New York City’s Opportunities for More Sustainable Waste Management

Mayor Bloomberg touting the expansion of recycling in 2004.  What will his successor do?  What should New Yorkers ask his successor to do?

Mayor Bloomberg touting the expansion of recycling in 2004. What will his successor do? What should New Yorkers ask his successor to do?

In the closing months of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration, New York City’s waste management practices have room for improvement.  A quarter century after the Mobro 4000’s voyages embarrassed New Yorkers, the city still ships its garbage to distant landfills.  The residential recycling rate hovers around 15%, well below that of San Francisco (though still well above Chicago’s rate), and most food waste goes into landfills.

The latter may be changing soon.  The New York Times reports the city will soon announce that it is hiring a composting plant to handle about 100,000 tons of food waste annually.   While that sounds like a lot, in a city with over 8 million residents, that works out to about one-tenth of the wasted food in town.  Still, carting food scraps to industrial composting facilities would represent a major diversion of waste away from landfills.  Increasing the volume at local composting facilities might also make it possible to process potentially compostable resins used in packaging materials and bioplastic cutlery (which do not break down unless temperatures are sufficiently hot, a problem in small-scale operations).  While any program would not become fully operational until into the next mayor’s term, the Times reports at least two of the Democratic candidates (Christine Quinn and Bill de Blasio) appear to support expanding composting. Should all go according to plan, the program will grow in the next three years.

Sanitation officials said 150,000 single-family homes would be on board voluntarily by next year, in addition to more than 100 high-rise buildings — more than 5 percent of the households in the city. More than 600 schools will take part as well.

The program should expand to the entire city by 2015 or 2016, the sanitation officials said.

Under the program, residents collect food waste — like stale bread, chicken bones and potato peels — in containers the size of picnic baskets in their homes. The contents are then deposited in larger brown bins on the curb for pickup by sanitation trucks.

Residents of apartment buildings dump pails of food scraps at central collection points, most likely in the same places they put recyclable material.

It remains to be seen whether New Yorkers will embrace the program, given that some may cringe at keeping a container of potentially malodorous waste in a typically cramped urban kitchen.

The city has historically had a relatively mediocre record in recycling, diverting only about 15 percent of its total residential waste away from landfills.

In the latest 12-month period recorded, the Sanitation Department issued 75,216 summonses to home and building owners for failing to recycle. Officials expected that more summonses will be issued in the current fiscal year, because the department has redeployed personnel to recycling enforcement.

Still, the residential food-waste program would represent the biggest expansion of recycling efforts since the city began separating paper, metal and glass in 1989.

“It’s revolutionary for New York,” said Eric A. Goldstein, a senior lawyer with the Natural Resources Defense Council, a prominent environmental group. “If successful, pretty soon there’ll be very little trash left for homeowners to put in their old garbage cans.”

The city spent $336 million last year disposing of residential trash, exporting most of it to landfills in Ohio, Pennsylvania and South Carolina.

Food waste and other organic materials account for almost a third of all residential trash, and the city could save about $100 million a year by diverting it from landfills, said Ron Gonen, who was hired last year as deputy sanitation commissioner for recycling and sustainability, a new job at the department.

Composting is one way to reduce the materials in the city’s waste stream. Another would be to eliminate or reduce the single-use shopping bags retailers give customers in New York City. Several other municipalities across the United States either charge a fee for plastic bags or outright ban them. Should New York City follow suit?

“Plastic shopping bags are an enormous problem for New York City,” said Ron Gonen, the deputy commissioner of sanitation for recycling and waste reduction, noting that the city pays $10 million annually to send 100,000 tons of plastic bags that are tossed in the general trash to landfills in South Carolina, Ohio and Pennsylvania. That, he points out, “is amazing to think of, because a plastic bag doesn’t weigh much at all.”

All across the country, plastic bags are the bane of recycling programs. When carelessly placed into recycling bins for general plastic — which they often are — the bags jam and damage expensive sorting machines, which cost huge amounts to repair.

“We have to get people to start carrying reusable bags,” Mr. Gonen said. “We’re going to do what we can to start moving the needle.”

“The question,” he continued, “is do we use a carrot or a stick to change behavior?”

New Yorkers interested in adopting a proven stick to change the behavior can discuss the idea of a plastic bag ban in Park Slope (Greenwood Baptist Church, 461 6th St. at the corner of 7th Ave., to be specific) at 7pm on Monday, June 24. Brad Lander from the city council will be one of the speakers discussing how a plastic bag ban could work to lessen the environmental and economic costs these bags incur. No word as of yet on which (if any) mayoral candidates would support a ban.

Food waste and single-use plastic bags are two vexing issues in municipal solid waste, ones that deserve the discussion they are getting in New York City.

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