by Tamanna Virmani
All of us living or working in New York City recognize and admire the fact that the city is a trailblazer in many areas. However, waste management in general, and organics recycling in particular, have been challenging issues for the city – issues needing a trailblazing spirit to establish best practices for the future. A recent panel discussion hosted by the U.S. Green Building Council explored the future of waste management in New York City.
Led by moderator Clare Miflin of Kiss + Cathcart Architects, experts Christina Grace of Foodprint Group and Brett Mons from the New York City Department of Sanitation (DSNY) discussed food waste in light of Mayor DeBlasio’s OneNYC plan. OneNYC, an ambitious plan to make New York the most sustainable big city in the world, encompasses a number of initiatives, one of which is to send zero waste to landfills by 2030. This will require expansion of the New York City organics program to serve all New Yorkers by the end of 2018 and a 90% reduction in commercial waste disposal by 2030. In order to achieve these goals, major changes are needed, along with active involvement from residents, businesses, the building community and the Department of Sanitation.
The presentation offered good background on the state of organic waste management in the city so far. Composting is handled separately for residential and commercial streams. Because local laws to support these streams are still in the process of being implemented, all NYC food waste programs have been voluntary. The two key organics recycling programs in place now are Mayor Bloomberg’s Food Waste Challenge, a commercial program aimed at reducing restaurant waste, and Mayor DeBlasio’s Organics Collection residential pilot program, serving more than 100,000 households in the five boroughs. Commercial composting is being driven by the Commercial Waste Ban, Local Law 146 (LL146). The residential recycling program, mandated by Local Law 77 (LL77), is currently being expanded from the initial pilot phase.
Brett Mons, Program Manager of Commercial and Residential Organics Collection for the New York Department of Sanitation, spoke about NYC’s unique challenges. To the city’s credit, DSNY is the largest municipal sanitation department in the country with 9,600 employees, many of whom work with the 2,000 collection trucks and operate the four available marine transfer stations and one rail transfer station. DSNY manages all five boroughs, including waste from government agencies, nonprofits, residential homes, public schools and many private schools. Private carting firms are responsible for collecting all other waste generated. In total, DSNY manages approximately 3.3 million tons of refuse and 500,000 tons of recyclable materials annually. Any waste not successfully diverted for other purposes, such as compost, ends up in landfills. This is the waste the city is looking to reduce substantially through LL146 and LL77.
The panelists focused on the challenges of waste management on the building environment. LL146 identifies 11 business types considered to be large food waste generators. The DSNY is tasked with determining how and which of these businesses will separate their organic waste for processing. Insufficient space is a common problem all buildings have to tackle, since source separation requires separate containers for trash, organics, and recyclables – all requiring more space than typically allotted. Also, high-tech food waste separation systems and even compact digesters require plumbing, which can be difficult and more expensive to retrofit into a building. Therefore, it’s essential for future building designs to account for better waste management practices.
Christina Grace, a technical expert on food waste systems, shared her thoughts regarding current NYC building projects. She noted that “new residential buildings such as The Related Companies’ Hudson Yards project, will separate waste through an Envac pneumatic vacuum system where three tubes will handle trash, recycling and hopefully food waste. Some of the commercial buildings will be encouraging onsite organics processing using performance specs to encourage investment in onsite processing – equipment such as digesters that process food waste into fertilizer, or other less energy-intensive dehydration solutions.”
According to a recent New York Times article, this type of system has been in place on Roosevelt Island for years. Known as an automatic vacuum assisted collection system (Avac), it appears the same as regular trash chutes common to high rise residential buildings. But these systems pull trash at high speed through pneumatic tubes to an underground collection station.
Introducing major behavioral and institutional change is never easy and will likely come about slowly. There’s still a lot of work ahead, but the plans are in motion to create a greener future for waste management in New York City.
 DSNY presentation, “20150723_ZeroWastetheorgfactor-USGBC”, July 2015