Biology Still Happens, Even in New York

by Nelson Harvey


At left, a compost bag in the freezer. At right, proof that it’s only slightly bigger than your head.

A few months ago, Adam posted on his efforts to construct a compost bin in his backyard. Having just moved into an apartment on the Upper West side whose only yard is Central Park, I wanted to put in a word on composting for those of us who lack the space or ventilation to set up our own bins.

Thankfully, in New York, there’s still a way to do it. Since 1990, the Lower East Side Ecology Center has been collecting food scraps from community members at Union Square and at their community garden in the East Village. (A list of what they’ll collect can be found here). They collect over 60 tons of organic materials annually and process it in an in-vessel composting unit near the East River. It produces about 15 tons of high quality compost each year, according to their website.

Since my move, I’ve been storing food scraps in a bag in the freezer and schlepping them down to Union Square when the bag gets full. Aside from some minor melting on the subway and initial roomate opposition, it’s a painless process. Since my fridge is small, I doubt I’m really able to store much more than 5 lbs of food waste per week. Projected over a year, though, that’s 260 lbs. If the Department of Sanitation was charging me by the pound for my waste generation (like they should be, in my view) my savings could generate a nice little rainy day fund.

At left the contents, which are dropped off at right.

But why compost? Isn’t that stuff just going to decompose in the landfill anyway? It will, but that landfill may be hundreds of miles away (most of New York’s waste goes to Pennsylvania or Ohio), and nothing will be done with the byproduct. In addition to eliminating the global warming impact of waste transport, when you compost you’re also generating a nutrient rich soil amendment that can be used to improve degraded soils or nourish existing gardens. As Adam noted a few months ago, some people have also turned it into a lucrative enterprise.

Scores of other cities across the country offer ways for their citizens to compost. San Francisco has a poineering municipal composting program, and internationally, in countries like Norway, the process has been the status quo for more than a decade. So why doesn’t New York have a city sponsored program? In fact, the city does mandate that people in certain districts collect their leaves in the fall to be composted, and there have been many studies over the years examining the potential for a city-wide program on the scale of current recycling efforts. According to these studies, about 50 percent of the city’s total waste is degradable and could be composted.

One report, released in 2004, describes a pilot program that the city instituted in Park Slope and Starrett City, Brooklyn, asking people to seperate their compostable waste. Recovery rates were a disappointing 50 percent at the highest; without monetary incentive, people weren’t willing to take the extra time to seperate and store food waste. Picking up such low quantities of waste was also inefficient for the city. The authors recommended that the city build a pilot facility where workers could manually separate waste that came in from regular garbage collection, into trash, compost, paper, and plastic recycling.

To date, no such pilot plant has materialized, and I’ll be looking into why that is this week. Until a facility arrives, though, any apartment-dweller who wants to reduce their waste stream can do so with little more than a freezer and a plastic bag.


3 thoughts on “Biology Still Happens, Even in New York

  1. Kendall Christiansen says:

    Ten years ago, NYC — after a decade of study — fully legalized household food waste disposers (aka garbage disposals) as a means to address diverting food scraps from collection trucks and distant landfills into locally processed fertilizer products…yes, literally 100% of NYC’s sewage sludge – not dumped offshore since 1992 – is processed into various fertilizer products (e.g., biosolids, pellets, etc.)…meaning that the municipal systems alternative to backyard composting, etc. is pulverizing food scraps (70% water, like human waste) to travel efficiently underground via sewers to modern wastewater treatment plants designed for the purpose of processing organics — including efficient collection of methane. After all, no real difference between food scraps and human waste — neither need be stored in homes, or collected in trucks, or sorted by humans…..

  2. g.sprog says:

    One might also wonder about whether the energy costs involved in freezing the scraps and maintaining them at that temperature are really balanced out by energy saved in composting. You could get around all of this by setting up a worm bin in your apartment.

  3. Radical Garbage Man says:

    Organic material will NOT decompose in the landfill. Modern landfills are designed to contain waste in an anaerobic environment. Numerous archaeological studies of modern landfills have uncovered undecomposed banana peels that are 15 years old.

    Food scraps need to be managed better than trashing them!

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