New York Sets A New Bar for Organics Recycling

True to the beginnings of most curbside programs, New York’s organics collection began as a pilot serving a microcosm of the population. The initial 2013 pilot served 30,000 households and increased to 100,000 by 2014. Since then, the curbside organics collection program has catapulted to serving more than two million residents in all five boroughs over a mere three years. By the end of 2017, the Department of Sanitation of New York (DSNY) will serve 3.3 million and by 2018 all 8.5 million New Yorkers will have either curbside access or drop-off sites in their immediate area.

Already, New York’s curbside organics collection program has ascended to the largest in the nation. San Antonio clocks in as the second largest city to provide curbside organics collection with a population of 1.3 million and an opt-out program incorporated into their pay-as-you-throw tiered rate structure. Other cities with robust curbside organics collection range from the mandatory Seattle program to the opt-in Minneapolis program where all residents must pay, but only those who register receive a cart.

Just as the accepted materials for curbside collection programs of recyclables vary tremendously, so do accepted materials for organics programs. New York in particular accepts yard waste, food-soiled paper like napkins, plates, and paper towels, as well as all food in curbside bins. For residents who aren’t yet serviced or live in buildings that will not receive curbside service, more than one hundred drop-off points are poised throughout the city, staffed by volunteers to take a variety of the same materials, with the exception of meat, fish, dairy, as well as fats, oil, and grease.

New York is not only unique in its breakneck speed of proliferating organics collection to residents, but in crafting a particularly formidable commercial organics rule under Local Law 146. To date, the major efforts in place to ban commercial generators from landfilling food waste have been introduced by California, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont and Rhode Island. New York State itself nearly joined this cohort after Governor Cuomo introduced the Food Recovery and Recycling Act, though it failed to make the 2018 state budget.

Despite the state legislation setback, New York City’s commercial organics requirement passed in July 2016 and has been enforceable through a tiered series of fines since January 2017. Encompassing arenas and stadiums with 15,000 seats or more, hotels with more than 150 rooms, food manufacturers with at least 25,000 square feet, and food wholesalers with floor areas of at least 20,000 square feet, covered businesses must source separate organic waste on-site. Once collected, generators can chose to process the material on-site with various pretreatment technologies or transport the material off-site to an anaerobic digestion or composting facility.

Even though the current commercial organics rule is just one year old, DSNY Commissioner Kathryn Garcia announced a proposal in early July to expand the current organics mandate to encompass approximately 2,000 more businesses. Specifically, food service establishments larger than 7,000 square feet, chain food service establishments with 50 or more NYC locations, as well as retail food stores like groceries and big box stores more than 10,000 square feet will all be required to comply.

All together, this new batch of food waste generators is expected to divert an additional 50,000 tons per year from landfills. If officially adopted, businesses would have six months to comply and fines for non-compliance would be enforced within one year. The immediate plans for expansion and relatively short times for compliance demonstrate how much more nimble a city organics requirement can be compared to less agile state legislation. Irrespective of state support, it’s clear that DSNY has an independent mindset towards reaching the city goal of sending zero waste to landfill by 2030.

Though bold, these decisions are not made with haste. Each spring, DSNY undertakes a thorough analysis of processing capacity and infrastructure growth in the greater NYC area to ensure that expanded requirements for generators to separate food waste can be accommodated by compost manufacturers or anaerobic digestion facilities. In Commissioner Garcia’s words, “We’re being very conservative… We’re cautious to make sure we’re not getting ahead of ourselves.” American Organic Energy, Quantum Biogas, Vanguard, and just a few of the anaerobic digesters coming on-line in the region recently. Garcia continues to explain that this due diligence is “part of making sure the processing sector is ready. But, also making sure the private carter sector is ready.”

 Compost screening at Value Added Farm's Red Hook location. Photo Credit: Value Added Farms

Compost screening at Value Added Farm's Red Hook location. Photo Credit: Value Added Farms

This is not to say that all the processing capacity New York food waste will require must be capital intensive or large-scale. In fact, New York City is home to more than 230 community composting sites including the largest community composting operation in the United States at Added Value Farms, which is supported by 1,900 volunteers and processes over 225 tons of organics annually using exclusively renewable energy. Similarly, a portion of the 70 public schools that collect organics city-wide process their own food waste on-site.

Conversely, a concerted effort is being made to apply compost that is created from New Yorkers’ food waste back to New York soils. DSNY boasts both free delivery of pallets of bagged compost to gardeners, parks, and nonprofit organizations, as well as compost giveback events where residents can take up to ten 40-pound bags free-of-charge.

Food waste that’s processed not by the city, but by private haulers and compost manufacturers, has a smattering of different end markets. McEnroe Organic Farm, located in New York’s Hudson Valley, produces about 28,000 tons of finished compost from New York food waste. About 60% used by the farm itself to raise organic vegetables and grains and the remainder sells for up to $100 per cubic yard. American Organic Energy, on the other hand, will compost the digestate from its anaerobic digestion enterprise and then sell the anticipated 40,000 tons per year to regional garden centers under the Scotts Miracle-Gro brand.

Indeed, strong end markets for compost and biogas may prove to be an indispensable measure to build independent momentum for food waste recycling. It’s clear from the plastics and paper recycling industry that with or without robust policy support, lack of end markets for a specific material can cut a circular economy off at the knees. Luckily, the $3 billion compost industry has room to grow into the much more muscular $21 billion conventional fertilizer sector. And, with leaders like New York providing indisputable evidence that thoughtful organics programs can be tested and scaled with incredible speed, there is reason to be optimistic that other large cities and municipalities may follow in their footsteps.


Charlotte Dreizen