In the fall of 2012, New York City launched a pilot program to test out the curbside collection of organic waste – food scraps, food-soiled paper and yard waste – in its dense urban neighborhoods. The project – which included 30,000 households in the Bronx, Brooklyn and Staten Island, as well as over 100 schools and city buildings throughout the city – was much more successful than officials anticipated, and now the city is rolling out the curbside organics collection program to the rest of the Big Apple in phases. This spring, an additional 70,000 households in Queens and Brooklyn received new brown carts where residents can toss in fruit and vegetable trimmings, meat and bones, napkins, and even pizza boxes.
New York City sends about 3.2 million tons of waste to landfills each year, the New York Times reported, and spends around $350 million annually to haul trash as far away as South Carolina, according to Bloomberg Businessweek. By expanding the composting collection program citywide, officials hope to make a dent in that staggering statistic, estimating that organics make up approximately 30 percent of the city’s waste stream.
The city currently composts material collected from the pilot program at local and regional facilities, but in the future it plans to send the organic waste to a facility that will capture the methane released from the scraps and turn it into natural gas – enough to heat as many as 5,200 homes in Brooklyn, the New York Times reported. Power company National Grid expects to break ground on the new facility at the city’s largest wastewater treatment plant this summer.
Composting organic material from the nation’s largest city clearly has environmental and economic benefits, but will the program be successful? Despite the unexpected popularity of the pilot program, New Yorkers have been slow to increase their recycling efforts: Bloomberg Businessweek reported that recycling participation has stalled at 43 percent or less over the past several years, even with a city ordinance mandating recycling. Last year, New York issued 51,000 violations to the city’s recycling program for paper, plastics, glass and metals, according to Bloomberg. While New York City’s organics program is currently a voluntary initiative, it may become mandatory in the next few years.
New York Times reporter Vivian Yee visited Bay Ridge in Queens – a neighborhood recently included in the composting program – in late May and noticed that about one out of every three households had set out their new organics carts on garbage pickup day.
Reaction to the new brown organics carts has been mixed, Yee found: Residents who already considered themselves environmentalists – who drive a Prius or used to compost on their own – were excited about the new program and quick to adopt the system for separating their waste. Then there were the holdouts: individuals who are not willing to participate in the compost program or even the city’s conventional recycling program which was introduced in 1989.
Yee also met many New Yorkers who were skeptical of the program at first – worried about the stench, the extra work or even the bar code on the bin itself (might the city be tracking what she throws away, one woman wondered) – but overcame their concerns and eventually started tossing their apple cores and orange peels in the brown cart.
Melanie Nutter, director of San Francisco’s Department of the Environment, thinks that these initially hesitant individuals can be converted to composters over time. Writing for CNN, Nutter pointed out that San Francisco’s impressive 80 percent waste diversion rate and thriving composting program took years of hard work to achieve:
“Success does not happen overnight,” Nutter wrote. “Behavior change is hard business. In San Francisco, when recycling and composting was mandated, we experienced some initial resistance because of the ‘ick’ factor: the idea that composting could be foul smelling and belongs on a farm, not in a city. Overcoming these misconceptions is as easy as reminding people that compostables have been in your kitchen trash can all along. Now, you are separating out your coffee grounds, food scraps, soiled paper and dead flowers and putting them toward a good cause.”
New York City has a tough road ahead of it, but cities like San Francisco, Seattle and Austin have proven that citizens can get over the “yuck” factor and embrace composting as a way of life. Scott Lynch, writer for Gothamist and novice composter, summed it up best: “Overall, recycling your food waste isn’t convenient or pleasant or fun, but like a lot of household chores it’s mostly a matter of adopting a new routine, and then it just feels normal.”
Passionate about both writing and sustainability, Alexis Petru is freelance journalist based in the San Francisco Bay Area whose work has appeared on Earth911, Huffington Post and Patch.com. Prior to working as a writer, she coordinated environmental programs for Bay Area cities and counties. Connect with Alexis on Twitter at @alexispetru