Bloomberg’s New Composting Plan Could Have a Big Impact Beyond New York

food scrapsA few weeks ago, the local farmers market in my Brooklyn neighborhood finally started operating. I was happy, not just because of the fresh local strawberries and other produce available at the market, but also because I can recycle our food waste there.

So, for the next six months I’ll be shoving food scraps into our freezer, and taking them every Saturday to the composting bins at the farmers market. It’s really not that convenient, not to mention I have now very little room in the freezer for actual food, which is why last week I was thrilled to hear that Mayor Bloomberg is introducing a new food composting program that will put our freezer out of its misery.

The plan, the New York Times reported, is to start a residential composting program next year that will initially work on a voluntary basis in 150,000 single family homes in the city as well as in more than 100 high-rise buildings – covering, in total, more than five percent of the households in the city. More than 600 schools will take part as well.

The next stage will be, according to city sanitation officials quoted in the article, to expand the program to the entire city by 2015 or 2016. These officials also predicted “that within a few years, it will be mandatory. New Yorkers who do not separate their food scraps could be subject to fines, just as they are currently if they do not recycle plastic, paper or metal.”

New Yorkers won’t have to start shoving food scraps into their freezers, but will be asked to dump their food waste into small plastic containers, which will be emptied into larger bins on the curb. The bins will be collected by trucks and taken to a special plant that will be built in the New York region where the food waste will be converted into biogas.

If this plan works out, it could become an important part of Bloomberg’s legacy in the city, but its impact might be even more substantial as it demonstrates the need for systematic changes in our unsustainable lifestyle.

Let’s face it, sending food waste to landfills is a lose-lose solution – not only is it very costly, but it also generates a lot of methane, a greenhouse gas with an impact on global warming that is over 20 times more powerful than CO2. And yet, as the NRDC reports, “of all the food that is lost at different stages from farm to fork, only three percent is composted…the vast majority ends up in landfills. In fact, food now represents the single largest component of municipal solid waste reaching landfills.”

While some businesses have tried to look at this problem as a business opportunity, the fact that only three percent of food is currently composted shows that business-based solutions didn’t move the needle here. Some critics of Bloomberg’s plan have wondered, “if there’s really $100 million in savings to be had, wouldn’t some clever entrepreneur be tempted to offer a solution?” But, I guess the answer is quite simple – building a complex operation that requires substantial changes in both residential and (perhaps eventually) commercial spaces and is based on voluntary participation is just too risky for business.

For a large city, on the other hand, it makes a lot of sense. “We bury 1.2 million tons of food waste in landfills every year at a cost of nearly $80 per ton. That waste can be used as fertilizer or converted to energy at a much lower price,” Mayor Bloomberg explained in his last State of the City address in February. The city, added Ron Gonen, the co-founder of Recyclebank and currently the city’s recycling czar, could save about $100 million a year by diverting food waste from landfills. So, the financial incentive is definitely there.

Add to that the city’s ability to make the necessary regulatory changes and enforce them and you get a scale that not only creates more business opportunities, like converting the waste into biogas, but also significantly reduces the risks involved in such an operation.

New York is not the first large city in the U.S. to set up such a plan – cities like Seattle and San Francisco have already been doing it for a while. Still, changes in New York always seem to make a difference elsewhere, both nationally and internationally, and therefore, if this plan runs successfully, it could have a significant impact on mainstream composting.

Although there are, of course, naysayers who see it as another example of unnecessary government intervention (and no, Dorothy Rabinowitz hasn’t commented on it yet), it shows once again that although we keep looking for ways business can create systematic changes, we shouldn’t forget the role of smart policy making in effecting changes on a large scale.

I have a feeling that without Mayor Bloomberg’s plan I’ll be still filling my freezer with food scraps for many years.

[Image credit: Michael Coghlan, Flickr Creative Commons]

Raz Godelnik is the co-founder of Eco-Libris and an adjunct faculty at the University of Delaware’s Business School, CUNY SPS and Parsons The New School for Design, teaching courses in green business, sustainable design and new product development. You can follow Raz on Twitter.


Raz Godelnik

Raz Godelnik is an Assistant Professor and the Co-Director of the MS in Strategic Design & Management program at Parsons School of Design in New York. Currently, his research projects focus on the impact of the sharing economy on traditional business, the sharing economy and cities’ resilience, the future of design thinking, and the integration of sustainability into Millennials’ lifestyles. Raz is the co-founder of two green startups – Hemper Jeans and Eco-Libris and holds an MBA from Tel Aviv University.

One response

  1. Composting is admirable. However, we (and Bloomberg’s office) must make a distinction between “food-grade” and “industrial” compost. The latter would be the destination for heavily sprayed items like non-organic banana and mango peels, as well as compostable plastics. I don’t think I’d want any of that going into my garden, and if I were still a New York City resident, I wouldn’t want to be penalized for keeping it out of a stream that was going to fertilize food..

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