New York City to push forward with Zero (Organic) Waste goals

The New York City Department of Sanitation’s (DSNY) proposed commercial organics regulations were heard at a public hearing last week, making way for progress toward New York City’s zero waste goal and its 80 x 50 goal. The proposed rule would expand organic waste sources separation requirements for large commercial food retailers and food establishments, reducing the output of food waste to landfills. An estimated 2,000 additional businesses would be affected, including chain establishments with more than 50 locations in the city, and large retail stores. The proposal stipulates that this will also apply to any retail stores with three or more locations with a combined floor area space of at least 10,000 square feet, and operate under the same control, with service from the same commercial waste company. It is expected to go into effect sometime in 2018.

In 2013 Local Law 146, pushed by Letitia James, then a member of the City Council, was signed into law by former Mayor Michael Bloomberg. It required that large food establishments recycle their food waste by July 1, 2015, provided that an affordable facility exists within a 100-mile radius of the city that will process the waste at a cost that is competitive with landfills or incinerators. Lacking sufficient processing capacity, DSNY chose to move forward with a phased implementation. In July 2015, it announced plans to require source separation in arenas and stadiums with 15,000 seats or more, food manufacturers over 25,000 sq. ft., food wholesalers over 20,000 sq. ft., and hotels with over 150 rooms to recycle all organic materials. Enforcement began in January of this year.

Not all organic waste will be treated equally, however. Excess food deemed edible is required to be donated to food banks or charities, which is expected to result in a 20% increase in the amount of food available. Any food that is contaminated or recalled or cannot be donated for human consumption or used as animal feed would have to be transported to a processing facility that composts, aerobically or anaerobically digest the scraps, or produces ethanol. The state would offer funding to set up databases to connect food waste generators with recovery organizations and also provide grants to help municipalities expand their composting options.

Food scraps and other organic materials make up more than one-third of all commercial waste in New York City. Diverting this waste will not only be essential to reducing GHG emissions in New York City, but also to make our people, neighborhoods—particular those that are lower income–and economy healthier and more resilient.

NYLCV is committed to advancing a sustainability agenda and we see the advancement of a commercial organics law as a huge success for New York City and New Yorkers, which we have called for since 2014 and again discussed at a policy forum this past summer. One significant challenge still remains: processing capacity. There is a lot of work to be done before all organic waste can be diverted from landfills and more capacity will need to be developed in and around the region. We have previously identified expanding co-digestion, which is already occurring in the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant, both in New York City and regionally as a promising part of the solution. Smaller on-site micro-digesters will also have a role to play.

While we recognize the challenges in siting new facilities, particularly finding a local community that is appropriate for one, creating a guaranteed market for organic waste will help to spur processors to invest in this infrastructure. In addition to a larger commercial market from New York City, residential collection continues to expand and a program proposed by Governor Cuomo at the state level to require increased source separation would also help. While increased collection is exciting and critically important, we must continue to stay focused on where organic waste ends up being sent and the associated emissions with getting it there.