POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Jun 17, 2013
LAST UPDATED: 1:36 a.m. HST, Jun 17, 2013
NEW YORK » Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, who has tried to curb soda consumption, ban smoking in parks and encourage bike-riding, is taking on a new cause: requiring New Yorkers to separate their food scraps for composting.
Dozens of smaller cities, including San Francisco and Seattle, have adopted rules that mandate recycling of food waste from homes, but sanitation officials in New York had long considered the city too dense and vertically structured for such a policy to succeed.
Recent pilot programs in the city, though, have shown an unexpectedly high level of participation, officials said. As a result, the Bloomberg administration is rolling out an ambitious plan to begin collecting food scraps across the city, according to Caswell F. Holloway IV, a deputy mayor.
The administration plans to announce shortly that it is hiring a composting plant to handle 100,000 tons of food scraps a year. That amount would represent about 10 percent of the city's residential food waste.
Anticipating sharp growth in food recycling, the administration will also seek proposals within the next 12 months for a company to build a plant in the New York region to process residents' 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."
The residential program will initially work on a voluntary basis, but officials predict that within a few years, it will be mandatory. New Yorkers who do not separate their food scraps could be subject to fines, just as they are currently if they do not recycle plastic, paper or metal.
Bloomberg, an independent, leaves office at the end of the year, and his successor could scale back or cancel the program. But in interviews, two leading Democratic candidates for mayor - Christine C. Quinn, the City Council speaker, and Bill de Blasio, the city's public advocate - expressed strong support for the program, including the plan to eventually make it mandatory.
Sanitation officials said 150,000 single-family homes would be on board voluntarily by next year, in addition to more than 100 high-rise buildings - more than 5 percent of the households in the city. More than 600 schools will take part as well.
The program should expand to the entire city by 2015 or 2016, the sanitation officials said.
Under the program, residents collect food waste - like stale bread, chicken bones and potato peels - in containers the size of picnic baskets in their homes. The contents are then deposited in larger brown bins on the curb for pickup by sanitation trucks.
Residents of apartment buildings dump pails of food scraps at central collection points, most likely in the same places they put plastics and other recyclable material.
It remains to be seen whether New Yorkers will embrace the program, given that some may cringe at keeping a container of potentially malodorous waste in a typically cramped urban kitchen, even if it is supposed to be emptied regularly.
The city has historically had a relatively mediocre record in recycling, diverting only about 15 percent of its total residential waste away from landfills.
In the latest 12-month period recorded, the Sanitation Department issued 75,216 summonses to home and building owners for failing to recycle. Officials expected that more summonses will be issued in the current fiscal year, because the department has redeployed personnel to recycling enforcement.
Still, the residential food-waste program would represent the biggest expansion of recycling efforts since the city began separating paper, metal and glass in 1989.
"It's revolutionary for New York," said Eric A. Goldstein, a senior lawyer with the Natural Resources Defense Council, a prominent environmental group. "If successful, pretty soon there'll be very little trash left for homeowners to put in their old garbage cans."
The city spent $336 million last year disposing of residential trash, exporting most of it to landfills in Ohio, Pennsylvania and South Carolina.
Food waste and other organic materials account for almost a third of all residential trash, and the city could save about $100 million a year by diverting it from landfills, said Ron Gonen, who was hired last year as deputy sanitation commissioner for recycling and sustainability, a new job at the department.
Experts have long criticized recycling as a weak spot in Bloomberg's environmental record. But he appears to want to close out his tenure with a push to improve the program.
In his State of the City address in February, Bloomberg called food waste "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."
The city does not handle commercial waste - businesses must hire private carters. But the administration intends to propose legislation that would require restaurants and other food businesses to recycle their food waste.
A central question for the next mayor and City Council will be when to make residential recycling of food waste mandatory, with violators subject to fines.
De Blasio called diverting trash from landfills "crucially important to the environment and the city's fiscal health" and said he would like to have a mandatory program within five years.
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 said a mandatory program should be in place by 2016.
"We're going to lock it in," she said. "When New York makes composting part of everyday life, every other city will follow through. This is going to create an urban trend."
Sanitation officials said they had been heartened by recent pilot programs.
At the Helena, a 600-unit building on West 57th Street in Manhattan, bins are kept in the trash rooms on each floor and emptied daily by workers.
The building's owner, the Durst Organization, said the weight of the compostable material had been steadily rising, to a total of 125 pounds daily.
In the Westerleigh section of Staten Island, the city offered 3,500 single-family homes brown bins, kitchen containers and compost bags last April. "There's a new bin on the block," a mailer announced.
Residents were told to separate out all foods, and even soiled paper like napkins and plates. Already 43 percent are placing their bins out on the curb for weekly pickups, said Gonen, the senior sanitation official.
Ellen and Thomas Felci, neighborhood residents, said they were eager to take part in the program - "for the good of the city," Ellen Felci said.
Everything now goes into the brown bin: things like corn husks and broccoli stems, but not meat (because Thomas Felci, 65, said he feared raccoons).
Ellen Felci, 62, a retired schoolteacher who might be cooking at any given moment for a dozen visiting children and grandchildren, said that a week into the tryout she noticed a bad smell coming from the container, which she had placed next to the sink in the kitchen.
She solved the problem by dumping the contents into the bin outside more regularly - every two days instead of every three - and putting baking soda in the bottom.
"You don't have to use a bag, but that's going to make a real mess," she warned.
But across the street, Joe Lagambina, 58, shunned the program. He said that recycling plastic and metal was already a burden, and that he would not separate food unless it was required by the city. He said his three daughters often mixed trash with recyclables.
"I'm the one who has to separate everything," he said. "I go outside and there'll be regular garbage in the blue can. It's a pain."
"I have enough work," he said.