New York City Turns to Composting
In 2011, the United States produced 250 million tons of municipal solid waste, 56% of which was compostable materials. In New York City alone, more than 10,000 tons of trash is collected every day and shipped to landfills where organic materials decompose. Methane, a greenhouse gas 25 times more powerful than carbon dioxide, is produced as a result of the decomposition. Behind industry and agriculture, landfills are the third-largest source of methane in the United States. New York City’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg recognized this major environmental concern in his State of the City address, and called for food waste recycling, the city’s "final recycling frontier".
Of course New York City isn’t the first to come up with such an ambitious plan. Cities such as San Francisco, Seattle, San Antonio, and Portland, Oregon have been composting as early as 2009. Today, San Francisco mandates that all residents separate organic material, adding a third bin to trash and recycling. The compost bins can include all food scraps, along with vegetation and solid paper products such as coffee cups and milk cartons. Overall, 78% of San Francisco’s waste is now diverted from landfills.
Portland has a similar program, but has taken it one step further, reducing trash collection to once every two weeks, while compost is collected weekly. Before the start of its composting program, Portland collected 94,100 tons of garbage in 2011. Twelve months following the start of the program, the figure fell to 58,000 tons, while compostable material rose from 30,600 tons to 85,400 tons. An additional benefit is the reduction in transport costs and pollution; the two composting facilities are located 15 and 90 miles from downtown, whereas garbage is transported 140 miles from the city.
The environmental benefits of composting are substantial. It significantly cuts the amount of methane produced from decomposing organic materials and instead turns them into something usable, such as fertilizer. New York City, recognizing these benefits, is beginning to offer compost collection in Staten Island. After only a few months, participation rates are above 40%. In Manhattan, about 100 city schools are also participating as well as two high-rise apartment buildings, with more to follow this fall. By 2014, the program will cover around 100,000 households.
However, New York City faces one major setback. While the city currently has no local composting plant, the question of where to bring collected organic material is unresolved. Christine Datz-Romero, co-founder and executive director of the Lower East Side Ecology Center sees the lack of a composting facility as "the biggest stumbling block because right now we have very limited capacity." Nevertheless, composting is still a huge improvement over the current system, which exports to landfills sometimes hundreds of miles away.
Read more at Yale Environment 360.
Local compost pile via Shutterstock.