Solid waste is amazing stuff

Council Member Antonio Reynoso, center, Ron Goren, left, and Jennifer McDonnell, right, at the Solid Waste Advisory Board forum. Photo: Diana DuCroz
It really is, but experts and elected officials say a lack of public awareness hinders city recycling programs
By Diana Ducroz

Mayor Bill de Blasio’s new Green New Deal for New York City doubles down on the city’s goal of ‘zero waste’ by the year 2030. Even so, citywide expansion of curbside collection for residential organic waste, an essential element in reaching that goal, remains on hold.

In 2017, New Yorkers produced 3.1 million tons of solid waste, of which 2.5 million tons ended up in landfills. A third of that solid waste stream consists of food waste and yard cuttings — organic materials that could be converted to compost or clean renewable energy if diverted to appropriate recycling facilities. Instead, most of the city’s organic waste ends up in landfills, where it becomes the main cause of methane gas emissions.

Since it launched in 2013, the city’s residential organics curbside pickup program has grown to serve 3.5 million households. Participants place their food scraps and other organic waste in brown bins for weekly curbside pickup by the Department of Sanitation. While large sections of Brooklyn and Queens have been automatically enrolled in the program, in Manhattan, building managers must apply to receive the service.

In 2017, even for households in the curbside pickup program, 90 percent of organic waste was still going into the garbage. This low diversion rate makes recycling collection expensive and inefficient. Last year DSNY put the planned citywide expansion of the curbside program on hold, blaming the setback on a lack of public participation.

‘The Education Isn’t There’

A recent public forum on the Green New Deal, hosted by the Manhattan Solid Waste Advisory Board, brought together a panel of city officials and industry experts for an assessment of the ‘infrastructure gaps’ in the city’s solid waste management. Council Member Antonio Reynoso maintained that the real problem is not a lack of interest, but a lack of public awareness, both of the program and of the fiscal and environmental benefits it provides.

According to Reynoso, despite the need for a more aggressive marketing campaign for curbside organic recycling, the city’s budget is woefully short. “The budget for marketing at the Department of Sanitation is a joke,” Reynoso said. “Just the education, it isn’t there.”

Aside from the environmental benefits, recycling organic waste makes good fiscal sense. Advocates say the cost of a public marketing campaign pales next to the dollar amounts required to send the city’s waste to out-of-state landfills.

Reynoso and Ron Gonen, another panelist at the forum, pegged the cost of exporting the city’s organic waste at $200 million a year. Gonen, a former Deputy Commissioner of Sanitation who now heads a ‘green’ investment firm, put the numbers in perspective. “Over the next ten years, if we don’t do something different, we will spend $2 billion of our tax dollars to export food waste out to landfill,” he said. “That food waste could be used to generate clean energy in New York City. In fact, it can be turned into fuel for the sanitation vehicles.”

Energy from Food Waste

Jennifer McDonnell, Resource Recovery Program manager for the NYC Department of Environmental Protection, works to increase conversion of the city’s organic waste into clean renewable energy. At the forum, McDonnell explained the complicated science in lay-person terms. The city has over 50 ‘anaerobic digesters’ at its 14 wastewater treatment facilities, including the photogenic ‘eight giant eggs’ at the Newtown Creek facility in Greenpoint, McDonnell said. “They are digesting everything that you flush down the toilet and pour down the sink and some of the stuff that ends up in our storm drains.” The end product is biosolids that can be converted into clean energy and fuel.

“Unfortunately, a large percentage of city’s biosolids are going to landfill right now,” McDonnell said. “That’s what I spend most of my time trying to change.”

The current rate of organics digestion at Newtown Creek is 130 tons a day, well below the facility’s daily capacity of 500 tons, according to McDonnell. “We have struggled to get the food waste so it’s really an unfortunate conundrum here, with the lack of funding, also lack of participation,” McDonnell said. “I talk a lot with people about ‘Do you know what a brown bin is for?’ and it’s still mysterious or misused or not used for a variety of reasons.”

McDonnell acknowledged another possible reason for the public’s lack of participation. “Sometimes it can be gross and icky,” she said. But “your food waste is going to gross and icky whether it’s in your compost bin or whether it’s in your trash bag.”

Council Member Reynoso has come to believe that, ultimately, mandatory recycling will be necessary for the program’s success. “But right now, it isn’t even voluntary citywide,” Reynoso said. “Regulating is the only way it’s going to get done.”

20,000 Manhattan Households Do It

Manhattanites who live in buildings not yet served by the curbside pickup program can still recycle their food waste at any one of over 100 food scrap drop-off locations around town. Despite the hassle, roughly 20,000 households are separating their household organics and bringing it to a drop-off site, according to Ron Gonen. “That’s 20,000 homes, New Yorkers who keep their food waste in their homes all week and then schlep it down to the greenmarket.”

Gonen sees this as a sign that organics recycling will ultimately succeed in New York City despite the current setbacks. “You would be hard pressed to find some other social initiative where 20,000 households voluntarily do something every day in their apartment, and then once a week leave their apartment and walk a few blocks to do something,” he said. “Ten years from now, 15 years from now, NYC sanitation vehicles will be running off of fuel generated by our food waste. That technology exists today to do it.”

Jennifer McDonnell encouraged the audience members to spread awareness of organics recycling through their everyday interactions, both to educate others and to prove public interest in the program. “People should be talking about this as something that ‘We, the people want.’ We want organics, and we want education and we want this to be a part of our Green New Deal.”