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  • Writer's pictureTamanna Mohapatra

The future of recycling in NYC, especially organics- Part 1

I am not sure what made me want to write this piece except that I was finding the whole waste management scenario in NYC pretty confusing. I thought to myself, this is where I live; this is where I studied sustainability. If I find it confusing, I am sure others might also and what better way to learn then to teach?

There are however, many perspectives to waste management and this blog piece focuses on mainly the operational/process dimension. So here goes-

Let’s start with some numbers. According to Steve Cohen, Columbia University’s Earth Institute Director (and my former professor)[1], “New York City’s 8 million residents and millions of businesses, construction projects and non-resident employees generate 14 million tons of waste and recyclables per year.”

So vast is this amount, that NYC needs both a private and a public waste management system. New York City Department of Sanitation (DSNY) – serves residential buildings, government agencies and some nonprofit organizations. Private commercial firms pick up the rest of the city’s trash- mostly from private commercial buildings including the myriad food establishment places. The 3 major private carters that work in the city are: Action Carting, Royal, and ESI (collects compost). But there are at least 500 or other private carters according to this government provided list[2]. That should give a sense of how much waste there is to collect! According to Steve’s article, “the city spends about $2.3 billion annually on garbage pick-up and disposal. And, of the 3.8 million tons of solid waste that the New York City Department of Sanitation now collects annually, 14% is recycled, 76% is sent to landfills and 10% is converted to energy at a waste-to-energy (WtoE) facility[3].”

This dramatic image[4] created by Columbia University’s Urban Design Lab does a really great job of showing the complexity of waste management in NYC.

So, what do we know so far? A few basic statistics and facts: NYC has private public waste collection, three options to dispose of the waste (recycled, landfill and WtoE) and, a pretty low recycling rate.

I learnt a few other interesting facts when I attended a talk given by DSNY on their latest strategy to increase this recycling rate…by encouraging where possible and regulating where encouragement isn’t enough the separation and collection of organic waste.

I learnt that DSNY was the largest municipal sanitation department in the country employing 9,600 employees, operating 2,000 collection trucks, 4 marine transfer stations and 1 rail transfer station[5]. As the name suggests, the transfer stations are where the waste collection trucks bring in waste from various parts of the city and then make their journey either outside the city to be landfilled or recycled or converted to energy within the city.

I also learnt that private haulers and carters have their own transfer station and their own means of disposing the waste collected. For example, Cooper Tank Recycling, which has been operating in NYC since 1986 processes over 1,400 tons of material per day, at their transfer station in Brooklyn and thankfully is able to recycle 85% of the material collected[6].

It’s interesting and somewhat confusing that although private carters collect a large portion of NYC’s waste, these carters are licensed and regulated by NYC Business Integrity Commission (BIC), not by DSNY. The businesses (who generate the waste) however are regulated by DSNY. It is DSNY’s job to educate the generators while it is BIC’s responsibility to educate and support the carters. So DSNY decides that paper should be recycled, plastic bags should not be recycled but if the private carter wrongly disposes the paper collected for recycling, then only BIC can reprimand them. This leads to some lack of transparency for sure.

Source: DSNY presentation, July 2015

DSNY’s hope (and all of us green folks!) is that NYC can improve its organics-recycling rate by expanding the NYC Organics program[7] to serve all New Yorkers by the end of 2018. This would help the city reach their goal of zero waste to landfills by 2030[8]. To that effect, two new local laws have been put in place. Local Law 77, which calls for curbside collection of source-separated organic waste, and Local Law146, which applies to large-scale food waste generators. The program would require all food service establishments to source-separate food waste reducing the commercial waste disposal by 90 percent by year 2030. Businesses required to participate in this program will include5: All food service establishments in hotels with 150 or more rooms, all food service vendors in arenas and stadiums with seating capacity of at least 15,000 people, food manufacturers with a floor area of at least 25,000 square feet, and food wholesalers with a floor area of at least 20,000 square feet.

The good news is that Local Law146 gives the food establishments options on how to dispose of their food waste. They could donate it, compost it onsite or offsite, or send it for anaerobic digestion within 100 miles of NYC. A presentation given by Leanpath[9] on the various options available to food establishments to reduce food waste listed some pretty innovative ones such as:

Source: Leanpath, 2015

This concludes part 1 of this blog piece because there’s only so much facts that we can learn at one time, even if it’s related to the ever curious topic of waste in NYC. See you again for part 2.

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