Into the Compost "Pit"
Текст: Tatiana Petukhova | 2019-11-04 | Фото: | 3679
The United States, the world's leading economy, is also the world's leading garbage producer. According to the statistics, the States annually generate about 230 million tons of solid waste (an average of 760 kg per capita), a significant part of which (25-30%) is organic food waste. A lot of this waste is excellent raw material for the production of compost or biogas, but if it gets into the same container with other waste it creates a serious waste-sorting problem and basically dooms most of the other waste to end up in a landfill. Moreover, if this waste goes into a landfill alongside other garbage, it will inevitably contribute to greenhouse gas emissions. How organic waste is dealt with in America's main business and financial center, the New York City, and how difficult it is to change the attitude of people to this problem were the subjects of our talk with environmental entrepreneur Meredith Danberg-Ficarelli. Meredith is an expert in waste recycling, and she runs Common Ground Compost, a NYC-based company dedicated to the reorganization of recycling.

— When talking about separate collection and recycling of garbage, most people usually mean plastic, paper, glass and various metals. How important is the special attention that you pay to the collection and processing of organic waste, because it normally decomposes in a very short period of time and, as many believe, is completely harmless and even beneficial for the environment?

Even some six or seven decades ago, you could say that garbage as it is understood today basically did not exist. The problem dates back to about the 1950s, when polyethylene was actively used as packaging, and when the development of more complex polymers began, which subsequently led to the emergence of a wide range of plastics. At around the same time the term «consumer goods» became widespread. Since then, any food waste that ends up in a landfill along with other waste, of which there is a great variety, will decompose according to completely different laws of biology and physics compared to what would happen in a traditional compost heap.

In fact, most people never even think about what happens to leftover food after it ends up in a landfill. And what happens is that the landfill begins to «suffocate» organic matter – when decomposing, food waste releases harmful methane (CH4), which is a gas that is 20 times more efficient at keeping heat in the atmosphere than CO2. In the United States, the share of emissions of «landfill» methane is about 17% of the total amount of emissions, so processing of food waste is important: it prevents uncontrolled release of methane into the atmosphere. And if we can separate food waste from garbage and put it in a controlled environment so that it can decompose there, then not only will it stop causing harm, but it will actually become beneficial. Traditional composting, for example, turns food waste into a convenient soil additive that returns nutrients and biological diversity to the ground. Another option is digesting food waste in an anaerobic digester (a digester that lets no air inside). This process intentionally generates methane in a controlled manner, making it possible to use this gas as a fuel.

It is also important to note that when food is thrown away along with other garbage, like bottles, industrial packaging, etc., then paper, plastic, glass and metal lose their value as recyclable materials, because they get contaminated with food, and therefore more difficult to sort and recycle (in some cases recycling becomes impossible altogether).

And there is even one more thing: composting is much better at diverting waste from landfills than recycling any other waste you have accumulated. Because with controlled decomposition organic waste can actually be returned into the environment or, for example, used in agriculture. This means that by composting we could radically reduce the size of landfills, which in the United States (and some other countries too) are a major producer of harmful methane emissions.

© Rafael Ben-Ari / 123rf

— How is collection and recycling of organic waste organized in New York City?

First, let me tell you about how they collect garbage in NYC, and then a couple of words on how organic waste is collected. NYC’s waste collection and recycling system is divided into two roughly equal parts: one belongs to private companies, the other to public organizations. The public structure, which is the New York City Department of Sanitation (DSNY), depends on taxpayers’ money. It is responsible for all the residential buildings of the city as well as the government agencies, including public schools and some non-profit organizations. Accordingly, the private sector is responsible for collecting waste from private companies: restaurants, hotels, office buildings, any private institutions. There are just over 90 private companies in NYC that are licensed to collect and recycle waste. The DSNY collects garbage during the day, and private companies tend to do it at night: somewhere from 8-9 pm to about 4-5 am.

Approximately the same division applies to organic waste. The DSNY provides New Yorkers in some neighborhoods with free access to compost bins that are emptied by the City, or to conveniently located organic waste drop-off points. But this program is being implemented gradually, so for now it is a little more difficult to pick up waste from some areas than from others. Specialized water-tight compost trucks pick up organic waste from residential buildings or access roads to them. Additionally, there are containers for organic waste installed in public places, and they are also free to use for residents of New York City. For instance, here is how I do it at home: I collect all organic waste (i.e. all food waste) in a paper bag on my countertop, walk to my local park, and deposit my organic waste in a special compost container that is managed by a nonprofit organization that receives funding from the City (through the New York City Compost Project) to provide this public service to residents.  Similar drop-offs are operated by other organizations around the City. So we have a kind of a network: there are several different solutions offered by public services, and city residents have a choice between different types of waste collection, but access is not equal across all neighborhoods. This program is going to expand and improve, and I hope that in the near future all New Yorkers will be able to easily send food waste for recycling and composting.

As for private companies and their collection of food waste, the situation is a little different: commercial organizations must pay for their waste to be collected by private sanitation companies. But, frankly speaking, out of 90 companies that collect and recycle waste, only a very small percentage currently have means to separately collect and recycle organic waste, i.e. they have special trucks that exclusively deal with food waste. The fact is that as of now most private organizations are not required to direct food waste to composting. In 2014-2015, the NYC rules regarding this were slightly changed, and, according to the new regulations, commercial organizations are obliged to send food waste for composting if they serve a large enough number of people. These are, for example, stadiums, which tend to have tens of thousands of spectators, or hotels that have more than 150 rooms, or large food producers, i.e. enterprises that generate a large amount of food waste. In 2018, another category of private companies was added to this list, and these are restaurant chains with more than 100 restaurants, as well as large grocery stores. In the near future , this rule will probably extend to smaller organizations, but so far, if you only own one small restaurant, then no one has the right to demand separate collection of food waste from you. And what’s more, often it is small organizations that are the most conscious when it comes to garbage treatment and very often these small companies express the desire to send food waste for recycling. One of our company’s projects, called Reclaimed Organics, focuses on collection of food waste from such small enterprises – usually coffee shops and small restaurants, or small offices. Currently we have about 100 of such clients.

© Common Ground Compost

We collect organic waste in Manhattan by riding cargo-tricycles. We compost some of the collected organics in the community garden where our program is based, and we also pay a commercial hauler that has a specialized compost truck to take the organics that we consolidate to a commercial compost facility outside the City. The businesses we serve with this bike-powered collection service generate small volumes of organic waste and are therefore not attractive customers to commercial-scale (truck-based) hauling companies. By providing these small-scale services, we give small businesses access to organics recycling services. And the fact that waste collection is done by bike has the added effect of reducing the negative impact that garbage truck-hauling typically has on our local community and the environment.

© Common Ground Compost

— Can you tell us how has the attitude of New Yorkers to waste in general, and to organic waste in particular, changed recently?

We can talk here about a whole evolution of garbage collection and recycling in New York. It all started with the separate collection of cardboard in the 1980s and then gradually developed: there were more and more materials that were collected separately and then recycled. Rules and regulations kept changing all the time, they went from being fairly simple to becoming more complex, and then getting simple again, and then being complex again. For example, a very serious change in what materials should be recycled and what should not occur at a time when Michael Bloomberg was our Mayor. But after a while the rules changed again. All this confused quite a few people. In addition, for a long-time rules of garbage collection for residents of private companies in New York were different, and it was only in 2016 that the city finally worked out a unified system of rules.

The second important point of change in people’s attitude to waste management only happened recently. Before around 2018, people treated garbage recycling as some incredible, invisible magic system that somehow, all on its own, solves all of their garbage disposal problems. This is what most city residents used to think: I have some garbage, so I’ll just throw it where it needs to be thrown, and some system will turn it into something useful. We were all quite satisfied with this, but only until China changed the rules for importing goods. (Ed. note: for decades, the United States sent a significant portion of recyclable materials to China, but because of China changing its rules on this issue it became almost impossible to do so anymore, and since that point, lots of recyclable material is no longer finding an outlet in global recycling markets). After that, we suddenly realized that recycling in our country is not as sophisticated as it needs to be to recover value from all the materials we use, and that we have accumulated too many materials that we do not know how to recycle.

In my opinion, such shifts in the public consciousness or even simply understanding the problems of waste management are the first steps towards solving these problems. I’m not saying that all people suddenly began to think about such things as recycling. No, many still do not have any idea about the things we are talking about right now, and these people have not changed anything in their lives — they still keep disposing of their waste indiscriminately. But still a large percentage of people in recent years have reconsidered their attitude to this problem. They suddenly began to understand how much the decisions they make in their lives, the decisions made by each individual, can affect the overall picture, the global economy and, of course, the environment. And I think that this understanding, for example, helped launch things like the war on straws – you know, things used to drink cocktails. Of course, if we just ban straws, it is not going to solve any global problems, but at the same time it will most likely increase the level of people’s education and awareness in this regard, and therefore it will help us to move on.

In 2014-2015, many private enterprises began to request an organic waste management service, so increased demand generated supply. One of the main challenges today is that separate collection of organic waste is only one stage of the whole process, because it is not enough to just collect garbage, it also needs to be taken somewhere. In NYC, this is one of the main problems: the lack of infrastructure and organic waste recycling plants. For example, if tomorrow absolutely all New Yorkers began to separate their food waste and send it for composting, we would simply not have enough resources to store and compost all of that waste. We are not ready for this yet, and we need investments and some political decisions of municipal authorities to fully develop this project.

© Common Ground Compost

— Can you tell us about your company Common Ground Compost? Who are your customers and what kind of requests do you get most often?

Common Ground Compost is primarily a consulting service that helps companies of any size deal with composting programs. We have 3 main focus areas. The first is our consulting program, in which we help private enterprises to compost their organic waste. The range of services here depends on the needs of a particular company: it may happen that this company simply wants to teach its employees the correct handling of garbage; or maybe it wants to order a full set of services, in which case we analyze the materials that they dispose of, and on the basis of that, we give them recommendations on how to reduce the amount of waste they have, or change the design of their waste collection station, train their staff, revise their current contracts for garbage transportation, etc.

© Rathkopf Photography

The second focus area is a Zero Waste event program: as part of this program, we help events and help companies install systems that would allow them to change their production to waste-free and to separately collect their garbage, while also educating the attendees of these events about proper waste sorting and recycling. And by Zero Waste events here we mean such events where less than 10% of waste goes to landfills or incineration. We perform demonstrations to show how this can be done, and usually by the end of these demonstrations the only things left in the non-recyclable waste bin are only a couple of packages containing materials that are really difficult to recycle. Everything else – bottles, cans, cardboard boxes, food waste – can be taken away for recycling or composting instead of going to landfills. Of course, this program is largely tied to educational activities, because most people have very little idea which materials are recyclable and which aren’t, and our task is to explain it to them.

© Common Ground Compost

And the third focus area of our work (as I have already mentioned) is collecting organic waste on bicycles. Sometimes there will be a high-rise building with 50, 60 or 70 floors of offices, and there will only be one small company, which is located, say, on the 25th floor, that wants to compost their food waste. With the existing garbage collection system in their building, it will be very difficult for them to collect food waste separately, so they come to us, and we are ready to provide this service, even if it is only one company on one floor of a giant skyscraper. But our goal is to make sure that at some point we will be able to combine our consulting experience with our food waste collection experience and then large office buildings or entire skyscrapers will participate in such separate food waste collection and composting programs. In such cases, instead of coming to collect organic waste by ourselves from a couple of companies in this skyscraper, we could train the staff of all the companies working in this office building so that they all can switch to separate collection and recycling or composting their organic waste.

— What are the main difficulties that you face? How difficult is it to explain the rules of waste management to people, to influence people’s habits? Are there many people who do not accept this idea or maybe even protest against it?

More often than not, people’s relationship with garbage ends immediately after they throw something in the trash can, but when people begin to understand what really happens to garbage next, they start looking at it very differently. I think education plays a crucial role here. A lot of companies, after we launch their waste management program, tell us: «We have virtually no garbage that goes to landfill» or «I had no idea that such a large amount of material that I usually throw away is actually recyclable.»

However, of course, there are people who do not agree with this. It is very difficult to advocate any changes in the society, because changes scare people. One of the things we learned soon enough is that we can’t force people to use our services. You can’t just go somewhere and say: «Pay me to help you recycle.» We work with the private companies that already have a positive attitude to this. So far, for most private companies, this is their voluntary choice, and they have to invest in the development of composting and recycling programs with their own funds, which not everyone is ready for or can afford to do.

As for people that are dissatisfied, we often hear concerns about the unpleasant smell coming from compost heaps, or we hear people say that compost heaps contribute to the spread of infectious diseases, insects and rodents, such as rats. Our answer is usually as follows. Firstly, compost heaps don’t create any new waste. It’s the same waste, which otherwise would just go to a landfill. But at the same time composting creates a new category of waste, and as I said before, due to the fact that we collect food waste separately, we have the opportunity to keep all other waste cleaner, so the recycling of that other waste becomes much easier. The second point is that if you collect your food waste separately, then the rest of the garbage will not accumulate as quickly, and you will not have to constantly take it out. A lot of people don’t think about it. As for the rats argument, then it is mostly the traditional system of waste disposal in NYC, where you put all your garbage in a large black plastic bag and take it out on the street for the garbage truck to pick it up, that contributes to the spread of these rodents, because they can very easily bite through garbage bags to get to food. But when waste is collected separately, food waste is stored in solid plastic containers, whose walls are too hard for rats. Some people, when they hear such an argument, change their initially negative opinion.  

There are also people who make the cost argument: «Why would I compost food waste? It would only increase my waste removal costs.» Here it needs to be said that if the company collects food waste separately, then they will have to pay less for the removal of the rest of the garbage. Of course, we try to organize everything in such a way that the total costs that the company incurred for their waste disposal before, does not increase after they start composting, but is now simply divided into more categories: organic waste, conventional recycling, and garbage. In the residential sector, the cost of waste management services may even go down. For instance, there is a compost site on Staten Island, one of the five boroughs of New York City. Food waste collected from the residents of Staten Island by the NYC Department of Sanitation can be processed into compost at that facility, and this heavy, wet organic material never has to leave the island. The alternative, collecting the food waste in black trash bags and sending them to landfills, contributes to a greater carbon footprint because of the long distance that must be traveled to reach the landfill. Additionally, the compost site on Staten Island provides good green jobs to the residents of Staten Island, while faraway landfills do not. The composting program for the residential sector is funded by DSNY. The “drop off program” mentioned above is operated within the New York City Compost Project and involves 6 organizations that are located in different parts of the city. So what you get is some sort of a geographical distribution of public funds. Naturally, each of these organizations helps to deal with waste treatment in their part of the city. This program works quite consistently, and everyone is happy with it.

© Jodie Taylor Photography

© Common Ground Compost

© Free-Photos / Pixabay

— What are your plans for the near future? And what prospects do you see for the recycling and composting program in New York City?

We hope that with the recent announcement of a third tier of businesses required to compost their food waste, we will see increased demand for our consulting services. We are currently building a workshop-style training program: businesses can attend a workshop for a nominal fee and learn more about how waste works in NYC, what their options are for composting and recycling, and they will get some essential takeways for how to efficiently recycle and compost in NYC, including space-saving techniques, strategies to motivate employees to participate, free signage, and more.

We are also excited to be taking on more work in the commercial office building sector: with the explosion of takeout, more office workers are eating lunch at their desks, and this has caused an increase in the amount of food waste in offices. Commercial office buildings are therefore more interested in strategies to divert food waste from landfills (and improve recycling), and we are excited to help.

Additionally, the commercial waste system in NYC is changing. Through our Reclaimed Organics bike program, we are participating alongside other micro-scale organics haulers in the policy development process, with the goal of improving waste diversion, improving working conditions for waste sector workers, reducing the environmental  impact of commercial waste operations in select neighborhoods in the City, and improving access to waste diversion opportunities for all businesses.

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