The Composting Solution

Trash talk in New York is on the rise. So is trash. And as the city tries to grapple with its garbage challenge, it is trying to reverse this trend, working towards a “zero waste” future by 2030. But the success of the plan is contingent upon a lot of factors, including us—the creators of garbage.

Organic waste—like food waste, food-soiled paper, and yard waste—make up 31 percent of NYC’s residential and institutional waste stream. The Sanitation Department is starting a number of programs to divert recyclable material away landfills and incineration plants. The Organics Collection is one such program, with the aim of turning such waste into compost.

The Sanitation Department established a voluntary pilot program for residential organic waste curbside collection in 2013. As part of the program, participating families in the pilot areas were given a “starter kit,” which included a brown organics bin, a small beige kitchen container to collect food scraps, compostable plastic bags, and educational material about organics recycle. “We hope our organics collection program will not only reduce the amount of waste sent to landfills, but also create compost, a natural fertilizer,” said Kathryn Garcia, the city’s sanitation commissioner.

The program currently serves 100,000 households in all five boroughs. This May through June, it will be expanded to include around 40,000 additional households. Click on the icons in the map below to know the new neighborhoods. (The new areas will include Riverdale and Fieldston in the Bronx, parts of Greenpoint, North Williamsburg, and Northern Bay Ridge in Brooklyn; Castleton Corners, Port Richmond, and West Brighton on Staten Island; and portions of Maspeth, Ridgewood, and Woodside in Queens (see the map).

Morningside Gardens, a complex in the Upper West Side, was one of the first few residences to sign up for the program. The property—two square blocks in all—comprises six buildings that house a total of 980 apartments. During the program’s launch in 2013, nearly 70 percent of the residents collected the starter kits provided by the city, according to Russell Jermyn, general manager. “We’re pulling out 200 pounds a week approximately in just organics.”

Morningside Gardens has set up an exterior area with metal containers for garbage and for regular recyclables, along with the 21-gallon bins for organics recycling. Residents from all the six buildings bring their composting material to this central location.

For residents living in the farthest buildings, away from the central sanitation location, the management is also doing a test run by placing the composting bins in the basement of these buildings two nights a week. “We’ll actually roll it to every building, all for convenience and increasing participation,” said Jermyn. An organics pick-up truck arrives three days a week to collect the waste.

Morningside Gardens is also building a “total sanitation solution area” that will house containers for garbage, recycling, and composting, as well as e-waste and textiles. “The idea being that it’s going to end up being this one-stop shop for all sanitation needs, and we’ll have some area to expand if the city expands into other programs, whatever they might be,” said Jermyn.

From the city’s pilot areas, organic waste is sent to a transfer station in the city and then transported to a regional processor. The department has contracted a number of vendors, including WeCare Organics and Waste Management, in the tri-state region who are working with the department to manage the material. The department also funds a food-waste drop-off program to serve New Yorkers who live outside the pilot areas.

Where does it all go? To gardens, parks, and street trees in the city, feeding the soil.

Loads that are too contaminated for compost are diverted to landfills. “We are taking steps to reduce contamination in the organics stream, including by switching all schools from foam to compostable trays beginning this fall,” said Kathy Dawkins, the Department of Sanitation spokeswoman. The department is also working with vendors to develop a front-end sorting infrastructure to remove contaminants from the organics stream.

The current budget for the Organics Collection program is around $10 million. As per the latest available report,
between April and September 2014, the Sanitation Department collected about 3,750 tons of organic material from the pilot areas, resulting in up to a 6.5 percentage point increase in the recycling diversion rate.

The department is yet to determine if the program has reduced the cost of waste management. “The department is carefully evaluating the public’s response to the program and will determine the next step,” said Dawkins.

Currently, only around 17 percent of New York’s total residential waste is recycled—down from its peak of 23 percent in 2001. One reason: a few years ago, the department suspended its recycling collection of glass and plastics. That lowered the recycling diversion rate. And recycling is still optional for commercial entities, which generate nearly 75 percent of the city’s trash.

According to Mayor Bill deBlasio’s OneNYC plan, the Organics Collection program will be expanded to serve all New Yorkers by the end of 2018. It will be part of a sustained effort meant to pave the way for a waste-free New York by 2030. “I am very excited to have NYC take this major step toward a truly sustainable solid waste management system,” said Garcia. “It’s a lot about rethinking the waste stream and making sure that for anything anyone is going to throw away in the city, that we have some sort of vehicle to put it into reuse or into recycling.” — Seema Somshekar


Percent of the waste stream

We hope our organics collection program will not only reduce the amount of waste sent to landfills, but also create compost, a natural fertilizer. Kathryn Garcia

NYC Sanitation Commissioner