Collecting Organics Across North America

As waste diversion from landfills becomes increasingly important, cities are promoting organics separation and recycling. Waste diversion can decrease dependency on landfills, and cut greenhouse gas emissions. Organic waste can be composted or processed to create biogas, a renewable natural gas. 

Organic materials comprise around 34% of New York City’s total waste stream. Unfortunately, instead of recycling it, the vast majority of that compostable material continues to pile up in landfills across the state. This waste significantly contributes to climate change because it releases methane when it decomposes, a greenhouse gas that is 30 times more potent than carbon.

Curbing the amount of organics that is sent to landfills is a critical issue that needs to be tackled in order for New York to eventually reach its Zero Waste goal. In one of our previous blog posts, we wrote about challenges that have been impeding New York to tackle this issue and expand the voluntary curbside organics collection program.

The City is working on resolving those issues. Major Bill de Blasio recently announced that the City’s current voluntary program will transition to mandatory citywide organics collection. This plan is very short on details and the NYC Sanitation Department (DSNY) has still not provided a timeline.

To make sure that the transition is a success, NYLCV is advocating for investment in a public awareness program that shows New Yorkers how to properly dispose of their recycling and organic waste.

As it works to transition to a mandatory citywide organics collection program, New York City can look to other cities for guidance. We have put together some information about organics collection in cities across North America. 

San Francisco

When it comes to organics recycling, San Francisco has set the bar high for cities around the globe. San Francisco diverts about 80% of its waste from landfills every year, around 1.5 million tons. By comparison, NYC diverts around 21% of its waste from landfills.  San Francisco’s program collects over 600 tons of organics every day. This amounts to around 220,000 tons annually or 541 pounds per capita.

There are several explanations for San Francisco’s success in waste management.  After passing the Mandatory Recycling and Composting Ordinance in 2009, San Francisco became one of the first major cities in the US that made composting a requirement for all its residents. In order to raise awareness about the importance of recycling among San Francisco’s diverse population, the implementation of this law went hand-in-hand with an enormous educational campaign which included door-to-door written communication in different languages. Another important element of San Francisco’s success is its composting infrastructure. All of the city’s yard waste and food scraps are taken to Jepson Prairie Organics, one of the largest composting operations in the US. From here, most of the compostable material is sold as fertilizer to vineyards in wine country or nut growers in the Central Valley.


Seattle is another US city with a residential and commercial organics recycling program. Back in 2003, this city introduced a mandatory commercial recycling ordinance which included a three-year phase-in that allowed Seattle’s businesses to adjust to the new program. Seattle began a mandatory curbside food waste collection program for residents in 2015. It is estimated that Seattle sends more than 125,000 tons of food and yard waste to composting processors. With a population of 725,000, this amounts to 345 pounds per capita. This city’s overall recycling rate is around 57% and its goal is to recycle 70% of municipal solid waste by 2022. 


Another city that has a long history of recycling and striving towards decreasing its overall environmental footprint is Portland. As part of its Climate Action Plan, it aims to reduce food scraps by 90%, reduce per-capita solid waste by 33%, and recover 90% of all waste generated by 2030. The City implemented a voluntary curbside organics collection program in 2005. It was expanded to a mandatory program for businesses, schools, and other large institutions in the Portland area in 2018.


Toronto, implemented their mandatory Green Bin compost collection program in 2005. By 2012, Toronto had collected collected 134,376 tons of organic waste. The city owns two organics processing facilities of its own, which handle the city’s organic waste. They process a combined 144,000 tons of source-separated organics per year. With a population of 2.9 million, this amounts to 99 pounds per capita. Using anaerobic digestion, the facilities turn the organic waste into biogas.

Making use of organic waste is more efficient and sustainable than transporting it to landfills. If properly separated and collected, organic waste can be composted or processed to create green energy. These services demonstrate some organic waste management strategies that other cities can reference when implementing their own programs. 

NYLCV will continue to advocate for waste reduction policies, including a robust public awareness program to go hand-in-hand with organics collection.