Millions of New Yorkers may soon need to separate scraps of fruit, vegetables and meat into separate garbage receptacles every time they cook and do dishes — learning another new habit just as they did with plastics recycling in the 1980s and are now doing under a recent ban on plastic shopping bags.
The City Council speaker is calling for organic waste recycling, also known as composting, to be available — and eventually mandatory — for all New York City residents, in an effort to reduce exports to landfills and emissions of planet-warming gases.
The proposal, announced on Thursday by the speaker, Corey Johnson, comes on the heels of sharp criticism of the city’s recycling program. New York recycles less than 20 percent of the 3.1 million tons of garbage that its residents produce each year, a number well below other major cities.
More than a third of residential waste consists of food waste and yard refuse, organic materials that could be separated out, composted and turned into fertilizers or biogas, city officials say.
But seven years after the city introduced curbside pickup of organic waste, less than half the population has the option to request the voluntary program’s brown recycling bins. In the neighborhoods where bins are available, just 10 percent of residents use them.
If the plan is approved in the coming months, its implementation would roll out over several years, much as plastics and glass recycling did in the 1980s. The city would first make bins available everywhere and educate the public about what goes in them, and later make their use mandatory.
Skeptics say mandatory composting could be prohibitively expensive. In 2016, the nonpartisan Citizens Budget Commission concluded that separate collection of organics would cost New York between $177 million and $251 million annually.
City Council staff members put the figure at $40 million, and said costs would be offset by savings on fuel and fees for transporting unsorted garbage to faraway landfills.
Mr. Johnson’s proposal was part of a sweeping package of strategies to address climate change, released in a report in lieu of his State of the City speech, which was canceled this week because of the coronavirus outbreak.
Also among the strategies is approving a multiyear study of ways to protect the city’s 520 miles of coastline from rising seas and unpredictable weather. That bill could take the place of a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers study suspended by the Trump administration last month.
The composting proposal will put pressure on Mayor Bill de Blasio to restart the expansion of voluntary organic-waste recycling program, which has been on hold for two years, even though its goal was to cover the whole city by 2018. Mr. de Blasio pledged to require composting in an Earth Day speech a year ago, but has not moved the city toward that goal.
Some residents without a curbside-pickup option go to great lengths to recycle organics, carrying the waste to drop-off points like farmers’ markets.
“A lot of people want to do the right thing when it comes to organics recycling, but right now it isn’t easy,” Mr. Johnson said in a statement. “Implementing citywide organics pickup is the only way to make it easier to compost, change behavior and drastically reduce what goes to landfill. It’s time to stop talking about zero waste and actually start doing things to make it happen.”
A main obstacle to wider composting, experts say, has been short-term costs, especially the need to budget for additional labor, and the need for more capacity to process the recycled materials. Currently organics are processed at only one location in the city, a Department of Sanitation facility called an anaerobic digester at the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant. Digesters at 13 other city-owned plants could be used in the future.
But the plan could ultimately reduce costs, said Eric Goldstein, New York director of the Natural Resources Defense Council. He said trucking unsorted garbage out of the city and paying to dump it in landfills costs more than processing organics separately, closer to the city, and then reusing the resulting compost and fuel.
“Not only are composting and anaerobic digestion better for the planet,” he said, “but over the long-term they will actually save taxpayer money.”
Mr. Goldstein and other experts said organics recycling would be required to meet the city’s goal of sending zero waste to landfills, as well as New York State’s ambitious emissions-reduction goals.
“It’s crazy to send any organics to landfills, since when buried they generate methane, a potent global-warming gas,” he said. “Landfills are the third-largest source of methane emissions in the nation. New York will never be a national leader on sustainability if it doesn’t implement a mandatory organics collection program like this.”
Some New Yorkers might balk at separating yet another kind of garbage. But supporters of the plan say that residents and building staff are already bagging and carrying out the same amount of garbage, and that several neighborhood groups are asking for an expansion of the voluntary program.
Currently, curbside organics bins are available in some parts of Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island, and for buildings that request them throughout Manhattan and the South Bronx. In larger, multifamily residences in all boroughs, building managers must agree to have bins — and few do, which keeps the numbers low in the densest areas.
But dropping food scraps in a different bin, Mr. Johnson’s report noted, could improve a critical quality of life issue — the presence and visibility of rats. Sealed plastic bins, it said, would attract fewer rodents to food waste than plastic bags set out on the street.
Published on nytimes.com
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