In Ambitious Program, NYC to Recycle Food Waste

Sorters at a transfer station operated by Royal Waste in New York City remove contaminants from commercial food waste in this file photo.
Sorters at a transfer station operated by Royal Waste in New York City remove contaminants from commercial food waste in this file photo.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg is adding food recycling to the ever-growing list of antisocial behaviors such as soda and salt consumption, smoking and driving he is trying to wean New Yorkers off.

The Bloomberg administration plans to begin collecting food scraps across the city after recent pilot programs showed high levels of participation, Deputy Mayor Caswell Holloway said.

The administration will shortly announce that it is hiring a composting plant to handle 100,000 tons of food scraps a year. That’s about 10 percent of the city’s residential food waste.

While the program will initially be voluntary, officials predict it will become mandatory in the next few years, with residents who do not separate their food scraps facing fines.

Dozens of smaller cities, including San Francisco and Seattle, have adopted mandatory recycling of food waste, but sanitation officials in New York had long considered the city too different for such a policy to succeed.

But recent pilot programs conducted in the Big Apple show an unexpectedly high level of participation. So the Bloomberg administration decided to roll out the ambitious plan.

The administration is seeking proposals within the next 12 months for a company to build a plant that could process food waste into biogas, which would be used to generate electricity.

“This is going to be really transformative,” Holloway said. “You want to get on a trajectory where you’re not sending anything to landfills.”

This program will not take effect until the next administration. Bloomberg, who has made a name for himself as heading a nanny city, leaves office at the end of the year. But two leading Democratic candidates to replace him, Council Speaker Christine Quinn and Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, expressed strong support for the program.

The program will start off with about 5 percent of city dwellings, or 150,000 single-family homes, more than 100 high-rise buildings and more than 600 schools. If successful, it is expected expand to the entire city by 2015 or 2016.

All food waste is eligible for the new recycling bin. Stale bread, potato chips, chicken bones and leftover cholent are to be deposited in large brown bins on the curb for pickup by sanitation trucks.

One factor residents may be worried about is how the stench of food waste will impact neighborhood atmospheres. While bins will be emptied regularly, even twice a week could cause a buildup that may turn residents against the proposal.

“This is why we’re piloting the programming — we want to make sure the program works for all the different communities in New York City,” Holloway said. “The good news is, the high rises that are already piloting the program are collecting more than 125 pounds of food a day. We’re going to make sure the containers that are used do trap odors and make sure there isn’t a quality of life issue for those people in buildings.”

Restaurants are not included in the proposal, although there is currently a pilot program of 100 diners underway to see the feasibility of including them sometime in the future.

Recycling advocates have long criticized recycling as a weak spot in Bloomberg’s otherwise stellar environmental record. But he appears to want to close out his tenure with a push to improve the program, calling food waste in his State of the City address in February, “New York City’s final recycling frontier.”

“We bury 1.2 million tons of food waste in landfills every year at a cost of nearly $80 per ton,” he said. “That waste can be used as fertilizer or converted to energy at a much lower price. That’s good for the environment and for taxpayers.”

Quinn said the City Council would take up a bill this summer to require pilot programs across the city to ensure that voluntary recycling of food waste continues, regardless of who is mayor. She added that she would like to see a mandatory program in place by 2016.

“We’re going to lock it in,” said Quinn, the current frontrunner in the race. “When New York makes composting part of everyday life, every other city will follow through. This is going to create an urban trend.”