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  • Writer's pictureTamanna Mohapatra

The future of recycling in NYC, especially organics- Part 2

Part 2 of this blog I delve into the various recycling options available in the city and especially the design considerations that need to be in place to make organics recycling a success. I recently came across a great eco newsletter[1] put together by a conscientious NYC citizen, which very succinctly listed the various recycling options the city offers its residents; some new and some which have been in place for many years now. Here’s the comprehensive list.

  • Electronics: Since April 1, 2015, residential buildings can be fined $100 every time electronic goods are put into the building’s trash.  All electronics can be either recycled or donated. Some retail stores accept computers and other electronic goods for recycling. Additionally, still functioning electronic goods can be traded in or sold online through various vendors.

  • Textiles: It’s still not illegal to trash it but there are many options available throughout the city to donate or recycle textiles-both private and city sponsored. The DSNY boxes (as shown below and called refashionNYC) located on many campuses are quite fashionable and user-friendly.

  • Organics: The organics generated and available for collection includes food waste and yard waste, as well as Christmas trees. More about it in a second.

  • Paper, Plastic, Metal and Glass: Is collected as recyclables throughout the city- both in residential and non-residential buildings.

Let’s discuss organics!

No doubt, it is encouraging to see all the discussion around waste management and the successful companies in this business. On a recent green-tech investment forum[2] I attended, waste management (know increasingly being referred to as materials management) was hailed as the next big business opportunity. However, implementing a great plan is not always as easy as coming up with one.

Source: Ecohub presentation, 2015

It is indeed commendable to see all the effort and determination that has gone into making this initiative a success. Since the beginning it was somewhere in between a ‘Just do it!’ versus every detail carefully planned out. Which in the end was the right approach because as in life, you can’t really plan for all the unexpected changes that may happen and sometimes have to keep volleying with whatever setbacks come up.

For example, once separated and collected, where would all the organic waste go? Pretty much a few months into the pilot program, the compost processing facility in Delaware (DE), which the city had relied upon in the absence of large-scale facilities closer by, closed. This article[3] written by a budding food journalist does a good job explaining just one of the many problems in establishing such a widespread and complex program. Lauren Holter states, “The city is eager to reduce the more than 1 million tons of residential and commercial food waste trucked each year to landfills in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Virginia. And the scale of food waste collection may increase dramatically once Local Law 77 and 146 go into effect. The city hopes that these laws will attract composting facilities to the area.” Besides, the private carters who will be responsible for collecting all the commercial food waste; there are three primary organizations that recycle organic waste in NYC for residents:

  • Lower East Side Ecology, a local non-profit that has been involved in composting since 1990.

  • Grow NYC, another local non-profit that collects about 20 tons of food scraps each week at its Greenmarket drop-off sites, which is later on picked up by DSNY. And of course,

  • DSNY, which now picks up organic waste in designated areas.

According to the article, currently, it is these non-profits that are helping the city fill the gaps in both collecting and processing organic waste. For example, in Brooklyn, twelve greenmarkets have stepped up to accept organics. Since 2012, the DSNY has been working with the greenmarkets to haul scraps to a transfer station within the city, and from there, a composting facility retrieves the waste. With the closing of the DE composting facility, the city divides the collected waste into three streams. Staten Island’s scraps collected in Staten Island (one of NYC’s five boroughs) goes to the DSNY-managed Staten Island Compost Facility, other DSNY-amassed food becomes organic fertilizer at McEnroe Organic Farm in Millerton, New York, and the rest goes to a private facility in Connecticut. It’s manageable but not perfect. Case in point- the DE composting facility had the processing technology to handle organics from New York City schools, which are often contaminated with non-compostable items. Now the DSNY must take schools’ scraps to a transfer station before it can be composted in order to remove inorganic materials. An extra and I am sure costly step.

These days we hear so much about anaerobic digestion. Many of us wonder (including myself) why NYC couldn’t just build one and have all this organic waste get converted to useful energy. Firstly the cost of building such a behemoth as can be expected is quite massive. And then there is the space issue. Where in the city is there enough land to build one? Luckily NYC does have some infrastructure available. But currently that infrastructure is owned privately (by Waste Management). Known fondly as ‘the eggs’ (because of it’s round shape), this facility is actually a wastewater treatment facility. But there are talks[4] of “Waste Management of New York (WMNY) partnering with the NYC Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and the Department of Sanitation (DSNY) to operate the city’s first organics recycling facility to convert food waste into a renewable energy source through co-digestion.” They will start by processing commercial food waste only. This is because, yard waste, food soiled paper etc. collected from residential buildings can’t go to the eggs. The hope is commercial food waste will satisfy this need.

Source: Waste Management, 2015

Similar to organic waste disposal, there are also a few hiccups when it came to organics waste collection. In NYC, residential collection comes from taxes so there are no incentives for residential folks to participate in taking the time to separate, bear with the smells and other minor inconveniences that come with any type of recycling effort. For a large apartment building with more than nine units to join the pilot program the building must be located on an existing organics pick-up route, so to avoid wasted trucking time and resources. Once that is confirmed, DSNY then visits the building to see how it assembles garbage and often has to train residents on separating their food scraps. The good news is that because large apartment buildings have been recycling for years, transitioning to collecting food scraps is sometimes just a cultural and motivational shift.

Besides cultural changes, let’s look at some of the design considerations that must be in place in the future to support the massive onslaught of waste collection that will happen once the organics collection is in full swing. Food waste consultant and expert Chris Grace[5] thinks about these design issues all the time as part of her work with various realty and corporate clients. Should a new building ask residents to drop off organics in one place or have separate waste chutes? For high-rise buildings, which are fast becoming the norm in most of NYC, waste chutes require maintenance. Low- rise buildings have to do it on their own so they require a lot of education. Commercial strips have space constraints to separate out organics. Also, a central collection area for all the different businesses would make it difficult to keep track of each commercial business separately and thus be prone to contamination. How should the actual disposal happen? Dumping organics in plastic bags would cause one set of (separation) problems, putting the waste in a compostable bag is not ideal either as once they get heavy, the compostable bags are prone to ripping. Who should the rules apply to? Just NYC’s 8 million residents or should it include the additional 6 million tourists that visit NYC on a daily basis?

Coming back to recycling in buildings, it turns out that due to all the transportation hurdles posed in getting waste from inside the building to carting trucks outside, more and more realtors are considering onsite processing. Fortunately there is more than one option when it comes to handling waste onsite. Chris Grace, being the local expert on this topic, shared extensively. In general there are five options available to businesses:

  1. Waste to water- Systems built on this technology aim to convert food waste to usable water by using very little additives and not much external water. A popular brand available commercially is Enviropure[6]. Watch this interesting and short explanation video they have. Insinkerator[7] is another widely used option in this category.

  2. Waste to energy-The best example of this would be Flexibuster[8], a product that claims to be a self-contained anaerobic digester, designed to process food and organic waste.

  3. Composting: we all know what that means

  4. Dehydration– In this process, food waste is loaded into a machine, ground and dehydrated. This reduces the volume by up to 80% and produces a useful soil amendment in the process. Check out the Rendisk [9]suite of products as well as Enviropac from Global Enviro[10].

  5. Pneumatic systems-Although only possible with new buildings, this technology basically removes the waste using a comprehensive pipe system. Related, the company behind the much talked about Hudson Yards complex will be using Envac systems. Envac is famous for building this waste pipe system in the 1960s in Roosevelt Island. After a long hiatus, they will be doing the same for Hudson Yards[11]. Check out this impressive video explaining their history and technology.

So folks, this concludes this blog piece and most of the thoughts I had to share on waste management processes in and for NYC, my home for now. It’s Friday so if you are reading this on a Friday, Happy Friday and if not, don’t worry; time flies when having fun and Friday will be here soon.

References: [1] UWS Eco newsletter [2] [3] [4] [5] [6] [7] [8] [9] [10] [11]

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