling percentage does not reflect the seeds that were planted in the last year of Mayor Bloomberg’s term. Expanding the types of plastics that can be included in recycling bins, adding pilot projects to collect food waste for composting, growing the number of high-rise buildings that are separating textiles and e-waste, increasing recycling in public schools and on city streets — these and other recent enhancements to the city’s recycling program hold the promise of significant growth in the amount of refuse that New York City diverts from landfills and incinerators in the not-too-distant future.
2014 – The de Blasio Administration Builds Momentum on Recycling/Composting
When Mayor Bill de Blasio took office in January 2014, some New Yorkers were worried that he would abandon the sustainability focus that the Bloomberg Administration had begun. Eight months later, it is safe to say that, at least in the area of solid waste and recycling, such concerns appear to have been unwarranted.
To be sure, the Mayor is putting his own stamp on sustainability. And he comes at the issue with a frame that is different from Mayor Bloomberg’s. But when it comes to recycling and composting, the de Blasio administration seems determined to keep moving New York City sustainability policies forward.
First, the Mayor appointed Kathryn Garcia as his new Sanitation Commissioner. The commissioner, a former top official at the city’s Department of Environmental Protection, has a long-running commitment to sustainability. And in her very first public statement upon being appointed, the Commissioner expressed the new Administration’s intention of “taking this agency to the forefront of the nation in terms of composting.”
Sure enough, the Commissioner and her team have continued to grow the organics collection pilot projects serving single- and multi-family households and schools in New York City. By July 2014, the curbside food waste collection demonstration projects had expanded to reach over 240,000 New Yorkers in all five boroughs.
The Commissioner has also begun an assessment of how recycling collections can be made more cost-effective — an analysis that could benefit city taxpayers and help to achieve the objectives of Local Law 19 at the same time. As the Commissioner recently stated, “(w)e are embracing the view that waste should be treated as a resource and in fact, we actually receive revenue from some of our recycling vendors when they sell or directly reuse the material.”
In another positive sign, the de Blasio Administration and the City Council renewed the contract with GrowNYC’s Office of Recycling Outreach and Education. This feisty little office has played a big role in building recycling and composting programs in the city’s schools and is assisting the Sanitation Department in much-needed public education efforts.
Ultimately, of course, it is performance that counts. The initial signals from Mayor de Blasio and his Sanitation Department hold the promise that the city will at long last achieve the recycling and sustainability objectives of Local Law 19 of 1989. But the final chapter has yet to be written.
Things to Look for in the Years Ahead
Here are seven issues to watch as the waste policy reforms of the de Blasio Administration and the New York City Council move forward:
The single greatest step the City can take to divert waste from landfills and incinerators is to phase in programs that separate out food scraps and yard waste for composting and/or sustainable anaerobic digestion. Will the Sanitation Department continue its ongoing efforts to expand curbside collection of organics for residents and businesses and also boost community composting right here in New York City?
Ongoing, effective public education efforts are essential to the long-term success of recycling in New York City. Will the Department of Education cooperate with the de Blasio administration to insure that every school classroom has recycling bins and every school lunchroom collects food scraps for composting? And will GrowNYC’s Office of Recycling Outreach and Education be given the funding it needs to target public education efforts where they are needed most?
Residents and building managers in many neighborhoods are already separating a large portion of their recyclable refuse for curbside collections; but in other areas, lack of participation remains a serious problem. What will the New York City Housing Authority do to make recycling convenient for their tenants and what will the Sanitation Department do to convince other reluctant building managers to improve their waste-handling practices?
Textiles and electronic waste can be easily separated out of the waste stream for reuse, recycling or safe handling, as the Sanitation Department’s recently launched refashioNYC and e-cycleNYC initiatives demonstrate. Will property owners and managers cooperate and take advantage of these new services and, if not, will the City Council take action to build out these worthwhile programs to scale?
Polystyrene food and beverage containers and plastic take-out bags contribute disproportionately to litter and pollution problems on streets, at parks and in waterways, while causing big headaches at recycling facilities. Will the de Blasio Administration and the City Council move forward with current plans to reduce these burdens and insure that more environmentally friendly substitutes are used instead?
While recycling and composting are cost-competitive with landfilling and incineration, it is possible to reduce the expenses associated with recycling and composting further by adjusting the schedules and routes for waste collections in New York City (as is already being done in municipalities across the country). Will the Sanitation union, the Department and the de Blasio administration work cooperatively in ongoing labor discussions to secure flexibility in trash collection routes and schedules so as to provide financial benefits to all parties?
Ultimately, for recycling to be a complete economic and environmental success, strong and vibrant markets for the materials collected in the recycling programs must exist and be encouraged. Will the de Blasio Administration and the City Council, with their enormous purchasing power, use the city’s procurement process to strengthen markets for recyclables currently being collected (e.g., glass and plastics) and help build new recycling industries here in the New York region?
When Local Law 19 of 1989 took effect twenty-five summers ago, on July 14th, my NRDC colleague Mark Izeman told the New York Times: “It is fitting that the statute’s time clock starts ticking on Bastille Day, because we could be witnessing a mini-revolution in local garbage policies.”
None of us expected that the revolution would take this long. But here at NRDC we are confident that the changes in New York waste policy envisioned by the City Council in 1989 are finally in the process of being realized. And the reverberations of Local Law 19 of 1989 are likely to be felt for years to come.
The 2000s – The New Administration Stumbles at the Start
Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who took office in 2002, compiled an impressive track record in addressing environmental health and sustainability issues in New York City. But he didn’t start off as a big fan of recycling or of Local Law 19 of 1989, the City’s recycling Magna Carta.
Indeed, in 2002, the Sanitation Department proposed to eliminate recycling collections of metals, plastic and glass. The Bloomberg Administration suggested that such a move would save 57 million dollars a year, although the Department was never able to document that claim.
Again, the New York City Council came to the rescue. Thanks to Speaker Gifford Miller and Sanitation Committee Chair Mike McMahon, a compromise was reached; metals would stay in the program, plastics would be suspended but only until 2003 and glass collections would be suspended but would return in 2004.
Unfortunately, these stops and starts — on top of what had already been a program under attack from the previous administration — further confused the public. In part as a result of these changes, participation in the curbside recycling program declined.
In December 1999, the citywide residential and institutional recycling tonnage collected by the Sanitation Department had reached about 2,500 tons per day, a rate of over 21 percent. By December 2002, however, the citywide recycling tonnage collected by the Department had declined to about 1,550 tons per day, just under 13 percent. And even after the plastic and glass recycling collections were restored, the numbers did not fully bounce back.
In the summer of 2010, the City Council, under the leadership of Speaker Christine Quinn and Sanitation Committee Chair Tish James, enacted eleven new recycling laws. They were designed to update Local Law 19 of 1989 and to advance its original objectives. Among other things, the new laws sought to expand recycling collections to cover additional kinds of plastics, boost recycling in public schools, increase recycling in public spaces, and jumpstart food waste composting.
Another one of the laws established revised goals for recycling tonnages. It modified the original tonnage mandates of the 1989 statute and set 2020 as the final date for achieving a 25% rate for citywide residential recycling collected by the Sanitation Department at curbside and a 33% goal for all residential recyclables – those collected at curbside by the Department as well as residential refuse recycled by other means (e.g., bottles and cans redeemed under the state’s bottle deposit program, composting programs, electronic waste and other retailer take-back programs, etc.).
2012 – Team Bloomberg Launches Bold New Recycling Initiatives
In the spring of 2012, the Bloomberg Administration’s big turnaround began. The Mayor sought to make up for lost time by appointing the first-ever Deputy Commissioner for Recycling and Sustainability, Ron Gonen — a savvy entrepreneur with the talent to help expand recycling cost-effectively. The appointment was championed by Deputy Mayor Cas Holloway, who understood that the rising costs of landfilling could make recycling economically attractive and that stepped up recycling would mesh well with the Mayor’s greenhouse gas reduction goals.
Then, in the summer of 2013, Mayor Bloomberg announced that the city would begin collecting all rigid plastics as part of its recycling collections. This change marked what Sanitation officials and waste experts hope will be the beginning of the end of years of confusion as to which plastics go in which receptacles. And it reflects the reality that genuine markets to purchase many (but not all) types of plastic waste have emerged over the past twenty five years.
The Administration also launched ambitious pilot projects designed to jumpstart curbside collections of food waste from households on Staten Island, high rise residences in Manhattan, and city public schools. These demonstration projects were revolutionary because food wastes and other organics account for more than 25% of the city’s residential waste stream. Get food scraps and yard waste out of landfills and incinerators and you’ve struck a powerful blow against pollution-generating and economically unsound waste disposal practices.
At the same time, the Sanitation Department kicked off enhanced programs to make recycling of textiles and electronic waste much more convenient for apartment-dwellers. The Department’s re-fashioNYC program is run jointly with a non-profit group, Housing Works. At the request of building managers, the city has been installing permanent bins for collecting clothing in apartment buildings of ten or more units (over 460 now and more being added); when the bins are filled, occupants notify the Department/Housing Works team, which arranges to empty the bins and reuse or recycle the contents for charitable purposes.
A companion to clothing and textile collections is the city’s recently launched e-cycleNYC program. For this new initiative, the Department has been installing separate bins (now over 300 and more available) in high-rise buildings that give residents a convenient place to drop off their old computers, televisions, and other unwanted electronic waste; when notified that bins are full, the city and its partner, Electronics Recyclers International, collect these wastes for reuse or for disassembly and recycling. (This initiative is supplementing the still-ongoing Lower East Side Ecology Center’s e-waste drop-off program, which has for years been a savior to New Yorkers who could not get themselves to toss old electronics, with their toxic constituents, out with the household trash.)
As 2013 came to a close, the Bloomberg Administration was also celebrating the long-awaited opening of a beautiful, new recycling facility on the Brooklyn waterfront in Sunset Park. Sims Municipal Recycling – the company that is handling all of the city’s metals, glass and plastic recyclables under a 20 year contract with the city — now has a modern sorting plant that is providing green jobs for New Yorkers and moving most of its recyclables by barge and rail.
Last but not least, Mayor Bloomberg advanced two forward-looking bills that were passed by the City Council and signed by the Mayor in his last month in office. One law set the stage for the Sanitation Department to phase out the polystyrene food and beverage containers in New York City. It requires the Commissioner to prohibit the use of such containers unless she concludes by the end of this year that this problematic waste can somehow be recycled in an economically and environmentally sound manner.
The second law gave another boost to composting and other sustainable organics handling strategies. It directs large scale commercial generators of food waste in the city to insure that their organic materials are sent to composting or similar facilities (rather than to landfills or incinerators) beginning in July 2015 — provided that sufficient capacity to sustainably handle such food wastes exists in the region by that time.
A third and concluding section of this blog will review the de Blasio Administration’s record to date in advancing the recycling objectives set forth in Local Law 19 of 1989. It will also identify seven things to look for over the next several years as the new Administration moves forward with what we hope will become the final chapter in the Local Law 19 story — the transformation of New York City into a national leader on sustainable waste practices. Read Part I of the series here.