Out with the old to create something new

New York City’s organics collection program is not only beneficial for its zero waste goals, but also for the environment.

Residents participating in New York City’s organics collection program place brown bins with sealed lids on the curb for collection. The lids are designed to keep pests away.

Organic materials take up a large part of the average resident’s waste stream, and municipalities are starting to notice.

According to a study that was developed through a contract between BioCycle, the Reston,Virginia-based U.S. Composting Council’s official publication, and the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, with offices in Minneapolis, Portland, Maine and Washington, residential food waste collection grew from 79 programs in 2014 to 148 programs in 2017, an 87 percent increase.

The number of communities with access to food waste collection has increased from 198 to 326 since 2014, which equates to 5.1 million households with food waste collection programs. This total rose by 2.4 million in 2017, the study says.

A reason why so many municipalities are expanding or beginning curbside organics collection programs seems to boil down to one factor, sources say: the environment.

“Organic material that ends up in a landfill is bad for the environment,” Belinda Mager, director of digital media and communications for the New York City Department of Sanitation (DSNY), says. “Additionally, when food scraps are put in plastic bags on the curb to await collection, they attract critters such as raccoons and rats. To this end, in 2013, the New York City Council passed Local Law 77, which required DSNY to implement a voluntary curbside collection pilot for residential organic waste and a pilot program for school organic waste.”

Mager says diverting organics for a beneficial use, such as renewable energy or composting, is also a critical component of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s OneNYC plan to send zero waste to landfills by 2030.


New York City’s curbside collection program began in March 2013 as a pilot in a Staten Island neighborhood.

Residents in single-family homes and small apartment buildings in the Westerleigh neighborhood of Staten Island were provided with a kitchen container to collect food scraps indoors and a larger outdoor bin. Mager says the ongoing pilot program currently reaches 3,000 homes.

Once the pilot was considered successful, the city began requiring certain businesses to separate their organic waste. The requirement was announced July 19, 2016, but became enforced Jan. 17, 2017.

Any arena or stadium with a seating capacity of at least 15,000; any food service establishment in a hotel with at least 150 rooms that is under the same control of the hotel; any food manufacturer with a floor area of at least 25,000 square feet; and any food wholesaler with a floor area of at least 20,000 square feet is required to separate its organic waste. Mager says the commissioner of sanitation decides each year whether the number of businesses covered will be expanded.

Currently, the commercial organics requirement covers around 300 businesses in the city, Mager says, and if the business does not comply, it will receive a ticket. The organic waste the city collects includes all food, including dairy and meat, food-soiled paper, and yard waste. There are also special seasonal collection days for Christmas trees and leaves.

Businesses that fall under the organics collection requirements can partner with a private hauler to pick up the waste, transport the waste or process the material on-site. “Suitable processing methods include composting and aerobic or anaerobic digestion,” Mager says. “If on-site processing equipment is used, the business must register with DSNY.”

Food waste grinders are not permitted in businesses per NYC Department of Environmental Protection (NYCDEP) rules. According to the NYCDEP website, a 2008 study revealed that the addition of food waste to the wastewater conveyance and treatment system would require significant investments and put water quality standards and state mandates at risk.

In summer 2017, Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia announced a proposal requiring additional commercial establishments to separate their organic waste. The city is in the process of drafting the updated rules and will take public comments into account. Mager says the city will add the new businesses to the list of covered establishments by next year.

According to Mager, information on the first year of organics collection in the commercial sector is still being collected.

Some of the organics collected through the program are composted and used in street tree steward programs.


On the opposite end of NYC’s commercial organics collection program is the voluntary residential program. The residential collection program is currently available to 3.3 million New York City residents and about 40 percent of public schools. Mager says participation in the programs varies between neighborhoods.

“Many, many residents are excited to participate and look forward to the brown bins coming to their neighborhood,” Mager says. “It is not unusual for residents to tweet at us, ‘When am I getting my bin?’”

Currently, the program is expanding community board by community board, Mager says. When a new area begins the program, residents living in multifamily homes with one to nine units are automatically enrolled in the program and will receive the brown bins first. “Buildings with one to nine units located along commercial blocks, as well as apartment buildings with 10-plus units, need to enroll in the program,” Mager says.

DSNY oversees the collection of material from residents and schools.

Mager says when the program first started on the residential side, there was a learning curve with how the material would be sorted and placed on the curb and how it would be processed. Residents were required to put their organics in hard-sided brown bins with lid locks to keep raccoons, rats and other pests out.

“Our outreach team worked closely with community groups, elected officials and others as the program expanded,” she says. “While some residents were concerned the program would attract critters, we worked to explain that the bins would actually help keep critters away as their access to food would be locked up. As with any new program, there are a lot of questions by residents and businesses that keep our outreach staff busy conducting trainings and attending meetings and events.”

She says the city is working to give all residents either curbside service or access to a drop-off site by the end of 2018.


Once collected from residents, schools and businesses, organic materials are sent to a few places in the city. Organics collected from Staten Island residents are taken to the Staten Island Compost Facility and are processed on-site using the Tiger H640 from Ecoverse, Avon, Ohio, to depackage, separate, shred and screen the material. Once processed, community gardeners, street tree stewards, parks and other nonprofit organizations can request free pallets of bagged compost.

“We also host free give back events for residents, and we also sell compost to private landscapers by the yard,” Mager says. “The material is very popular, and we are in the process of further developing markets for our material.”

Residential and school organics outside of Staten Island are brought to regional third-party vendors that process it, including American Recycling Management in Jamaica, New York, Houston-based Waste Management’s (WM’s) New York City locations and another WM location in Elizabeth, New Jersey. The private-hauler businesses also tap into third-party processors to handle the organic materials.

Mager says most of the material picked up at the curb is clean, but the largest contaminant is plastic bags. “As a consequence, we have installed mechanical debagging and sorting equipment to separate out the contaminants from the organic material.”

American Recycling Management uses the Thor Turbo Separator by Scott Equipment Co., New Prague, Minnesota. WM in NYC uses equipment from Doda, Saint James, Minnesota, in its centralized organic recycling facility and WM in New Jersey plans to install a separator from Haarslev, with U.S. offices in Kansas City, Missouri.

DSNY is also working with the NYCDEP to generate energy with the collected organic material by sending it to one of the city’s wastewater treatment plant’s anaerobic digestion systems.

Mager says the organics program is already showing its benefits, especially with the cleanliness of the neighborhoods with programs in place.

“We are already seeing the benefits of the brown bins to help keep neighborhoods cleaner. The NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene has been a proponent of the program as a way to help reduce rodent and pest activity,” she says. “And we are increasing the compost that we are able to generate for distribution and for sale—a tangible asset.”

The only disadvantage, she says, lies within the transition to a new program. “The transition to any new collection system takes time and affects everything from human behavior to truck route and fleet planning,” Mager says. “The most important takeaway for us is to continually review and improve processes as we learn what is needed to operate the service effectively.”

The author is assistant editor of Waste Today and can be reached at hcrisan@gie.net.

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