The Ins and Outs of Collecting Organics in NYC

Limp and blackened coriander leaves, sagging spinach, unused broccoli stems, remnants of an oatmeal breakfast… waste or once-upon-a-time living matter are often a large part of daily trash. Organic materials comprise about 30% of NYC’s  total waste stream, which amounts to 1 million tons of waste.

As food scraps, yard waste, and other organic matter decompose they release methane which, when disposed of in landfills, can cause significant damage to the atmosphere.

Nature offers a simple solution to organic waste – recycling. When food is allowed to decompose within controlled conditions it can transform into nutrient-rich soil, a process known as composting. However, this is not the only option for reducing organic waste. It can also be recycled and used to make renewable energy through anaerobic digestion.

That’s why the NYC Department of Sanitation (DSNY) launched a voluntary composting pilot program in 2013. Brown bins for food waste were distributed to residences in select neighborhoods to be collected on a regular basis. Recycling and composting organic waste is also part of Mayor de Blasio’s plan for Zero Waste to landfills by 2030.

This curbside organics collection pilot program has expanded over the past few years to serve 3.5 million residents, but expansion was recently paused and is not expected to restart until next year. There are a few complexities that may have caused the program to pause.

Only 11% of the organics waste actually gets collected from residents who participate in the curbside collection program. The other 89% doesn’t get sorted properly and ends up in landfills alongside all other trash. Citywide, the number is even lower. Only 1% of the city’s organic waste stream is composted.

There is no definitive reason as to why this number is so small. Possible factors include limited education about what goes in the bins, the voluntary nature of the program, and residents not being fined for not using the brown bins properly.

By comparison, New Yorkers recycle 50% of paper, metal, glass, and plastic. Not only is recycling these materials mandatory, but it may be more comfortable for New Yorkers to do so than to collect food waste in or near their homes. Used and rinsed-out containers do not emit unsavory odors, don’t attract bugs, and generally are easy to store in your home without discomfort.

Another issue that the organics collection program has had to deal with is that there are currently not enough organic waste processing facilities to service NYC residents. Private industry may not be inclined to build more processing capacity in or near the city unless there is a guaranteed organic waste stream, which the city cannot yet guarantee with a voluntary collections program.

The program also needs an adequate budget. Some experts estimate that collecting New Yorkers’ organic waste would cost $177 million annually. City officials and environmental groups including NYLCV have emphasized the need for additional funding for composting however it has not been granted. The past two years of funding for recycling initiatives, including organics, metal glass and plastics, and paper, have been between $60 million and $65 million annually.

NYLCV will continue to advocate for this necessary funding and continue to educate New Yorkers about the benefits of recycling organic waste.

In the meantime, increased public awareness could help encourage more New Yorkers to use their brown organics collection bins correctly or bring their food waste to a public collection site. New Yorkers can help spread the word about composting and the importance of reducing food waste. While it is certainly difficult to find a facility that would be able to process 1 million tons of organic waste it may be easier to find someone with a backyard who loves the world and wants to help sustain it.